People do go on (and on (and on)) about Martin Amis: he's politically incorrect, we're told… he has reactionary political opinions (not the same thing BTW), he's misogynistic, he's a condescending snob, he hates his own country… and on and on…
The fact remains that he's one of the most accomplished English writers of his generation. Money and London Fields are among the best English novels of the later years of the twentieth century; before them, The Rachel Papers was a remarkable debut novel, published while Amis was still in his early-to-mid twenties. The rot set in with Yellow Dog in 2003, cruelly lambasted as being "not-knowing-where-to-look bad" by Tibor Fischer in the Daily Telegraph. (If you've heard of, and maybe read, Martin Amis, but not heard of, and let alone read, Tibor Fischer, you can draw the appropriate conclusions…)
Lionel Asbo: State of England begins with fifteen-year-old Desmond Pepperdine confessing, in a letter to a tabloid agony aunt, that he's been having an inappropriate relationship with his grannie. (Who's all of thirty-nine.) This is the subtitular "state of England", established via this striking and extreme caricature of how the moral compasses have all gone decidedly wonky. (Grannie gave birth to Cilla, Desmond's mother, at the age of twelve, and Cilla produced Desmond at the same age, and later died in a freak accident.)
And yet Desmond, who thus lost his mother before he was a teenager (and of course never knew his father), will make his way in life, and become a (tabloid) journalist. And be set in contrast with his uncle, the Lionel Asbo of the title, a severely psychotic hooligan with whom he shares a flat on the thirty-third floor of a tower block, and whose communication with his nephew takes the form of rhetorical questions such as "Why aren't you out smashing windows?"
Lionel goes on to win £140,000,000 (all but 50p, to be fastidiously precise) on the lottery, and the novel then develops into a devastating satire on celebrity and various kinds of excess. And loutishness. And false tits. And the way that money, unsurprisingly, does not buy happiness. Or love.
Lionel. "Loyonoo"… And there's also "Mao" (i.e. Lionel's mate Mal.) As ever, Amis is spot-on in his dissection of the ways people speak, the ways in which they use and abuse language. (Another clear example: "Get you fat prat in that sauna!") The prose is often laugh-out-loud – as are the multiple mishaps. It's perhaps not quite in the league of its brilliant predecessor, The Pregnant Widow, but's it's still the best novel I've read this year. And Martin Amis is the most accomplished writer around today, whether you like it or not. And whether you like him or not.
I read this book when I was around the same age Martin Amis was when he wrote it. I remember that, as I turned the pages, I was burning with envy - and admiration that someone so young could write with such confidence. However, in retrospect, the 'hero' was a bit of an arrogant git with not many redeeming features. Definitely one to be read by an 18 to 25 male demographic, as the marketing people would put it.
<IFRAME src="http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?t=bookgrouponli-21&l=st1&search=amis%20rachel%20papers&mode=books-uk&p=33&o=2&f=ifr&bg1=C6EFF7&lc1=082984<1=_blank" frameBorder=0 width=180 scrolling=no height=180> <table border='0' cellpadding='0' cellspacing='0' width='468' height='362'><tr><td>http://</IFRAME>
I found Time's Arrow a demanding and disturbing read. It is the life story of a Nazi doctor - told backwards, from the time of his death, in hiding in America, through his time at Auschwitz back to the time of his birth.
It seems a very strange way to tell the story, but is very gripping - and means that you really have to concentrate on the text, and cannot skip or skim over the horror of the death camps.
Not an easy read, but well worth the effort.
Here's a review of House of Meetings which I posted up in another forum I belong to. (I hope that's OK? If either forum would rather reviews weren't duplicated, please let me know):
I finished House of Meetings last night -the first Amis I'd read for several years. It was a bit like rediscovering the high points of a relationship in a reunion after a break. I loved Amis with a passion a decade or so ago, and consumed his work hot off the press. And then, slight irritation crept in. His mastery of the language was wonderful, but boy, did he rub our faces in it. His word play and self conscious cleverness started to grate after a while. This is not to detract from the huge enjoyment his writing gave me, but although I still rated him as one of my favourite authors, I fell out of love with him - he was like a best friend with a compulsion to always show how smart he was.
