It’s tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America?
The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces — Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student — and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment — but also death.
Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and — shades of The Master and Margarita — finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” — a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers — applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end.
The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas’s tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks — don’t all robins? — in a quasi-medieval dialect:
Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now?
But Thomas’s real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation — yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book:
There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead…Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home.
More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but …We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow.” Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting.
Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray’s similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: “Too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much…” We can only take Thomas at her word here, but “too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much” could once have been part of a rave reader’s report on, say, Money, or (“British” apart) Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.)
In fact, Thomas’s unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book’s difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends’ opinion: “Nothing happened.”) Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, “a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story,” one that “deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it’s hard, Miller concludes, “to see why masses of people would want to read it.”
Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen’s statement that “fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas’s signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out — where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure…Not all events are stories.” — she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention.
Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing.
The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless — it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees — but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in “free indirect style,” the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie’s and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur’s, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion’s insightful suggestion that “the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along.” If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it.
Somewhere James Wood claims that “broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding.” Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters.
Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors — but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores.
But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don’t like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.
Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.
Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.
In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.
Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:
If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.
If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:
And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.
Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:
And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.
There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.
Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”
In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.
If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:
And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.
Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I’ve always liked books about drugs; they’re a good substitute for drugs. This year I read Michael Clune’s White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, a memoir that reads like a lost modernist novel — James Joyce as a junkie in modern day Baltimore. James Frey eat your heart out.
I finally got around to reading Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books. There was a lot of noise about the cycle’s most recent installment, At Last, but I preferred the earlier, druggier Bad News, a comic masterpiece about an upper class British twit trying to score heroin in 1990s New York that calls to mind one of the all-time great novels of excess, Martin Amis’s Money.
Sam Lipsyte has always written wonderfully about substance abuse — see his early story “Cremains,” in which a man mixes his mother’s ashes with morphine and injects them into his arm — and his new collection The Fun Parts is no exception. Not all the stories are about drugs though, and my favorites cover fresh ground, from drone invasions to high school shot put competitions. No matter the subject, Lipsyte wins with his swervy sentences that can carry a reader from pants-pissing laughter to pants-shitting pathos in a just couple of comma-hinged clauses.
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is like a drug cocktail — equal parts Dexedrine and Viagra — with its disarmingly brilliant depiction of woman named Reno who rides motorcycles, men, and the icy waves of the New York art world. Lots of praise has been heaped upon this novel, and, unlike most bags of overpriced cocaine, it actually lives up to the hype.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my father’s book, Kick and Run, a lovely and haunting memoir about his life as a soccer fan, player, journalist, and coach. The book begins with my father getting injured falling out of bed while scoring prescription drug-inspired goals in his middle-aged fever dreams, and also includes useful ruminations on the problem of playing soccer stoned — sometimes the ball is big, sometimes it’s small.
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I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that
The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish.
To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir.
The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise:
My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire.
As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry.
For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin.
Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic.
O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.”
Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.”
Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it:
Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always.
The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual.
– Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour?
– I am, said he.
– You’re worried?
– I am.
– And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us?
O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism:
If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows.
O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs:
If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.
The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then …”
And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then …”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
It’s hard to say if there was ever a golden age for word coinages. Maybe Elizabethan England – when news items were tidings, a thief was a cutpurse, and a prostitute was a jade or a bawd. Maybe the time between the world wars, when H.L. Mencken coined booboisie (middle-class philistines) and Sahara of the Bozart (the culturally arid southern states), and W.J. Cash referred to tobacco baron Buck Duke’s university in North Carolina as a Babbitt factory. Or maybe the Second World War, which inspired such sterling coinages as gung ho, flak, gizmo, and hit the sack.
While it may be impossible to pinpoint a golden age, I’m convinced we’re living in an age when the art of coining words has been criminally debased. This may be the fault of technology, with its tendency to reduce language to byte-sized morsels. Or it may be the fact that millions of people now do their writing on tiny screens, using their thumbs, which has given us such dross as LOL, WTF, and OMG! Or maybe we’re so overloaded with information that our imaginations have simply gone AWOL. Whatever. Here, in alphabetical order, is a glossary of a few popular contemporary coinages, only one of which can hold a candle to booboisie or Babbitt factory:
Brand – A former noun that has become a verb, meaning to establish an instantly recognizable identity that can be used to make money out of nothing.
The Kardashian sisters branded themselves as glamor queens. The success of its men’s basketball team helped Duke University brand itself as a “work hard, play hard” school. And in a wonderful Mobius strip of marketing, the internet search engine Google has branded itself so successfully that the brand itself has become a verb.
Gone are the days when companies like Xerox ran expensive ads beseeching people not to use their company name as a verb, as in, “Miss Smith, please xerox this contract.” Steve Ballmer, the chief executive of Microsoft, said the name Bing was chosen for the company’s new search engine because it “works globally” and has the potential “to verb up” – which is what arch-rival Google did long ago. In Ballmer’s dream world, people will bing the hottest new restaurant. When they do, he’ll know he didn’t merely brand, he verbed up.
