Saturday, September 4, 2010
The Information by Martin Amis
This is the 3rd book (1995) in Amis' so-called "London Trilogy." Martin Amis is considered Britain's number one, top drawer, literary heavyweight. He received a £500,000 advance (and free dental work) for this "literary novel," an unheard of sum, creating great friction with his peers. These sums are more accepted for mass-market novelists like John Grisham (Amis pokes fun at Grisham's The Client or The Firm with this book's title). Moreover, in the art imitates life department, he dismissed his long-time British agent, the wife of his close friend Julian Barnes, for an American agent. This book has all the trappings of a book written by such an esteemed author, but it disappoints the casual reader. Much of the book seems an exercise in the author's cleverness, and it is indeed clever, and funny, and sexy. Jamie Maw calls the book "inciteful instead of insightful...and Martin Amis becomes Martin Aimless." This read is purely for Amis fanatics. A deep dive exploration of this book is endlessly rewarding. I'm providing as many clues as possible, since there appears to be little in the way of web accessible scholarly analysis.
The story of this literary rivalry revolves around two 40-year-old (p. 4) novelists (one day separates their birth dates, same as Tull's sons) who shared a room at Oxford. One, Gwyn Barry, has become wildly successful writing bland and optimistic books that present no challenge to the reader and glorify mediocrity, the other, Richard Tull, has too much information to write well, and is incapable of writing a successful work himself (not unlike Sam in London Fields). Richard has a job writing reviews for Tantalus Press (in Greek mythology, Tantalus suffers an eternity of unfulfilled desire). He brings upon himself endless miserable luck. Richard, the protagonist, spends 374 pages trying to undermine Gwyn's success, of course, Gwyn deserves it. Tull can't fathom the success Gwyn has lucked into writing "trex." "Gwyn's trex was loved by the world; his trex was universal" (p. 126). Ah, what is trex ? In the UK, Trex is a vegetable oil brand, like Crisco. The internet is awash with disgruntled readers who can't figure out just what Amis means by "trex." In fact, Amis does define it implicitly late in the text - "slapping some slice of trex into a frying pan" (p. 335). In the end, Richard's scheming will exact a heavy toll on himself and his family.
Martin Amis appears through the novel as an omniscient narrator. He tells a story of male mid-life angst over innocence lost, dreams deferred, and fears unallayed (see Diedrick's Understanding Martin Amis). Consider the novel's opening line "Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams" (p. 3). Much of the book is highly autobiographical. He pokes fun at himself changing agents when he notes "Gwyn Barry had switched agents, controversially taking his custom from Harley, Dexter, Fielding to Gal Aplanalp" (p. 40). When Richard summarized the books he has written "Aforethought was first person, Dreams Don't Mean Anything strictly localized third; both nameless, the I and the he were author surrogates...." (p. 125) Amis is talking about The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and subsequent novels.
Gwyn (like Guinea, equivalent to 21 shillings or £1.05) Barry is married to aristocratic Lady Demeter de Rougement (p. 79), "related to the Queen" (p. 188), daughter of the Earl of Rieveaulx (p. 101). She has a shady history of cocaine binges and promiscuity. She is taking driving lessons from a fellow aptly named "Crash," who is tied in with a group of thugs (Darko, 13, Belladonna) led by Steve Cousins, known as "Scozzy." Tull inadvertently falls in with these guys and makes a plan to hire them to "fuck Gwyn up" (p. 25). Amusingly, Cousins is perhaps Tull's only book fan (p. 110), seen on a train reading Dreams Don't Mean Anything. Tull quizzes him about first novel Aforethought, "What big thing happens exactly halfway through Aforethought?" Scozzy responds "It goes into the - into italics" (p. 113). Alert readers will recognize this as a reference to Amis' book Money.
