Sunday, November 28, 2010

Heavy Water and Other Stories by Martin Amis

This is a collection (1998) of short stories first published in The New Yorker and other magazines (written as early as 1976, but including two stories written for the book). Reviewers tended to be very negative, many viewing the short stories as stunts, yet most admitting to Amis' articulary brilliance. Scott (The New York Times) did an insightful piece grouping three of the stories within the "stunt" framework, "Career Move", "Straight Fiction", and "The Janitor on Mars," suggesting Amis wrote these just because he could (as he did with "triumphant virtuosity" in Time's Arrow). We can also add "Let Me Count the Times" onto that list, a story about Vernon, who has an obsessive affair with himself and his imagination, drawing him away from his wife. These 4 stories are basically extended jokes (one-joke shticks) couched in brilliant prose. Some might call them exercises in bad taste. Winik (Austin Chronicle) says "This is a writer who is to bizarre fictional propositions as Joël Robuchon is to the mashed potato."

Briefly, "Career Move" contemplates a culture in which the literary world is inverted. Screenplay writers struggle to have their work published in small magazines, sending SASEs to struggling, readerless quarterlies, yet poets are courted by publishing conglomerates and fly 1st class enjoying glamour and celebrity. "Straight Fiction" contemplates a world where homosexuality is the cultural and sexual norm, heterosexuals are an oppressed minority. "The Janitor on Mars" is about a Martian robot that knows just how our world will end.

"Denton's Death" is about a miserable fellow who sits alone in his squalid room and ponders his forthcoming assassination by 3 killers using some unidentified "machine." The title echos the play (1835) "Danton's Death" by Georg Büchner.

"State of England" is a poignant story with more depth, starring Big Mal, a "bouncer" (p. 49) and thug that will later appear in Amis' Yellow Dog," albeit a little smaller. You see, in this story his "cuboid" (p. 43) shape is described as "five feet nine in all directions" (p. 38) where in Yellow Dog he is "five foot eight in all directions" (p. 40), curious what aging can do. We are also introduced to his gangster colleague Joseph Andrews (pp. 41, 57). Mal is a failure at his marriage and his career, he gets stabbed as a bouncer and he gets beaten up by some opera goers while "clamping" their Range Rover at a parking lot, where it was parked "...illegally. Or parked improperly. Or plain parked bad" (p. 67). Ironically, his friend Fat Lol must sell his mobile phone (giving up his social mobility) at the end of the story ("Fat Lol said he'd had to flog it: his mobile" (p. 70)) when he gets booted ! Most interesting is the relation Mal has with his 9-year old (p. 38) son Jet, who spends quality time with his father on the football pitch. Ultimately, his father capitulates to run in the "dads' race" (p. 56) on "Sports Day" (p. 38). This story is a sentimental observation of the nuclear family. "See, these were the nuclear dads, the ones who'd stuck with their families, so far, anyway. And everybody knew that Mal had broken out, had reneged on the treaty and gone non-nuclear" (p. 43). And most of these dads were upwardly mobile immigrants, Mal reflects that "Now that prejudice was gone everyone could relax and concentrate on money" (p. 60). So this is the state of England, a classless, multicultural society obsessed with sports, children, cell phones and profits. Scott (The New York Times) says the story address an Updikean mid-life crisis, the estrangement of fathers and sons and the empty anomie of affluence.

