Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Other People: A Mystery Story by Martin Amis

This book was published in 1981 and serves as a bridge of sorts between Amis' "apprentice trilogy" and his "London trilogy." It represents a quantum leap in narrative structure. Other People is a novel of existential mystery - the first half of its title alludes to Jean Paul Sartre's play No Exit, with its famous line "hell is---other people!" Stephen Jones ( cites comments by Cropper that describe the structure as a double helix or Möbius strip - an insightful analogy in that the book is cyclical in time, yet the prologue and epilogue are inverted. The geometry analog speaks to the precision and rigidity with which Amis has calculated his narrative structure. We need to examine the plot in order to understand what is meant by this.

A few insights first from Diedrick's Understanding Martin Amis. Amis adopts the techniques of the "Martian School of Poetry," so called because Craig Raines published a poem "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home." Amis published the poem "point of View" in the New Statesman (12/14/79), a year before the appearance of the book. The poem's first stanza shockingly inverts perceptual and moral norms by imaging how deviants see other people. "Policeman look suspicious to normal/murderers. To the mature paedophile/A child's incurious glance is a leer/Of intimate salacity; in more/Or less the same way, live people remain/As good as dead to active necrophiles." The poem appears as prose in the book (pp. 186-187). According to Diedrick, the poem enacts in miniature the denaturalizing of a conventional understanding that characterizes the novel as whole. Further, this alien viewpoint has roots in Lyrical Ballads by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wiliam Wordsworth. According to Coleridge, Wordsworth sought to "give the charm of novelty to things of every day." There's more. Symbolically, Mary is linked to the protagonist of Coleridge's supernatural poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." After the Mariner sins by killing the albatross, he enters the realm of "Life-in-Death," where he suffers the consequences of his past transgressions. He is delivered from this state of purgatory near the end of the poem, only to be consigned to an eternal repetition of his experiences by telling his story to listeners brought under his spell.

The book begins with a young woman, Mary, who later adopts the surname Lamb, reviving from death in a hospital. It opens "Her first feeling, as she smelled the air, was one of intense and helpless gratitude. I'm all right, she thought with a gasp. Time - it's starting again. She tried to blink away all the water in her eyes, but there was too much to deal with and she shut them tight. Someone leaned over her and said with a voice so close that it might have come from within her own head, 'Are you all right now?' " (p. 13).

She is a 100% total amnesiac. She has no memory of her past and no comprehension of bodily functions. Everything she knows is on the most literal level. Amis does a brilliant job of rendering the world from her amnesiac perspective and writing in an "awkward" and lean style to showcase that literal aspect of discovering life. He writes as if seeing the world through her eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch, and mind. Stating the obvious is never obvious. The familiar seems hauntingly strange. Like Raine's Martian, Mary sees the world from an alien perspective. Daily, she must reinvent herself. Early on in the book, she discovers her mouth while taking a drink - "She poked the small bottle into the hole in her head - her mouth, that wet and curious private part, a thing that seemed to have no business there, too vital and creaturely against the numb contours of her face...Was there anywhere else like that in your body, a place where you could feel from the inside and outside at the same time ?" (p. 32). Mary breaks free from the hospital and falls in with a motley collection of tramps, squatters, and fringe elements. She quickly learns about life's daily ablutions, men's desire, and fear.

Ultimately, a Mr. Prince enters her life, in the guise of a policeman. He is the narrator of the novel. He leads her into the dark labyrinth of her past. He reveals to her a resemblance to a teenager who was murdered (deservedly), Amy Hyde. He arranges for her to visit Amy's childhood home, where she begins to recognize benchmarks from her past. Ultimately she realizes that she is Amy Hide. Prince becomes more than a mentor, he becomes her lover. But in typical Amis fashion, we soon learn that he is also her murderer. In the last few pages of the book, she accepts that she must die at his hands, only to awaken in her home. "Her first feeling, as she smelled the air, was one of intense and helpless gratitude. I'm all right, she thought with a gasp. Time - it's starting again. She tried to blink away all the water in her eyes, but there was too much to deal with and she soon shut them tight. 'Are you all right now, Amy' her mother asked." (p. 222). This mimics the beginning of the book.

Amis has said that "The simple idea of the book - as I point out several times in the text - is, why should we expect death to be any less complicated than life ?...The novel is the girl's death, and her death is sort of a witty parody of her life...At the very end of the novel she starts her life again, the idea being that life and death will alternate until she gets it right" (Jones).

The Prologue and Epilogue are key to understanding the book and were misinterpreted or not understood by reviewers. The Prologue is written in the past tense, narrated by Prince. "This is a confession, but a brief one. I didn't want to have to do it to her. I would have infinitely preferred some other solution. Still, there we are. It makes sense, really, given the rules of life on earth; and she asked for it. I just wish there was another way, something more self-contained, economical, and shapely. But there isn't. That's life, as I say, and my most sacred duty is to make it lifelike. Oh, hell. Let's get it over with." The Epilogue is written i the present tense. "This is a promise. I won't do anything to her if she doesn't want me to. I won't do anything to her unless she asks for it. And that's not very likely, is it, at her age ? That's not very realistic? Still, at least she's legal - just about, I'm pretty sure...I feel as though I've doe these things before, and I am glazedly compelled to do them again. But perhaps all things like this feel like that. I'm - I'm tired. I'm not in control any more, not this time. Oh hell. Let's get it over with" (p. 224).

The repetition of these paragraphs suggest an unending cycle. Thus, the last section is not a flashback, but a continuation of the narrative sequence. Also, "This is a promise" parallels "This is a confession" suggesting that parallelism is capable of slight changes on each circuit. The Prologue, written in the past tense suggests the end of events, while the Epilogue in the present tense suggests the beginning. Putting them in the "wrong" order suggests the narrative is cyclical. Jones opines that the circularity of the narrative suggest that all 3 parties (narrator, reader, and character) have a distinct lack of control. It would appear that Amy is fated to repeat her life, and Prince to narrate it indefinitely, with only a slim chance of Amy breaking the cycle and "getting it right this time."

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