Other People: A Review
Nothing is so rewarding in the breakneck wine-women-and-cars world of fiction reviewing as getting to chart an obsession. Martin Amis's twin obsessions, for better or for worse, are class politics and violence, more specifically the violence of men against women. Arguably it's Amis's sub-obsessions--bad writing, tennis, and major dental problems, to name a few--that make his novels worth reading in the long run, that add the color, texture, and life that sometimes vanish under a haze of dour sentiment and stupid character names.

But occasionally Amis manages to make class politics and violence arresting on their own terms. London Fields is probably the best at this, if you're looking for one book to buy all of your friends for Christmas. For long-term Amis fans, however, the earlier Other People is not only on the mark, but fascinating as the first piece of work in which Amis overcomes Amis, in which Amis manages to create work that moves beyond the typical and into the realm of broad human relevance.

Amis's first book, The Rachel Papers, is everyone's first novel: it is transparently about the author. That's what I assume, at least, since I assume that Amis is an arrogant, class-obsessed, sexually predatory dude who likes to seduce girls by quoting William Blake at them and who is appalled at the earthy doings of the poorer element (his brother-in-law Norman, in this book.) The book works, mostly because of two things: (1) it's so obviously and skillfully drawn from life, and (2) Amis is good enough at putting a plot together that you're not grossed out by (1). Assuming that you aren't just basically turned off by Amis as a person, the only major flaw here is Amis's ridiculous story structure. Every chapter is divided into two parts. In the first part, Amis's stand-in Charles Highway sits in his room and talks about how sad it is to grow old (read: turn 20.) In the second part, Charles Highway goes around fucking things up for himself and others. One of these parts is necessary and one isn't, but for some obscure reason (all narratives must be balanced narratives!) we need to have both parts. Still, there's enough good here to make the whole thing work.

Amis's second book, Dead Babies, takes everything that was good about the first book and gets rid of it, while at the same time amplifying everything that was bad about the first book. The result is a short novel about a group of degenerate Brits and Americans living in a house and doing obscene things while a serial murderer picks them off one by one. No, it's not as good as that description makes it sound: Amis's obsession with class politics and violence comes out in full force here, but he has no idea what to do with them yet. The only plot momentum in the book is whether or not the Americans' drugs are as good as they claim, plus the whole question of, you know, who's doing all the murdering? And then there's the obnoxious chapter structure to contend with, where we include lots of irrelevant chapters that need to be there for balance reasons but that serve absolutely no function in the plot. Here's a paraphrase of the only good line in the book: "I may not know science, but I know what I like." Great, now you can skip it.

The third book, Success, is where things start getting good for-reals. Amis manages to marry class politics and obnoxious chapter structure by building the entire book around two-part chapters. In one part, we deal with a depraved, miserable lower-class type scrabbling for food; in the other part we deal with a wealthy, happy-go-lucky art-gallery-workin' upper-class British type who engages in fun decadence and shows zero empathy. Both parts of the story are independently interesting as well as obsessively balanced, and there's some neat momentum in the way each plot resolves, something that undermines the basic "rich people are happy and wicked; poor people are miserable and incapable of meaningful action" logic that underlies pretty much Amis's entire output. Still, Success can more or less be reduced to that same basic screed, and unless you really, really like having Amis's prose style and basic class convictions hammered into you for page after well-balanced page, you can pretty much give Success a miss.

Other People works because although Amis again mixes class politics and narrative structure, he does so without relying on this dumb two-part chapter structure that so far has made his work more tedious than enjoyable. Yes, we have an obsessive over-arching structure again. But this time, it's a linear structure! Eppur si move!

Other People starts out like so many blind dates end: on a hospital bed, with no memory of who we are and how we relate to the rest of humanity. Amis's protagonist this time is a girl; his narrator is a mysterious malevolent force who's apparently done something to take away this girl's memory. After a quick escape from the hospital, the girl winds up naming herself Mary Lamb (Amis is also obnoxious with his character names) and gets herself adopted by a freewheeling prostitute/criminal who lives in a quiet slum tenement filled with aging alcoholics and a destitute gay man, who of course reads muscle magazines because this was published in 1981 and Martin Amis doesn't actually care that much about reality. (Which is admittedly one of his charms.)

We can only go up from here! The book's structure seems to think so, anyway, paralleling the journey of Mary Lamb from innocence to awareness with her social rise from destitution to gainfully employed poverty to idle wealth and disaster. Other than the sinister police captain and the mysterious narrator, the characters from different stages of the book tend not to overlap, which is a shame because some of the characters in Other People are authentically winsome.

This is possibly the only Amis book with likable characters, so enjoy them while they last, while Mary Lamb skyrockets past them on her long rise to success. Possibly the characters' likability is just a function of Mary Lamb's totally oblivious view of the world, where clouds are living things, books are something people ought to read more of, no one is ever really evil to one another and you ought to do all you can to help people out. (All of these premises get shot down one at a time over the course of the book.) But I don't care if the view is clouded or not: it's a bummer when Mary moves out of the gay man's house, even if she was responsible for rapist/criminals breaking into that house and causing brutal damage to everyone within it, and it's a bummer when she quits her job at the restaurant and moves in with the idle wealthy. I don't mean to imply that Amis has lost any of his jerk qualities--the best character arc in the book is easily the brief relationship between Mary Lamb and the quiet, unassuming accountant type at the restaurant, who takes what he's given and ends up ruined for it. You can't write that without being a jerk, and we have overwhelming evidence that Amis is a jerk. But he seems to be going a little bit farther than usual to see how people have some kind of basic decency, however ruined they are by financial circumstances. Again, enjoy it while it lasts.

The ending of the book is ridiculous and if you close the covers before reading the last chapters you aren't really missing anything. Some kind of point is being made about the cyclical nature of violence and the horror of awareness in the modern world, but for some reason that point needs to be made through zany metafiction and time loops or whatever damn thing. The mystery of Mary Lamb's identity is compelling only insofar as we don't want to know who this person actually is; we want her to remain as she's become: decent, possibly deluded, human. I don't think it's accurate to say that as awareness increases, empathy declines, but I buy that it's an effective point of view in a novel. It's a bummer though innit?

From here, Amis went on to write Money, which does metafiction better (if you're going to write yourself into a novel, at least have yourself playing sinister chess games with your lead character), but which does human empathy worse. London Fields works just because it's long and it's hard to remain totally disgusted by a character if you stick with them for 600+ pages--something Amis really ought to do more often. Time's Arrow is a cool gimmick; The Information is scandalous; you don't care about the rest of it. And why don't you? Because it's all zany language and getting Russia wrong and so forth.

This review is a long way of saying one thing: in logic, a reductio ad absurdum is how you prove to someone that their basic argument is wrong. Martin Amis is the reductio ad absurdum of High Literature in Amis's weird hybrid Nabokov/Bellow tradition: dazzling in terms of language, high-minded in terms of Big Social Concerns, obsessive in terms of structure, indifferent in terms of observing and empathizing with human behavior.

Other People works because Amis hadn't quite settled into the job yet. It's only after Thriller that every other word out of Michael Jackson's mouth was "shamon." It's only after Other People that Amis even had a reputation as a smug bastard/genius to live up to.

Posted by future on Thu, 11 Sep 2008 07:33:23 -0400 -- permanent link

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