"The Coincidence of the Arts" is the best story in the book, with a pretty good surprise. The story is inspired by a detail from a Saul Bellow profile in The Moronic Inferno - a sign that advertises art supplies "for the artist in everyone" (p. 89). This is a story about a 6'7" stalker "Pharsin Courier and he was deeply black" (p.88) and "Sir Rodney Peel, and he was deeply white" (p. 89), in a city (New York) where "everyone was already an artist...The coffeeshop waiters and waitresses were, of course, actors and actresses...The AC installers were installationists. The construction workers were all constructivists" (p.89). Pharsin, a "chess hustler," (p. 94) and doorman for Rod's building, has ambition to be a novelist and a huge book that he wants reviewed, by Rodney. Rod keeps procrastinating on this task and falls for an African beauty who is a mime - "I taste Africa in her. One of the French bits, probably, Senegal, perhaps. Sierra Leone. Guinea-Bissau" (p. 98). Yet Rod does not know she is a mime, yet could have. Early in the discussion, Pharsin offers information about his wife, '"Is she in the arts too, your wife?", he responds "Yeah. She does ____" But Pharsin's monosyllable was quite cancelled by city stridor' (p. 95). So Rod never heard that she does mime. Had he heard it, it is unlikely the tryst would have transpired. Brilliant stuff. They have great sex, but she never says a word (for fear that her lower class accent will put him off). One day, Pharsin gets so fed up waiting for Rod to review his book, that he barges into his apartment. One problem, Cassie is there. One bigger problem, she is also Mrs. Pharsin Courier. She remains undetected, while Pharsin finally hears what he wants to hear from Rod about his book by suggesting the contents to Rod ever so subtly and inadvertently - "And so, for forty-five minutes, always a beat late, he somehow sang along with a song he didn't know" (p. 120). This close call puts a damper on the relationship, but she manages to abscond with money Rod had in his stuffed mattress. She meets him years later in London, he realizes she's English ! Rod's friend Rock suggests that he was set up, but "It was all pure...coincidence" (p. 123).

The story "Heavy Water" is about an aging working-class mother and her mentally handicapped 41-year old son, John, on a cruise in the Mediterranean, ending in an attempted (botched) suicide. It was first published in the New Statesman (1978), the year Amis' former lover Lamorna Seale hanged herself. The story was revised in 1997 for the book. This story is virtually ignored in the book reviews but Diedrick (op. cit.) devotes 6 pages to it's analysis, focusing on the politics and moral crudities of the passengers (Labour Party members and bosses, two years before they were booted out of office for the next 18 years) and trade union leaders who betray their party's principles, a motley crew adrift on an aimless voyage.

"The Janitor on Mars" is about a Martian robot that reveals some "inconvenient truths" (pun intended) about life on earth, "tripwired to make contact" (p. 144) at the appropriate time. The Martians, it seems, were advanced, but now extinct, realizing that they were mere pawns in a chain of ever more incomprehensibly superior entities. Peering deep into the future "Nobody's interested in art. They're interested in what everybody else is interested in: the superimposition of will" (p. 169). Blown up to "comically cosmic proportions," this is Amis' take on life (Miller in Salon), "an inescapable pecking order." "Just what the hell is this tripwire thing?" (p. 172). That's where Al Gore comes in, you see, earth has passed the point of no return environmentally. It's time to warn the natives.

"Straight Fiction" is concerned with the misgivings of the majority gay population, who struggle with their issues about heterosexuality, over home-cooked dinners of "Parma ham confit with pomegranate, papaw, papaya, and pomelo," (p. 185) and react to a growing vocal element of heterosexuals in bohemian places like Greenwich Village and the Castro district. Cleve is a serial monogamist with relations with Grainge (intellectual) (p. 185), Orv (muralist)(p. 175), Grove (bijouterist)(p. 182), Kico (disk jockey)(p. 183), Harv (chinoiserist)(p. 187), and Irv (ex-convict), but he meets a straight woman Cressida in a book store. He falls in love with her, consumed by the "straight plague" (p. 192), much to his own consternation and the chagrin of his gay mates.