Fall In Love – Become enraptured by a piece of writing.
I have lost count of the rejection letters I’ve received from editors who returned a manuscript to me with apologies that they just didn’t fall in love with the writing. It’s maddening! I didn’t send them my manuscript hoping they would want to have sweaty sex with it; I sent it to them hoping they would pay me money to publish the thing so I could afford to write another one. Keep it in your pants, publishing people!
Fracking – Short for hydraulic fracturing, a brutal, environmentally hazardous method of extracting natural gas from shale deposits.
This magnificent coinage – by far the best on this list – has onomatopoeia working in its favor: the word’s hard “k” sound makes it possible to hear the shale shattering as the drill bit chews through it. I didn’t appreciate just how appropriate the word’s ugliness is until I spent a night in the shale fields of western Pennsylvania while on a newspaper assignment. My motel’s parking lot was full of heavy equipment used by fracking crews, including big vehicles called “brine trucks.” Fracking, as I later learned, requires massive amounts of chemically treated water, known as brine (a nice coinage in its own right). The motel’s hallway carpets were dark and greasy from the mud and oil the workers tracked in from the fields. The doorknobs were slippery. The place felt soiled. To my relief, the motel’s tap water did not ignite when I held a match to it. Even so, I checked out of that place early the next morning.
Illiquid – The state of a financial investment when it is not available for redemption or withdrawal.
I came upon this horror while researching a magazine article about a resident of the Dakota apartment building in New York City who is suing the co-op board for racial discrimination. The plaintiff owns a financial services company that had accepted $100 million in investments from several Louisiana pension funds. When the directors of those funds tried to withdraw their money, they learned that the financial services company was bankrupt. The company’s lawyer said the company had “long-term” horizons and therefore, according to the New York Post, “time was needed for its illiquid investments to reach their true value.” That’s a fancy way of saying nonexistent investments.
Interdisciplinarity – Inquiry across academic disciplines.
At Buck Duke’s Babbitt factory in Durham, N.C., this clumsy word is clattering off many tongues, as in this sentence from Duke University’s website: “In the most recent university strategic plan, ‘Making a Difference 2006.’ interdisciplinarity, or ‘inquiry across disciplines,’ was reaffirmed as an integral part of the university’s identity.” Such coinages are the result of the impulse, common in academia, to replace perfectly serviceable simple words with one big fat important-sounding lump of bombast. Americans should leave this dubious art to the Germans, who are much better at it than we are. Consider the German word Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, which translates as River Danube Steamship Society Captain. Those Germans are unrivaled masters of the verbal train wreck.
Man Camp – Temporary housing for oil workers, frequently grody.
I was introduced to this coinage by an article about oil workers that appeared in Men’s Journal. The writer, Stephen Rodrick, takes readers on a tour of an oil boomtown called Williston, N.D.: “See the Wal-Mart on the left? The cops swear rumors of man-rape among the parking-lot transients is just filthy gossip, but the boardinghouse truck drivers say it happened…. On the right, rows and rows of Quonset huts make up ‘man camps’ housing thousands of workers, the lucky ones who don’t have to sleep in their cars.”
New Normal – A term for increasingly common extreme weather conditions, possibly resulting from global warming.
In another Men’s Journal article, this one about last summer’s killer heat wave and drought, Mark Binelli wrote, “A cliche began to circulate when people spoke of the extreme weather plaguing much of the United States: It might be a ‘new normal,’ sober commentators warned. Where had this term come from? Its popularity seemed yoked to its widespread malaise-era U.S. applicability, from unemployment numbers and outsourced jobs to shrunken pensions and austerity-hobbled local governments. Get used to the new normal, fuckers – its’ going to suck!”
Relateable – A character in a novel or movie who has qualities that readers or viewers can easily recognize, identify with, and embrace.
It’s a barometer of our culture’s watery values when the highest praise for a fictional character is that he or she is familiar, unthreatening, and easy to like. It reduces novels and movies to the level of a high school popularity contest, and it goes a long way toward explaining why so few Americans travel to remote, exotic, difficult locales. What ever happened to the glories of the unfamiliar, the discomfiting, and the odious? I’m thinking specifically about John Self, the scabrous, lecherous, loathsome – and hilarious – protagonist of Martin Amis’s best novel, Money. He’s loveable precisely because he’s so…I hate to say it…he’s so gloriously unrelateable.
Repurpose – To put something to an unconventional or unintended use, as in, “The city of Detroit is repurposing thousands of acres of vacant land as urban farms.”
Not such a bad coinage, really, but it suffers from overuse. Everything under the sun seems to be getting repurposed nowadays – abandoned factories are getting repurposed as artists’ lofts, bankrupt bookstores are getting repurposed as restaurants, and women of a certain age are getting repurposed as sexually predatory cougars. I wish people would just say, “I fired up my blowtorch and turned that old oil drum into a barbecue pit.”
