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Peer Review: Martin Amis’s Nasty Glitter

By (March 1, 2007) No Comment

Editors’ note: In this monthly feature, we will be reviewing the reviewers who review new books.

Half of the reviews, British and American, of the new Martin Amis, House of Meetings, quote the same list of tortures: “vicings, awlings, lathings, manic jackhammerings, atrocious chiselings.” Martin Amis has written a novel of the Gulag, and no one is calling it a masterpiece. The reasons for the novel’s failings—and all of the reviewers agree it has failings—occupy at least as much space as the same reviewers expend on plot summary, and take the form, most notably in the American reviews, of diagnoses. Why is a good writer failing to produce good books? What are Martin Amis’s strengths, exactly, and why do we feel as though they are not being exercised?  

Nearly everyone talks at length about his prose style. Sam Anderson in New York describes it as “vivid, zippy prose-bursts.” For Adam Begley in The New York Observer it is merely “flashy.” For Tim Martin of The Independent it is a “glittering delight in words.” M. John Harrison, in The Guardian, calls it “nasty glitter.” Most of the reviews compare Amis’s prose to Nabokov’s, including Daniel Soar, who finds it, “sub-Nabokovian.”

Brendan Bernhard, in The Village Voice, describes the Amis voice as “simultaneously ornate and menacingly austere, like spiky jewelry.” But too often, according to Bernhard, “Amis’s almost sadistically polished prose feels glaringly inappropriate, like a virtuoso pianist preening before an audience of starving prisoners. It also feels all wrong.”

Here Bernhard introduces the second theme pursued in most reviews of House of Meetings: its pretensions to moral seriousness. Bernhard doesn’t think Amis can swim in water so cold: “Just as Woody Allen isn’t Ingmar Bergman, Amis isn’t Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, or Bellow for that matter.” Bernhard would like to see Martin conform to his original pose as “an updated version of his dad.” Martin’s father Kingsley, an old duffer who could write funny, appears again and again, in review after review, as a seeming counterweight to his son, as he has for thirty years.

Why is Amis reaching for a moral seriousness he can’t sustain? According to Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun, it’s as pure as narcissism: “like the world-class pianist who wants to be admired for his amateur poetry,” Martin has always reached for “a reputation he doesn’t deserve and can’t sustain.” Bernhard thinks Amis’s real gifts lie in the small comedy of the everyday; Kirsch also misses the verbal comedy of early Amis.

Kirsch thinks Amis, like Nabokov, would rather be clever than right: “these shotgun weddings of fizzy style and doomy subject are always pulling toward divorce.” Kirsch’s essay is less a review than a post-mortem: Amis’s hijinks are entertaining and all, but he would do well to stick to satirical comedies of the prosperous West. Unlike most reviewers, Kirsch doesn’t bother to describe the action of the novel, but he does explain what’s wrong with it—indulgence: “the reader never forgets that we are just listening to Mr. Amis as he spreads himself out at leisure.”

But Kirsch goes a step further and actually begins to imply that Amis likes writing about tortures, “ghoulishly culled…from history books and reproduced with relish.” Kirsch quotes the oft-quoted sentence about “atrocious chiselings.” Amis does not understand real suffering: “his moral imagination begins and ends in the bedroom.” Kirsh ends by pronouncing the whole adventure morally obscene.

Daniel Soar, in The London Review of Books, also smells obscenity, but he goes a step further, condemning not just the new novel but its author. He mounts his denunciation circuitously, first making sure we know the book is pure trash. Soar begins by describing House of Meetings as no less disgusting an object than the Gulag conditions it describes. Furthermore, those descriptions are not even accurate, and the metaphors Amis reaches for are poor metaphors and are disgusting and xenophobic: “‘Bilge’—the mulch he thrusts his incarcerated Russians knee-deep into—is also the straight-talking Englishman’s dismissal of foreign ways.” We are only a third of the way into the review and Soar has already finished with House of Meetings. In the balance of the review he dissects Amis’s recent interest in Islamic fundamentalism and his public pronouncements about the Muslim world.

Soar quotes a newspaper interview in which Amis voices rage at Islam for what a few of its more militant members have done. It’s not an attractive position, but, as Soar does not point out, Amis was not speaking as a moralist. He told his interviewer there was a western “urge” to punish Moslems and no doubt there is. Soar thinks it’s clear that Amis hates Islamism, and that hatred is making him not just a poor political commentator but a bad novelist.