Richard hatches a big plan to "seduce Gwyn's wife" (p. 122), but later that plan falls flat, likely due to Richard's chronic impotence, 'small' detail. An effort to hook up Belladonna with Gwyn fails when Richard realizes in a very postmodern moment in the book, Belladonna says "[Gwyn] loves me," Richard, "You mean you think he loves you," "It's the way he like looks at me," "When does he look at you?' "When he's on TV" (p. 133). Ah, Tull realizes that he's been had. Later, Richard's plan gets waylaid ("He had called off Steve Cousins" (p. 210)) when Tull joins Gwyn on a U.S. book tour in response to Gwyn's U.S. award - the "Profundity Requital," with stops in New York, Wash DC, Miami Beach, Chicago, Denver, LA, Boston, and Provincetown. There is great hilarity in this Part Three of the book, especially when they do a book signing in adjacent rooms in Boston. Gwyn has SRO crowds seeking autographs for his 3rd book Amelior Regained, and Richard has a few people show (He took the lectern to a Krakatoa of applause: from next door" (p. 277)), one with a copy of the book entitled Untitled, which he returns to Richard, because he thought it was so bad. Tull has been asked by Gal Aplanalp, publisher for both Richard and Gwyn, to write a Profile for Gwyn. Gwyn's wife figures centrally in his Profile, as she keeps saying that Gwyn "can't write for toffee" (p. 327). Richard fails to pick up on her malapropism, but Gwyn does later, when he realizes she "means peanuts, love. Not toffee" (p. 351). Demi equates "can't write for peanuts" with "deserves to be paid properly." it's easy to miss this comic device.
When interviewed by the 3 judges (Lucy Cabretti, Elsa Oughton, and Stanwyck Mills) (p. 96) for the Profundity Requital, he takes every opportunity to badmouth Gwyn in the areas of racism, sexism, and criminality. Each judge finds Gwyn's book bland, yet through Tull's effort to discredit Gwyn, the judges latch onto his beliefs and renew interest in voting the award to him. Tull is thrilled that the judges seem disinterested, more fuel for his Profile. Ironically, Richard plans to use the proceeds of his Profile to fund the violence against Gwyn (p. 316). Gwyn is totally narcissistic. The narrator uses the word "Condescension" when referring to an episode in which Gwyn pays a visit to Pamela, his young assistant - "the willing, the indulgent dilution of one's own superlative being, for the delight and enrichment of simpler lives" (p. 296). Ultimately, all the women in the book fall under Gwyn's spell.
Amis infuses the book with astronomical lingo, particularly with respect to the life cycle of stars, like our sun. For example, "A yellow dwarf is a terrible thing to be called, probably because - more pertinently - it is a terrible thing to be. A terrible thing. Poor, poor yellow dwarf. I would like her to know that yellow dwarfs are good. I owe my life to a yellow dwarf, as do we all - the one up there: the sun" (p. 89). Later, "Richard sometimes tried to anthropomorphize the sun and planets - or to solar-systematize his immediate circle", and he assigns his wife, Gina, as Mother Earth, Gwyn as Jupiter, etc. "He knew who he was. He was Pluto; and Charon was his art" (p. 169). Pluto is the God of Death and Charon is the ferryman who conveys the dead to Hades. This obsession with planets and spheres can be attributed to Borges' short story "The Aleph."
It is well known that Borges had a large influence on Amis. It is no surprise then that Borges' short story "The Aleph" appears in the book with great significance. "Richard...was thinking about a story: "The Aleph," by Jorge Luis Borges. About a magical device, the aleph, that knew everything: like the Knowledge. about a terrible poet, who wins a big prize, a big requital, for his terrible poem" (p. 165). The reference to Gwyn Barry is obvious. Daneri is a mediocre poet with a vastly exaggerated view of his own talent who has made it his lifelong quest to write an epic poem that describes every single location on the planet in excruciatingly fine detail. Likewise Richard is famed at his own pub, The Warlock, for his skill at a video game that tests cultural knowledge. "Who was said to be the last man to have read everything ? Coleridge...Two hundred years on, nobody had read a millionth of everything, and the fraction was getting smaller every day" (p. 178). But as Diedrick points out, Richard is like Tantalus, striving for a cultural mastery that always exceeds his grasp.