Reinvent – What people do when they repurpose themselves, as in, “When the fire-balling right-hander’s elbow gave out, he reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher.”
Again, a coinage that has been overused to the point of bankruptcy. Worst of all, it’s not very inventive.
Sopo – An acronym for south of power, referring to the sections of downtown Manhattan that were left without electricity in the wake of hurricane Sandy, roughly the blocks below 30th Street.
This one’s personal, and therefore doubly galling. I live on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a very sopo zip code, and I spent four days without electricity, heat, telephone or internet after the storm roared through. It could have been much worse. I had hot and cold running water and cooking gas, and my apartment is on the third floor of a walk-up building. We had minimal flooding in the basement. The poor yobs in the 14-story housing projects across the street had nothing – no power, no heat, no elevators, no water – and I could see them washing their dishes and doing their laundry in the drool coming out of the fire hydrant at the corner.
Sopo is also a reminder that everything in New York City comes down to real estate, with every neighborhood getting assigned a catchy tag as soon as it becomes desirable or, in this case, undersirable: Soho (south of Houston Street), Tribeca (the triangle below Canal Street), Dumbo (down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass), Nolita (north of Little Italy). And now – yuck – Sopo.
Synergy – The repurposing of a fine old word to mean The Magic That Supposedly Happens When Moguls From Two Different Media Empires Get In Bed Together.
This may not be fair, but I blame Tina Brown for this one. She couldn’t stop yakking about all the fabulous synergy that was created when Harvey Weinstein threw a truckload of his Miramax movie studio money at Brown’s fledgling Talk magazine. According to Brown, articles in the magazine were going to morph magically into blockbuster movies, and vice-versa. It was nonsense, of course. Talk went belly-up in 2002, shortly after Weinstein withdrew his support. Not a single article from the magazine was developed into a movie, though a lot of movie stars, including Gwyneth Paltrow, a.k.a. “the First Lady of Miramax,” did get their pretty faces on the cover of the magazine.
A crisp definition of the synergy was provided by Michael Wolff in New York magazine: “The ability to turn low-margin print products into high-margin movie hits.” For a synonym, see fantasy.
Image: Darren Baldwin/Flickr
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
There is a certain type of writer whose books loom especially large as targets for hatchet jobs. A lot of critics are inclined toward gladiatorial showboating when reviewing a flawed book, and find that the temptation to indulge this tendency is exacerbated when it happens to have been written by an author of major significance or universal renown. The problem of the book’s failure is compounded by its being positioned within the broader context of its creator’s success. Here the question shifts from that of whether the book is any good to that of whether its author has any right to his or her exalted position in the first place. What’s really being asked, in other words, is something like “who is this person, and how do they keep getting away with this sort of carry-on?”
Martin Amis probably gets more of these “playing-the-man-not-the-ball” type reviews than any other living English-language writer. In fact, the Amis Hatchet Job is, at this point, a sort of minor literary genre in its own right. And, like any genre, it has its formal peculiarities and idiosyncratic requirements. As a rule, the reviewer will mention at least one (but preferably many more) of the following list of topics: misogyny; Islamophobia; dentistry; patrician contempt for the working classes; sonship of Kingsley; mentorship of Bellow; friendship of Hitchens; enmity of Barnes and/or Eagleton; comparability with Jagger; earliness of success; velvetness of trousers; greatness of Money; misapprehension of nature of own talent; distinctiveness of style; disproportionate presence of style in relation to substance; tendency of style’s distinctiveness to degenerate into self-parody. The reviewer will, before trashing this latest novel, often mention that they’ve been a fan of Amis for as long as they can remember, and that they have stuck up for him in the past when others groan at the very mention of his name. The animating question of the Amis Hatchet Job – the “whodunnit?” of the form – is usually either “How come nobody stopped him?” or “Why does he even bother?” Partly because of its inherent tendency towards exhibitionism, it can be a pretty entertaining genre, but it’s one that’s started to become a little predictable.
The reason I’ve been thinking about the AHJ as a genre is that I’ve been reading Lionel Asbo: State of England and feeling intermittently obliged to try my hand at it. Is Lionel Asbo a bad book? Well, it’s certainly a book with quite a lot of bad stuff in it. Every ten pages or so something happens, either at the level of prose or plot, that makes you want to hurl the thing across the room. (I read it on a Kindle, and the experience got me thinking about whether it might be a good idea for e-readers to come with a Wii remote-style adjustable wrist strap, so that this vestigial book-flinging instinct doesn’t result in domestic disaster. Those things are a lot more aerodynamic, and a lot harder, than your traditional ink-and-paper set-up.)