To illustrate his point, Soar quotes from an essay in which Amis, during a visit to Jerusalem, detects religious menace behind the eyes of the Gatekeeper at the Dome of the Rock: “I knew then,” Amis writes in the essay, “that the phrase ‘deeply religious’ was a grave abuse of that adverb. Something isn’t deep just because it’s all that is there; it is more like a varnish on a vacuum.” The last phrase is a good one, but Soar thinks it only sounds good. That varnish is, to Soar, “a way of sealing an absence of explanation, wrapping it up.” A failure of imagination, then. Soar decides that Amis is failing as a novelist because he does not care to probe the souls of his subjects.

The essay in question, we learn, was originally to be packaged up with House of Meetings, along with a short story from The New Yorker called “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” Soar doesn’t like this story either. Atta, he writes, is reduced to a “narrative black hole.”

    “It’s clear why the two New Yorker stories were left out of House of Meetings. What is less clear is why the forced labor camp novel was left in. It also fails as fiction, and is distorted by all the hatreds that have possessed Amis over recent years.”

In comparison with Soar’s condemnation, Sam Anderson’s piece in New York magazine can’t help but feel frivolous as a gossip column. Amis, you see, got new teeth and a new wife and a new agent in the last decade, so Anderson feels pressed to walk us though all that, as well as the recent critical carp in a longish opening paragraph. He then pulls a neat trick: he hasn’t just been describing the collection of bright knives stuck in Amis, he is actually holding a knife, a big one (though not so big as he wants it to be), and he’s about to stick it in.

Anderson’s big question with House of Meetings is, “How terrible is it?” Terrible, to be sure, but not so terrible as it could have been. This Anderson feels to be “heartbreaking.” As far as describing the plot of the new book goes, Anderson tells us it’s “like Solzhenitsyn, except 3,000 pages shorter and drowned in stylish Amis irony.” Deep, deep into Anderson’s review, it begins to become interesting. Amis’s best book, Anderson decides, was his latest essay collection. He can’t write good novels because he’s not interested in plot, character, etc. “The gamble at the heart of every Amis novel is that the prose itself will be so orgasmically dazzling you’ll forgive the fact that he’s omitted 80 percent of what makes fiction actually work.” Anderson also mentions the prose master Nabokov (but, interestingly, does not hold the sententious Russian to the same high charge), and ends by deciding, sadly, that even Amis’s famous prose is getting a bit shoddy: “House of Meetings is an average little weird disposable novel.”

A far better written review, by novelist M. John Harrison, appears in The Guardian, and it is easily the best thing to have happened to House of Meetings in its short life. A stylist himself, Harrison richly summarizes the book. Unlike the usual plot descriptions in book reviews, this one engages us. The characters appear artfully real to us. Harrison isn’t afraid of stealing Amis’s thunder—thunder is free. In the end, Harrison decides that House of Meetings isn’t strictly a novel of the Gulag or of Russia so much as it is a novel of decline:

    “The narrator is less terrorized than terrified. In his desperation he folds one kind of fear into a disguise for another, and in doing so produces only an origami of a pun—the idea of “state terror” stands in for his state of terror.”

The events of the book, which other critics have called immoral markers of a stylistic crapulence, Harrison reads as, “nasty glitter…Weaponised into evidence.” Harrison does not so much review the book at hand as describe the good art beneath the tangled surface Amis has left us: an image of “ageing, rusting, rotting away.”

The reviewers who attack the book on moral grounds largely made their case by equating the showy narrator’s lust for violence with Amis’s own. Harrison, in an act of imaginative sympathy, turns our heads the other way. Amis, says Harrison, has written a novel of a monstrous human being fallen into age, entropy, repentance. The struggle of that narrator, the struggle to come to terms with himself, Harrison decides, is a real one:

    “[the] central irony of most Amis novels, [is one] in which the issue of storytelling is always the issue of character, of self-interest and nuanced self-deception – narrative as the filthy Nabokovian stream from which the reader…must filter moral sustenance.”