The narrator of "What Happened to Me on My Holiday" is Amis' son; details and names, including that of the dead boy, Elias, and Amis' wife, Isabel, are unchanged. Winik says "I think it is the most emotionally intense piece of writing Martin Amis has ever done." The story is dedicated to, Elias Fawcett (who died in 1996), Louis' step-brother, son of Amis' first wife, Antonia Phillips. The story is written in a dense dialect, a transliteration of the way the British narrator thinks Americans sound. "My mum is Amerigan and my dad is English. I go do zgool in Longdon and my bronunziation is English -- glear, even vaindly Agzonian, the zame as my dad's. ... Amerigans zeem to zuzbegd thad the English relags and zbeeg Amerigan behind glozed doors. Shouding oud, on their return, 'Honey, I'm home!'" (p. 199). For example, "vaindly Agzonian" is "faintly Oxonian," etc. The story is hard to read, but as the narrator says, "I tell it thiz way -- in zargazdig Ameriganese -- begaz I don'd wand id do be glear: do be all grisp and glear. There is this zdrange resizdanze. There is this zdrange resizdanze" (pp. 199-200). Diedrick comments "The story's language embodies its recognition that the hard facts of life and death resist the most artful attempts to make sense of them."

The story takes place in "Horzeleej Band" (p. 201), Horseleech Pond (South of Wellfleet), "Gabe Gad" (p. 200), referenced in Experience (pp. 254, 269). Amis' Long Island summer hangouts are also mentioned, "Eazd Hambdon" (p. 200) (East Hampton) and "Wainzgadd" (p. 204) (Wainscott). Without telling us very much about the dead boy, but by describing the antics of a "liddle four-year-old 'guzzen' Bablo," (p. 202) he is able to tell us everything he knows about death and danger: about crab races, and swimming without floaties, and about Pablo's belief that he can bring a dead fish back to life with "vish gream," (p. 206) about looking over and seeing no brother in a twin bed, "Begaz one fine day you gan loog ub vram your billow and zee no brother in the dwin bed. You go around the houze, bud your brother is nowhere to be vound" (pp. 207-208). Winik is elegant "By the time you reach the end of this story, your guard is so far down that it will hit you just as deep as a story can go."

Anticipating Yellow Dog, Amis refers to "category errors" in relation to Pablo's slips "My dad galls these vunny zlibs of Bablo's "gadegory errors" (p. 203). See YD blog post for the meaning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

When Charlie Rose (, 11/18/03) asks Martin Amis to explain what Yellow Dog is about, he says the book is a comic novel about the paradox of masculinity, that male insecurity leads to violence, and that each of the story lines reflects a crisis in masculinity. He also addresses the "obscenification of everyday life" (pp. 12, 335). M.A. says in the same interview that he started this project in earnest on September 12, 2001 in a post-9/11 world. This was Amis' first novel since The Information (1995), having written two memoirs subsequently [Experience (2000) and Koba the Dread (2002)]. With few exceptions, this novel was panned by critics, especially in the UK, where the attack was on the order of a national exorcism. Critics praised the prose will gagging on the story line. Kim (The New York Times) says "The problem is Amis's intellectualism, which sticks out like a parson at an orgy and shrinks and shrivels whatever it goes near." Cape (The Independent) says "Amis...[is]...the writer best equipped to target the moral atrocities of our age and shout them down in flames with the mighty Kalashnikov of his English prose." The infamous review by fellow novelist Tibor Fischer (The Daily Telegraph) trashed Yellow Dog, despite (or due to) the embargo placed on revealing book details, e.g., "I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo, but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page). It's like your favorite uncle caught in a school playground, masturbating." Casually reading the Amazon reviews, just seems like most readers could not understand it. A little effort is richly rewarded.

The book follows the interconnected threads of four stories, each evolving in a westerly direction, relating to (1) the protagonist, Xan ("xanthic" means yellow) Meo, novelist/actor with a criminal lineage (Mick Meo), who suffers a head injury in a seemingly random act of violence, (2) Henry England IX, vapid monarch, who receives a blackmail threat involving Internet photos of his daughter, Princess Victoria, (3) Clint Smoker, sleazy tabloid journalist who writes a misogynist column called Yellow Dog in the Morning Lark, and (4) the turbulent Flight CigAir 101, in which Royce Traynor's corpse is wreaking havoc even after his death. The glue that connects these threads is Joseph Andrews, career gangster and rival to Xan's father, more to come, as the book hits a crescendo in the final pages where linkages become apparent. A principal theme of the novel is incest, here Amis pushes the limits. Let's examine each of the four story lines.