Firstly there’s the story itself, which, like most of its predecessors in the Amis bibliography, is all set-up and very little plot. Our protagonist is a mixed-race teenager named Des Pepperdine who lives in a council flat with his white uncle Lionel in the fictional London borough of Diston. Lionel is one of Amis’s most thorough sociopaths: someone for whom violence is both a means to various professional ends (he works as a “debt collector” of some sort, taking two apoplectic pit bulls with him wherever he goes), and a pleasurable end in itself. Des, in all but one crucial respect, is an exceptionally good kid, despite being raised by Lionel – his “anti-dad,” his “counterfather.” He’s hardworking, smart, and fundamentally decent. The one crucial respect in which he’s not a good kid, though, will probably be a deal-breaker for a lot of readers: at age 15, he frequently has full penetrative sex with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mum. If the reason why Des would want to do this is never adequately established (the whole question of statutory rape is more or less glossed over), the reason why he wants to keep it a secret is plain. What little plot there is, then, is largely concerned with the business of Des’s efforts to hide the incest from his beloved girlfriend Dawn and, more pressingly, from the eminently murder-capable Lionel. When the gran succumbs to Alzheimer’s – she’s barely into her forties, but it’s that kind of novel – she starts raving in lurid detail about all her former lovers, and this becomes an increasing cause of concern for Des. Meanwhile, Lionel wins the lotto and becomes instantaneously, farcically wealthy. He begins a relationship with a glamor model named “Threnody,” and thereby ascends to the peculiarly English status of tabloid folk anti-hero.
Amis has a great deal of fun with Lionel; in fact, he’s often clearly having more fun than the reader. He never makes the mistake of trying to mitigate Lionel’s horribleness, but it’s nonetheless obvious that he is powerfully endeared to his creation. At one point, Des is questioned by Dawn as to how he can love such a “truly dreadful person,” and it’s difficult to see his reply as anything other than Amis’s own baffled explanation for his attraction to the Lionel Asbos of the world: “‘Dawn, he’s worse than you know. But I can’t help it. It’s like you and Horace [Dawn’s racist father]. He’s a truly dreadful person too – and you love him. You can’t help it either.’” Some UK reviewers have seen Lionel as a vicious reactionary attack on the English working classes – as a kind of straw chav – but Amis’s misguided, conflicted affection for him is always puzzlingly apparent, and it’s always much more complicated, much messier, than these critics allow for. It can be difficult to differentiate such affection from a kind of fascinated disdain, but this has often been part of what has made Amis, in the past, such a compelling and troubling satirist.
One of the things that bothered me about the novel – and which led me to suspect that those who have accused Amis of a kind of patrician-anthropologist attitude toward the lower social orders might have a point – was the matter of Lionel’s speech. There are certainly some moments of linguistic brilliance here, where the cadences and rhythms of working-class Londonese are captured and subtly Amis-ized. Here, for example, is Lionel working his way into a best man’s speech at the wedding of his friend Marlon Welkway: “‘Now I always thought, Marl? Marlon Welkway? He’s not the marrying kind. Marl? No danger. Ladies’ man. Confirmed bachelor if you like …” I chuckled at this perfect presentation of Lionel’s voice, with its implied dialogic preemptions and forestallings. I didn’t need to be told what this voice sounded like, because I was already hearing it. But this was a rare moment, because throughout the novel Amis insists on interceding between Lionel and the reader, and telling the latter exactly what the former sounds like. So we’re informed that he pronounces the name “Cynthia” as “Cymfia,” and that he pronounces “myth” as “miff,” and “hyposthesis” as “hypoffesis.” We’re told that “pathetic” is pronounced “puffeh-ic-uh,” that “paddock” is delivered “with the full plosive on the terminal k,” and that “truck” is pronounced “truc-kuh (with a glottal stop on the terminal plosive).” This goes on and on, and it becomes exponentially antagonizing. It’s like trying to read while Amis looms over your shoulder, briskly clearing his throat and saying, “Now remember what I said about Lionel’s terminal plosives, all right? Let’s not forget that this is how he talks, substituting the ‘f’s for ‘th’s and so on.” (These were the moments when an adjustable Kindle wrist strap would have been most welcome.) His lack of trust in his own ability to adequately evoke Lionel’s speech, and in the reader’s competence to imagine it without these constant intercessions, is ultimately mystifying.
Amis is a notoriously riff-based writer; his signature style is one of comic accretion, and he’s at his exhilarating best when he’s exploiting the comic possibilities of elaboration and repetition. But the riffs in Lionel Asbo are often desiccated, drained of their venom, to the point where they’re in danger of sounding like harping. For a comic novel, in other words, the comedy falls too flat too often. And yet, as always with Amis, there are enough fleeting glimpses of brilliance to keep you turning the pages in anticipation of the next one. Like Lionel and Des flying into “an unserious little airport” on their way to visit Grace in Scotland. Or the description of a cat listening to a conversation “with independently twitching ears – one ear listening right, one ear listening left.” Or the reference to “parking” (i.e., burying) a deceased loved one. The strongest example of how the experience of reading Amis can vacillate so wildly between intoxication and frustration came at the end of an uncharacteristically touching section in which Des and Dawn fall helplessly in love with their new-born daughter, and with the elations and anxieties of parenthood. I was enjoying this stretch of the novel more than I had any that preceded it, and so the abrupt way in which Amis pulled the plug on it felt like a particularly reckless kind of self-sabotage: “If it’s true what they say, if it’s true that happiness writes white, then decency insists that we withdraw, passing over to the three of them a quire – no, a ream – of blank pages.” Well, I disagree with this particular authorial intervention: decency insists no such thing. If anything, it insists something like the opposite. The writing he abandons here is actually some of the least white in the whole novel.