While we're on the topic of Borges, another short story plays a key role in the book, The Circular Ruins. It is important to understand the story. An experienced wizard retreats from the world to a location that possesses strong mystical powers: the circular ruins. There, the wizard tries to create another human being from his own dreams. Sleeping and dreaming longer and longer each day, the magician dreams of his young man becoming educated, and wiser. After time, though, the wizard can no longer find sleep, and he deems his first attempt an inevitable failure. After many sleepless nights, the wizard dreams of a heart; vaguely at first, but more and more clearly each night. Years pass and the wizard creates the boy piece by piece, in agonizing detail. The wizard calls upon the god Fire to bring his creation to life. Fire agrees, as long as the wizard accustoms his creation to the real world, and that only Fire and the wizard will be able to tell the creation from a real human. His creation is sent to a distant temple of the god Fire, and becomes famous as, because it is not real, it can walk through fire unharmed. The wizard hears of this, but at length he awakes to find the ruins ablaze. As he ultimately walks into the flaming house of Fire, the wizard notices that his skin does not burn. "With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another." Now, Tull receives a review manuscript from a poet Keith Horridge (note that forename recalls Keith Talent from London Fields), containing 3 poems, "Ever", "Disappointment", and "Woman." But there is a subtle catch, in a cover letter Horridge says that "Woman...is a departure for me, and possibly breakthrough. Here for the first time I cast off all influences and speak in my own voice" (p. 318). Tull recognizes that the lines are lifted from "something impregnably famous like..."The Circular Ruins"...He looked at Horridge's shining margins and saw all the thumb prints and palm sweat. And it came to him" (p. 319). It was plagiarism. Of course, this sets in motion Tull's grand idea to scheme against Gwyn Barry, as discussed below. But there's a bigger picture, just as the magician discovers in The Circular Ruins that he was "a mere appearance, dreamt by another" so all literature is derived from earlier works (the so-called Canon). Amis is making a statement about the thin line that separates intertextuality (i.e. borrowing themes from previous literature) from outright plagiarism. In contradistinction, The Information values its own intertextual relation to Borges (and many others).
Let's continue to explore the plagiarism motif. Tull has been working an a book entitled The History of Increasing Humiliation. "It would be a book accounting for the decline of the status and virtue of literary protagonists. First gods, then demigods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers,then burghers and merchants and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me. Then maniacs and murderers, tramps, mobs, rabble, flotsam, vermin" (p. 92). Keen Amis cognoscenti will notice that Tull is stealing these lines from Amis' Moronic Inferno (p. 5), a reverse plagiarism ! Just as Richard is a fictional author who steals work from an actual writer (Martin Amis), he will invent a further fictional author to make the charge of plagiarism against Gwyn Barry.
We are on a roll here, because the descending status of literary protagonists ties into the ubiquitous astronomy theme. The next paragraph parallels "The history of astronomy. The history of astronomy is the history of increasing humiliation. First the geocentric universe, then the heliocentric universe. Then the eccentric universe - the one we're living in. Every century we get smaller. Kant figured it all out, sitting in his armchair. What's the phrase ? The principle of terrestrial mediocrity" (p.93). The parochial nature of our desires is scaled against the vastness of the universe. The recurring theme of yellow dwarfs, like our sun, which is waning, belittles our ever so brief time on the planet. The last line of the book "And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night" (p. 374) confirms that all the complex knowledge that we gather cannot prolong or render our existence more than trivial.
Amis has a style built upon "extended withholding of information" (p. 38 of Danish Masters thesis by Græsborg and Lind (2000) of Aalborg Univ., see reference below in London Fields blog). Of course the withholding of information is so dramatically ironic as it applies to our subject novel. According to the Danes, this technique is used "to create tension and excitement, forcing the reader to consider the novel on a page by page basis, constantly revising whatever expectations have been built up." This approach was mastered in London Fields but plays in The Information as well, most notably in regards to a certain fender bender invoked by one Agnes Trounce, Gwyn's elderly neighbor on Calchalk St. Gwyn is introduced as "the target is driving along, feeling relatively happy, immeasurably happier, certainly, than he is going to feel in about ninety seconds. These moments will in retrospect appear golden-age, prelapsarian. So that's right: he doesn't have a care in the world. Intense and lasting cares are arriving, brought to him by Agnes Trounce" (p. 147). We soon learn that Ms. Trounce has backed into Gwyn's car in a Morris Minor. After a few harsh words are exchanged, "two young men, big lads, who have been lying low in the back of the Morris suddenly extend their bodies into the street" and next we learn "And in the other car the target's head, by this time, is jerking and crunching around between the door and door frame. It was just a motoring dispute....." We don't know who was involved or what really happened, we will not learn the details until later (p. 307, and later, p. 349), when Richard types in a piece for his Profile relating to Gwyn's hospital stay "Retrograde amnesia at first suggested major closed-head injury....Signs of trauma are painfully apparent - but Gwyn Barry is out of Intensive Care." Now we have some real information, but not all. The details are revealed when the scene is replayed in detail "Nobody," said Steve Cousins, coming forward and reaching under his coat for the car tool , "and I mean nobody, calls my mother a cunt" (p. 342).