In The Nation, Daniel Swift winds us along a leisurely tour of Amis’s career from several well-trodden vistas: the similarity of Amis’s own personality to that of his narrators’, his relationship to his famous father, his tabloid reputation. The first half of the piece reads like a series of crib notes, and Amis’s life’s work is counted and weighed in the space of maybe five hundred words. Swift thinks Money and London Fields, both nearly twenty years old, were the best of Amis’s books, although we aren’t really told why. Swift doesn’t like the collection of essays Amis published between them, The Moronic Inferno. Oddly, Swift takes the subtitle of the collection, and Other Visits to America, at its word, calling the book a collection of tourism pieces. This is an odd description, as most of the book consists of book reviews and interviews with writers.

Like Soar, Swift reviews Amis’s latest stories and essays about the relationship between the West and the Muslim world. He doesn’t care for a short story Amis published in The New Yorker about Mohammad Atta (he notes that Martin Amis and Muhammad Atta have the same initials, which is good to know). The reason the story failed, he explains, is that Amis was not sufficiently interested in Atta’s character. Had Amis imagined Atta to the point where readers would be capable of reading about him with sympathy, he might have had something.

Much the same is wrong, we learn, with the new book. “Amis is tantalizingly close, here, to a great novel.” But there is too much raw history, Swift decides, and the characters aren’t lifelike. “Most writers use language to tell a story: Amis does the opposite, taking a story as the occasion for a workout with language.” Soar tells us what is wrong with the new book, but not what is right about the old books. Nonetheless, it’s the old stuff he wants: “Tell us about London Fields, Mr. Amis. Tell us about money.”

The most generously thoughtful of the reviews so far has been John Banville’s long essay in The New York Review of Books. Like Swift, Banville takes us on a museum tour of Amis’s prior career. Kingsley Amis is discussed at length. His son’s skill with language is praised (“pyrotechnical prose”), but there is a paucity of plot in most of the books “which can leave the reader feeling baffled and slightly cheated.” Nabokov steps, briefly, on stage. Amis’s sentence about “atrocious chiselings” is duly quoted. But unlike prior reviewers, Banville makes hay out of all this material. The early influence of Nabokov is compared with a new, American sprawlingness of style Amis has inherited from Saul Bellow. The “atrocious chiselings” are quoted in a wider context (Banville rereads Amis’s source books and retraces his steps). Martin Amis’s comic novels may reach for more pathos, Banville speculates, exactly because his father’s did not.

But Banville’s review stands out among most others because, like his fellow novelist Harrison, Banville assumes that Amis is in control of his materials, and Banville has the sympathetic understanding to interpret those oddities of style, which other writers might condemn as carelessness, as conscious artistic feints.

Banville likes the new book. Some of his praise is blurbworthy: “a remarkable achievement, a version of the great Russian novel done in miniature with echoes throughout of its mighty predecessors.” But Banville backs his praise up with a claim that, so far as I’ve seen, stands unprecedented in the reviews of this book: “It is as if in all of his books he has been preparing for this one.” Banville’s conclusion is eloquent and artful. Amis has, he says, delivered a judgment on our times:

    “The spectacle of which, if it had been but glimpsed by the great figures of the Enlightenment on whose reasonings and hopes the modern world is founded, would have struck them silent with horror.”

It’s worth noting that not a single one of these reviews mentions any of the others. This wasn’t always the case with Amis’s books: when Tibor Fischer whipped Amis’s last, Yellow Dog, in The Telegraph, a full half of all subsequent reviewers made note of it. Perhaps it was the savagery of Fischer’s attack (no, I’m not going to quote it). John Banville takes care to note that Amis, in his descriptions of the Gulag, is “never less than factual.” But Daniel Soar, in The London Review, claimed just the opposite. Is Banville writing in response to Soar? Their reviews could not have come to less compatible conclusions, but both wrote something longer and better than a review of this book: both wrote criticism.

John Cotter has published fiction, poetry, and criticism in journals such as Hanging Loose, Pebble Lake, Good Foot, Volt, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Cutbank Poetry, and 3rd Bed. In 2007 his work was anthologized in Oh One Arrow, the premier anthology from Flim Forum Press, and will be anthologized next year in Outside Voices’ 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets. He lives in Boston where he has just completed the manuscript of a novel, Under the Small Lights, excerpts of which can be read online at johncotter.net.

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