So is Lionel Asbo a bad book? It’s certainly nowhere near Amis’s best (I see it languishing somewhere down around the lower quartile of the bibliography), and there are frequent moments when you wonder what the hell he can possibly have been thinking. But even when the riffing sounds like harping and the jokes fail to hit their marks, it’s not an unenjoyable experience. Reading Amis, I am often reminded of something my father used to say about the late Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros, who was as wildly uneven as he was wildly talented: “Even when he’s bad, he’s a lot more fun to watch than pretty much anyone else.” Amis is all over the shop here, but even when he hits his tee shots into the car park, there’s always a significant chance that he’ll wind up with a birdie. It’s frustrating and disappointing, and frequently maddening to watch, but it’s rarely boring.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
The British journalist Sam Leith recently opened a review of Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis: The Biography with the following question: “Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know.” The 418-page biography, which has been undergoing a sustained critical beatdown since its publication last year, contains no mention of a book Amis published in 1982, and which he has been avoiding talking about ever since. “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” wrote Leith, “particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.” He’s got a point; any book so callously orphaned by its own creator has to be worth looking into. This is especially true if the book in question happens to be a guide to early 1980s arcade games.
Like most Amis fanciers, I had heard of the existence of this video game book –- the full title of which is Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines –- but knew very little about it. What I did know was that he dashed it off at some point during the time he was writing Money, one of the great British novels of the 1980s, and that it has long been out of print (a copy in good nick will cost you about $150 from Amazon). And I knew, most of all, that Amis was reluctant to talk about it or even acknowledge it. Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian once suggested to him (facetiously, surely) that it was among the best things he’d ever written, and that it was a mistake to have allowed it to go out of print. “The expression on his face,” wrote Lezard, “with perhaps more pity in it than contempt, remains with me uncomfortably.”
Invasion of the Space Invaders, then, is the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction; many have heard rumors of its shameful presence, but few have seen it with their own eyes. I recently discovered a copy in the library of the university where I work, and I don’t think the librarian knew quite what to make of my obvious excitement at this coup. (“Wow,” I said, giving a low, respectful whistle as she handed it across the counter. “Would you look at that?”) It’s a deeply strange artifact: an A4-sized, full color glossy affair, abundantly illustrated with captioned photographs, screen shots, and lavish illustrations of exploding space ships and lunar landscapes. It boasts a perfunctory introduction by Steven Spielberg (“read this book and learn from young Martin’s horrific odyssey round the world’s arcades before you too become a video-junkie”), complete with full-page portrait of the Hollywood Boy Wonder leaning awkwardly against an arcade machine like some sort of geeky, high-waisted Fonz. We’re not even into the text proper, and already its cup runneth over with 100-proof WTF.
One of the most frequently remarked-upon aspects of Amis’ writing is that it’s nearly always possible to tell, within a sentence or two, when you’re reading him. (You know it when you see it, with its gimmicks, its lists, its italicized stresses. You know it when you see it, Amis’s style, with its grandstanding repetitions.) And there’s a strange cognitive dissonance that arises from seeing that style applied to what is essentially — or at any rate quickly devolves into — a player’s guide to a range of early arcade games. He starts off with a cluster of short essayistic efforts about game addiction. A few sentences in, and we’re already deep in the familiar, hyper-stylized terrain of Amis country: “What we are dealing with is a global addiction. I mean, this might all turn out to be a bit of a problem. Let me adduce my own symptoms, withdrawals, dryouts, crack-ups, benders…” It’s hard to say who his intended reader might be here. You’d imagine kids would be an obvious demographic target, but that seems unlikely given that Amis gratuitously and jarringly raises the issue of child prostitution on the very first page. (The child sex industry has apparently been given a “fillip” by arcade machine addiction. “Kids,” he assures us, “are coming across for a couple of games of Astro Panic, or whatever. More about this later.”) This slumming fascination with seediness, characteristic of much of Amis’s early and mid-period work, is evident throughout. At one point, we are treated to a series of Hogarthian prose sketches of the grotesques the author sees all around him in these arcades: “Zonked glueys, swearing skinheads with childish faces full of ageless evil, mohican punks sporting scalplocks in violet verticals and a nappy-pin through the nose […] Queasy spivs, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones.” (There’s a glossary at the back that helpfully provides the following clarification: “Faggot: gay.” The word’s use in the original context makes the contemporary reader flinch, but the ugliness of the matter-of-fact definition is downright unforgivable. This is one of several potential reasons why Amis is uncomfortable enough about Invasion to want to keep it out of print.)