So I fell into House of Meetings with a mixture of awe and reawakening memories of Amis's talent. House of Meetings continues the exploration and analysis of the Soviet atrocities of Stalin's era that Amis covered in non fictional form in Koba The Dread. That book asked the fundamental question of why the extermination of 20 million people between the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and Stalin's death in 1953 was somehow seen by the world as a lesser evil than that of millions of Jews by Hitler in Nazi Germany. This book relives the Gulag experience and its repercussions as experienced by two fictional half brothers, the narrator and his younger brother by the same mother and different father, Lev.
The book also has lesser themes, including how different people react to stress and the way in which some mimic the barbarity they see around them while others retain their moral stance. The elder brother - we never find out his name - writes the story in a long letter to Venus, the daughter of his long-term partner in later life. The story is a confessional as well as an account of the horrors of the slave labour camps because the narrator admits that he was corrupted by the violence he saw, first in the last years of the second world war, and then in the labour camps in the arctic north of Russia.
The brothers are among the caste of slaves in one of the lowest strata of the hierarchy, that of political prisoners. Their status as such is partly because they both befriended and fell in love with a Jewess by the name of Zoya.
Amis's depiction of Zoya is, for me, one of the weaker points of the novel. Amis has previously shown a Roth-like incapability of fleshing women out as believable characters and not simply objects of male lust. Zoya is for me as unreal as the female heroine of London Fields and for similar reasons - she is almost unbelievably beautiful, with male fantasy proportions (how many real women truly have enormous breasts and rears and tiny waspish waists?). She also starts the story off being promiscuous in a way that is quite male. Although we are told she 'loves too hard', which might have converted her into a convincing female character, trying to buy love with her sexual generosity, Amis never expands on this, preferring to dwell on the male frisson of her sexual activity which precludes the obsessed older brother. And then, the older brother is arrested, and shortly after, Lev joins him in penal servitude in Norlag, and it transpires that they both love her and only one has attained her.
The ugliness of the Gulag comes to vivid life with Amis's prose. Abstraction becomes reality with description of the daily life, the various subsections of people in the camp, with the guard 'pigs' at the top, the anarchic, lawless criminal class of urkas next, the 'snake' informers weedling their way into third position, the bourgeois fraudsters leaching their way into fourth tier, followed by the political prisoners, ironically labelled fascists even though their own persecution is fascism. There are only two layers beneath them - the juveniles and the lowest of the low, the 'shiteaters', those who have broken under the system and are reduced to brawling for scraps.
Amis succeeds in painting the barren, desolate inhumanity of survival. And the Amis fils magic is evident in colourful streaks here and there - 'scarves' of exhaled breath, bodies 'badged' with blood. And this metaphor - 'liquid tentacles of injustice and culpability flowing out from the head of the octopus, with you as its beak' - which I initially thought was mixed until I found out that octopuses do indeed have beaks. As with all convincing tales of tyranny, the power is in the details - the literally mealy incentives of full spartan rations, the quotas of ore to be mined, the casual violence, the brutalisation of the narrator which started with his discovery of rape in WW2, the sordid, soapless bathhouse where each slave gets a mug of tepid water and clothes are redistributed randomly. And of course, the bleak and much-coveted reward for productive, hard-working prisoners of the potential of a single night in a decade with one's wife in the shed-like House of Meetings.
There are occasional dense patches, mostly in the narrator's musings to Venus and a rare Amis tautology - 'also' and 'too' in the same sentence. Sometimes, the slang Zoya threw around in the 1940s sounds like an anachronism - she says a meeting 'bored her tits off'. The scene where SPOILER: the narrator rapes the woman he has been in love with all his adult life has echos of the similar scene in Serge Leone's Once Upon A Time in America with little of the powerful depiction of events afterwards . Yet for all its minor faults, this is a potent and mesmerising book which reminds us of a period of atrocities which are too easily swept under the benign carpet of fumbling, oafish communism. And it covers a plethora of rich themes - politics, obviously, but also the ease with which power brings corruption, sibling rivalry, love, traumatic experiences and their after effects (which can sometimes be more debilitating than the experience itself), and atonement.
I think Leyla has read most of Amis's books so she'll have a more informed recommendation. I've read House of Meetings, Other People, and Money and enjoyed them all. They are not alike. In fact, House of Meetings is about as far from Money as you can get. I have a few more on the shelf to be read.