Recalling the role of narrator as 1st person in London Fields, there is a curious entry of the narrator in The Information, just when Steve Cousins secretly enters Gwyn's house at night. Oddly, he does no harm. This authorial intrusion takes the form "I said I wasn't going in there, not yet. But here I am. I can't control him, all his life. They couldn't control him. And I can't control him. And Richard Tull won't be able to control him" (p. 170). It seems to be one of many entry points in the book for the narrator. Later, Scozzy relates to Richard that there was an intruder in Gwyn's house, careful not to reveal that it was himself (remembering that Richard has him under hire) (p. 185). Some of the author's intrusions are lengthy, consider "It so happens that I know quite a lot about dating - down at that end of the scale. As a man Who stands five-feet-six-inches tall (or five-feet-six-and-one-half inches, according to a passport I once had), I know about dating and size....Thirty years ago my very slightly older but very much taller brother would sometimes arrange foursomes for my benefit: my brother's girlfriend would be asked to bring a girlfriend along - or a sister. And I would wait, in a doorway, while he made a rendezvous and then report back saying, "Come on, She's tiny" - or else (shaking his head), "Sorry, Mart" (p. 207). Cannot be more explicit than "Sorry, Mart."
So just what is the information in The Information ? Never explicit, always implicit. At one point, Richard gives a clue "Richard had information on Demi now, and information always points to the vulnerable - the hidden" (p. 190). As Richard completes the plagiarized version of Amelior, he notes "Had he become Gwyn Barry ? Was this the information " (p. 327). The clarifying revelation of what "the information" actually is, never materializes. Tull's devious plan is to write an "original" version of his rival's best-seller novel by manufacturing the evidence that will indict him, in hopes that Gwyn Barry will be accused of having plagiarized Tull's work.
The novel has a very dark and disconcertingly ambiguous ending. Abandonment is the theme upon which the novel ends. Let's first examine a story within the story, viz., the relation between Richard and his two sons, brothers born on both sides of midnight (neither identical nor fraternal twins), Marco and Marius (p. 4). Amis tells of the relation between Richard and the young boys with great sensitivity. Of course, the book is dedicated to his own sons, Louis and Jacob. Marco had a mild "learning disability" (p. 49) and for such he was identified as an artist. At the very end of the book, Richard's relation with the underworld catches up with him. The 7-year old Marco is "kidnapped" by Scozzy, while left unattended. Richard later sees his son alone on the street. "He realized that he still had the vacuum cleaner in his arms, across his body, round his neck. Richard was still Laocoön, engulfed in coils and hoops...Father and son started hurrying toward each other. Marco wasn't crying, but Richard had never seen him looking so unhappy" (p. 372). The reader never learns explicitly what happened to Marco inside Scozzy's van. By the way, the draped vacuum is evocative of Laocoön (priest of Apollo) - he and his sons are killed by serpents after warning the Trojans not to enter their city. So this is how it all had to end, with Richards malicious plans come home to roost. His story is a human story, what he calls "the journey from Narcissus to Philoctetes" (p. 145), the Greek warrior whose wound would not heal.
In the end, The Information is a tragicomedy (or melodrama), avoiding a tragic ending. The seasons are out of sync "But we haven't had much luck with our seasons. Not yet, anyway. We did satire in summer, and comedy in autumn, and romance in winter" (p. 362). Spring beckons tragedy. Yet when the story ends, we observe "the anti-comedy of the apple blossom loosening in the wind" (p. 371). The ending is melancholic, not tragic.
Early in the book, Tull considers giving up smoking. "Paradoxically, he no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking....It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette" (p. 79). Julian Loose (in N. Tredell's The Fiction of Martin Amis) referring to Amis' prose waxes "such passages are so enjoyably overwhelming, so addictively all-consuming, that you feel you want to read a novel by Martin Amis, even when you are reading a novel by Martin Amis."
"Rictis" sighting (p. 371).