The medial bulk of the book is accounted for by the actual “addict’s guide to battle tactics” promised by its ungainly subtitle, and this is where it really flourishes as a bizarro-world extracanonical oddity. It’s as though Kingsley Amis’ youngest son had shied away from the family business and wound up making a living as a games reviewer with a weakness for the high literary style. Here is one of the great aesthetes of the sentence offering tips on dealing with Space Invaders’ descending alien infantry:
The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx. Before you do anything else, take out at least three enemy columns either on the left-hand side or the right (for Waves 1 and 2, the left is recommended). Thereafter the aliens will take much longer to cross their grid and slip down another rung. Keep on working from the sides: you’ll find that the invaders take forever to trudge and shuffle back and forth, and you can pick them off in your own sweet time.
For what it’s worth, this is actually very solid gaming advice. I tested it out on one of those classic arcade websites, and the man knows what he’s talking about — it is all about phalanx-narrowing. (If I ever happen to pass Amis on the opposite side of the street, I’m not sure I’ll be able to prevent myself from shouting across at him like one of the garrulous yobs who populate his novels, “Oi, Mart! Narrow that phalanx!”) He’s technically correct, too, about the fact that, when the aliens descend to the very lowest rung, “you can slide around underneath them, touching them with your nozzle, and survive!” — but I’m not sure he’ll be wanting that sentence to show up in The Quotable Amis, should such a volume ever appear.
He is almost as enthusiastic about PacMan, although you get the sense that he sees it (in contrast to Space Invaders) as a fundamentally unserious endeavor. “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” His advice is to concentrate stolidly on the central business of dot-munching, and not to get distracted by the shallow glamor of the fruits: “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.” Curiously, for a writer so deeply preoccupied with stylistic refinement and playful innovation — who elevates the pleasure principle to a sort of aesthetic moral law — Amis favors a no-frills approach to gaming. The following piece of Polonian advice pretty much encapsulates his whole arcade ethos: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.
Aside from the off-the-charts weirdness of its very existence, the book offers a number of peripheral pleasures. For one thing, there’s a half-expected (but still surprising) guest appearance from what I would be willing to bet is a young Christopher Hitchens. In a diverting rant about the increasing presence of voice effects in games, Amis recalls his first exposure to such gimmickry at a bar in Paris on New Year’s Day, 1980:
I was with a friend, a hard-drinking journalist, who had drunk roughly three times as much Calvados as I had drunk the night before. And I had drunk a lot of Calvados the night before. I called for coffee, croissants, juice; with a frown the barman also obeyed my friend’s croaked request for a glass of Calvados.
Then we heard, from nowhere, a deep, guttural, Dalek-like voice which seemed to say: “Heed! Gorgar! Heed! Gorgar … speaks!
“… Now what the hell was that?” asked my friend.
“I think it was one of the machines,” I said, rising in wonder.
“I’ve had it,” said my friend with finality. “I can’t cope with this,” he explained as he stumbled from the bar.
Elsewhere in the book, he considers the possibility, raised by Paul Trachtman in the Smithsonian, of a future evolutionary strand of video games in which “You have a ten-year reign as a king and you have so much grain, so many people and so much land,” and in which “if you don’t feed your people enough, they start to die.” Trachtman is essentially prophesying the advent of hugely successful games like Civilization and Sim City here, but Amis summarily rejects the idea. “The predictions of the video eggheads are grand and stirring; at the time of writing, though, all the trends in the industry stubbornly point the other way.” Elsewhere, he rubbishes the now-iconic Donkey Kong, the first major success of Shigero Miyamoto, who went on to create Mario and Zelda. “Donkey,” he quips, “your days are numbered. The knackers’ yard awaits you.”
It’s just about possible, if you squint hard enough, to see Invasion of the Space Invaders as Money’s sickly non-fiction twin. Amis occasionally alludes to the fact that all this arcade-lurking and button-bashing is being done both as research for, and at the expense of, a novel he is supposed to be writing. And there are certain advance rumblings here of the comic juggernaut which was to arrive two years later. John Self, for instance — Money’s boorish and omnivoracious narrator — has a particular weakness for a brand of microwaved hotdogs named Blastfurters. In a desultory entry on the game Cosmic Alien, Amis mentions that he first came across it in a “kwik-food beanery on Third Avenue,” where it “looked perfectly at home among the up-ended cartons and the half-eaten blastfurters.” The novel itself features a small but crucial role for its author, whom Self first mentions as follows: “Oh yeah, and a writer lives round my way too. A guy in a pub pointed him out to me, and I’ve seen him hanging out in Family Fun, the space-game parlor, and toting his blue laundry bag to the Whirlomat. I don’t think they can pay writers that much, do you?”
Well, that would certainly be one explanation for this book’s existence; he may have been short of cash at this point, and a brief diversion into video game writing may have been an easy way to turn his coin-devouring addiction to the space-game parlor into a few quid. But there’s an argument to be made that Invasion, as powerfully strange as it looks against the setting of the author’s oeuvre, is in keeping with his perennial preoccupations. Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principle of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”
Amis’s characters are always playing and getting played; his books are filled with humiliating drubbings and pyrrhic victories on the tennis court, the pool table, the darts oche. Even that business about which he is most serious — the scrupulous, almost paranoiac abstention from banality at the level of the sentence — is a form of play. The title of his criticism collection, The War Against Cliché, indicates the height of the stakes, but belies the fact that it is ultimately still a game, just one that Amis is very serious about. As a reviewer, he takes a grim satisfaction in catching out his opponents in solecisms, platitudes, and pratfalls (Raymond Chandler’s celebrated hardboiled prose is actually, we are told, “full of stubbed toes and barked shins”). As a novelist, his ludic delight in finding new ways of playing with language — new ways of narrowing the ever-descending phalanx of cliché — is palpable in every sentence. So for all its contextual aberrance, this strange and disreputable book actually makes a certain kind of warped sense. And if for some reason you happen to be looking for a guide to arcade games of the early 1980s, you could probably do a lot worse.
A few weeks ago I ventured into the English Faculty Library at the University of Oxford to borrow a work of fiction. A friend had recommended the novel Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis, and for a variety of reasons the only library from which I could borrow one of the University’s fifteen copies was the English Faculty. (All but two of the copies were owned by college libraries – none my own, and colleges do not lend to non-members – or by libraries that do not permit borrowing to anyone. The second circulation copy was out.) Although my subject is History and Politics, the English Faculty does permit non-members to borrow from its collection, but with some rather curious reservations.
When I presented the volume to be checked-out, the librarian examined my card (which discloses my subject), pursed her lips, pressed her palms protectively over Martin’s image on the dust jacket, and clearly made herself ready to say something that she regarded as unpleasant:
Librarian: “Are you reading this book just for pleasure?”
Me: “Well, I suppose, not entirely…”
Librarian: “Because you know some people may be studying this for a course or an exam.”
Me: “Well, um, even in the summer?”
Librarian: “Oh, perhaps not, but we really don’t like to lend just for pleasure reading. That’s not what these books are for.”
To be fair, my responses were even less coherent than what this paraphrase suggests, which may be why the librarian did not offer much compelling justification for her reluctance to share the work of the younger Amis. (No doubt Martin’s father, Sir Kingsley Amis, descended from solid Wodehousian stock, would have pipped me to the riposte, but despite my meagre performance I was permitted, in the end, to borrow the book.) For one thing, surely no English student, when deprived of a sought-after volume, would find any consolation in the knowledge that their degree was being sacrificed at the altar of a D.Phil. dissertation, rather than merely for my pleasure. It might be said that if non-English students were prevented from borrowing, the chances of any volume being available would increase, but this ignores both the curious tendency for all students to equate borrowing books with reading books (thus drawing perverse and prolonged comfort from the mere presence in their bedroom of the volumes on the reading list), and the academic equivalent of a mutually-assured destruction, the threat that other faculties will impose reciprocal bans on non-members and thereby obliterate each and every Dreaming Spire.
It is no small irony that the work at issue was by Martin Amis, one of the University’s most precocious children. Amis read English at Exeter College in the late 1960s and took a “Congratulatory First,” a title bestowed by examiners at an undergraduate’s viva (oral defence, now defunct), telling the student how much they enjoyed reading his examination scripts. Amis is renowned for his command of, and appreciation for, the English language, which he deploys to dark and hysterical effect in The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, and the aforementioned Money. While it is difficult to imagine Amis himself taking anything like a diminutive view of reading just for pleasure, there remains much to be said in defence of other readers, who react more moderately to a thoughtful turn of phrase, or for whom Milton may do just as well as a glass of warm milk before bedtime – in short, The Millions of us who read just for pleasure – and why these might not be so readily turned away from the circulation desk.
At the same time I was reading Money, I was (and still am) working through the collected works of Lewis H. Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine, in preparation for an interview in late September. While more recently remembered for his eloquent, sharp, and (at the time) lonely criticism of the Bush Administration after September 11, 2001 (collected in Theater of War, Gag Rule, and Pretensions to Empire), Lapham’s earlier writing considered the existence of an American aristocracy (what he calls an “equestrian class”), and the enervating effects of a culture worshipful of money. Lapham published Money and Class in America in 1988, which could be described as a non-fictional explanation of the world Amis depicts in Money, which was published in 1984, and over half of which takes place in New York City, where Lapham also resides. While John Self, the protagonist in Money, is certainly not a member of Lapham’s equestrian class, it is not difficult to imagine Lapham nodding grimly as he reads of Self’s destructive attempts to ape his betters:
I have money but I can’t control it: Fielding keeps supplying me with more. Money, I think, is uncontrollable. Even those of us who have it, we can’t control it. Life gets poor-mouthed all the time, yet you seldom hear an unkind word about money. Money, now this has to be some good shit.
Or, perhaps not, and instead we should feel, after reading Amis, that:
The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.
This is how a former professor of English at the University of Oxford described the work of Amis and other of his British contemporaries (including Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie) in a newspaper article published the very same week that I was wondering whether to include a question about Amis in my interview with Lapham. While it is tempting to view with awe and wonder such a web of meaning and connection, spinning-up as if from nowhere as the literary stars align, in fact the effect is nothing more banal than seeing a new friend all around town: before being introduced, you just didn’t think to notice.
Those who are at all familiar with Lapham’s prose will appreciate this point especially, recalling his preference for historical, cultural, and literary allusion. Lapham’s essays are a study in the art of the “almost tell,” meaning that his arguments are presented less as Polaroid truths and more as symphonic orations, including the presumption that the audience will withhold any applause until the end of the last movement, and its final judgment until after a good night’s rest and perhaps mulling over the reviews in the next day’s newspaper. The first chapter of Money and Class in America is entitled “The Gilded Cage,” which is the phrase used by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth to describe the circumstances of New York’s social elite at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lapham elaborates the allusion, intimating that:
The House of Mirth addresses itself to what in 1905 was an irrelevantly small circle of people entranced by their reflections in a tradesman’s mirror. In the seventy-odd years since Wharton published the novel the small circle has become considerably larger, and the corollary deformations of character show up in all ranks of American society, among all kinds of people caught up in the perpetual buying of their self-esteem.
The literary reference at once illuminates Lapham’s point with the full range of Wharton’s sensibility and refined description, or at the very least the reader is directed to a source of further understanding – provided she remembers to tell the librarian that her visit to Wharton’s Upper East Side drawing rooms is for business, not pleasure.
The specific terms in which the librarian formulated her anxiety – “…some people may be reading this for a course or an exam…” – bespeak something of the insecurity that perpetually darkens the horizon outside the offices of every English faculty, especially during the rainy season otherwise known as the humanities department budgetary review. The appeal is made to a higher purpose – “That’s not what these books are for” – and the hope is that despite having paid our admission to the theme park we will continue to respect the height requirements on the literary roller-coaster, not to mention its place amongst the park’s founding attractions. The irony is that by protecting the importance of the enterprise with the threat of restricted access and the real pain of condescension, the operators put at risk both a life-sustaining custom, and the continued existence of the very thing that they purport to discover:
But I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for “amusement,” or “purely for pleasure” that may have the greatest, and least suspected influence upon us… Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely. (T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” 1934)
There are other passages from Eliot that bear directly on this subject. In the same essay, Eliot rejects what must be the librarian’s view of the aim of wider reading (“an accumulation of knowledge, or what sometimes is meant by the term ‘a well-stocked mind'”) in favour of what Lionel Trilling might have recognized as The Liberal Imagination, that “very different views of life, cohabiting in our minds, affect each other, and our own personality asserts itself and gives each a place in some arrangement peculiar to ourself.” But to belabour the point with too much critical quotation risks begging the question, and confessing the very thing we are suggesting should be irrelevant, or at least beside the point.
The final explanation for the use of the diminishing modifier “just for pleasure” is lost somewhere in the fog surrounding that overwrought and spectacularly hackneyed phrase “work-life balance.” The circumstances may be less clear when one is studying Plato, John Rawls, or J.R.R. Tolkien, compared to a difficult translation of Greek or Latin, an econometric proof, or an equation in particle physics, but there is only so much time one can or should devote to even academic work. Not only does the law of diminishing returns extend beyond discounted cash flow analyses and the building of brand collages, but like a Blackberry or a conference call, under no circumstances should any of these appear during family dinners, cocktail parties, or on the bedside table.
The problem for the librarian, no less than for the career consultant, the occupational health and safety supervisor, and the beleaguered investment banker, is that the notion of a “work-life balance” is a terrible false dichotomy, the Marxist equivalent of giving all your chips away before the deck is even shuffled and then borrowing from the dealer to buy a round for the table. It is manifestly impossible to divide one’s life into neat or even approximately spherical compartments (how many New York Times crossword puzzles have been completed with a “Eureka!” exclaimed while on the family dog’s midnight promenade), and the decision to deny the obvious is generally employed by those who actually know better, which is why they are forever unsatisfied with the level of the scales. While it is plainly true that one can read a book more or less closely (substitute a beach blanket and a daiquiri for a pencil and a desk), it is equally true that something of everything we read is retained, to be recalled, by chance more often than design, on some or another future occasion, a dinner conversation, a tutorial essay, or a game of Trivial Pursuit. As every student who has written an examination knows all too well, it is impossible to predict when the most felicitous recollections – legend has it, the essential ingredients in the making of a “Congratulatory First” – will occur, but the chances are most assuredly increased in direct proportion to the number of books we read.
Even, just for pleasure.
(Image: Lecture Hall, image from sprochello’s photostream)