The opening of the book introduces Hollywood (symbolic of the post 9/11 "world" with its focus on pornography, ersatz celebrity through reality TV shows, and Warholian 15-minute fame) and hospital (where Xan Meo is soon to visit). The metered prose is classic Amis "But I go to Hollywood but I go to hospital, but you are first but you are last, but he is tall but she is small, but you stay up but you go down, but we are rich but we are poor, but they find peace but they find.....Xan Meo went to Hollywood. And, minutes later, with urgent speed, and accompanied by choric howls of electrified distress, Xan Meo went to hospital. Male violence did it" (p. 3). The reader is expected to supply the missing word "war." This opening conjures up the language of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, viz. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom..." So Hollywood is a local bar in London's "Camden Town" (p. 6) and Xan, "47" (p. 8), was out to celebrate the 4-year anniversary of his decree nisi with his ex wife, Pearl O'Daniel (with whom he'd had 2 sons). Xan gets "coshed" (p. 14) on the head by mysterious assailants, out of the blue, clearly resonating with the 9/11 attacks. We later learn the name of the assailant - "Snort" (p. 46), who ends up in prison "for twelve years" (p. 251).

Xan is married to "Russia Tannenbaum" (p. 90), scholar, and he's been a doting father of 2 daughters, Billie and Sophie. Russia studies tyrants, she lectures (p. 140) on Geli Raubal and Eva Braun, both are women who committed suicide and were close to Hitler. He has a book Lucozade (after the sports drink of the same name) that mentions one Joseph Andrews in a story about Las Vegas, but his intention was to mention Tom Jones (the singer). Why the mix up ? They are both titles of Henry Fielding novels ! The bad boy gangster of same name seeks vengeance, assuming this was a reference to himself. Jo has a bad habit of knocking up his buddies' wives, a fact that is key to Xan's own DNA - "If I did have a regrettable habit, back then, it was that: giving me mates' wives one" (p. 262). His own wives seemed to die on him, two from suicide (p. 262), compare to Raubal and Braun. Jo solicits the help of Cora Susan, daughter to Leda (Xan's sister) because Mick Meo had crippled her father (Damon, who abused her sexually). Fleshing out this story line to the book's conclusion, under the pseudonym of Karla White, a porn actress, Cora lures Xan to California, and tries to seduce him to no avail. Xan is there to confront Andrews, from whom he learns that Andrews is his biological father. Jo produces Xan's birth certificate and convinces him that Mick Meo was in prison 9 mos earlier (p. 301), at the time Jo exercised his "bad habit."

The recurring theme of male violence is naturally introduced in the opening pages, as we see in the opening lines above. Amis rather glibly refers to the concept of "category error" in his Charlie Rose interview as it applies to male violence. This is a semantic or ontological (based upon existence) error by which a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. "Violence, triumphally outlandish and unreal, is an ancient category-error - except to the violent. The error having been made, both men would know that from here on in it was endocrinological: a question of gland-management" (p. 13). This concept of "in the DNA" is highly relevant to Xan Meo's devolution to a Neanderthal subsequent to his head trauma, he exercises his atavistic self, before he ultimately exorcises the same. Russia points out that Xan will suffer from " can get hooked on certain words or ideas....There's also a touch of Witzelsucht, or inappropriate humour" (p. 136). Russia tires of his animal lust from "Post-Traumatic Satyriasis" (p. 138), there was many a night when "he invaded Russia" (p. 140). Vengeance is intrinsic to violence, an "eye-eye" (p. 263) attitude permeates the book in such phrases as "enemies' enemies" (p. 133), "For this, that. For that, this" (p. 337).

In the 2nd story line, Henry IX (Hal, or Hotty) is the imaginary reigning monarch and is modeled after Harry, "Prince of Wales" (p. 16), suggesting the book takes place in the not-to-distant future. Hal sings "My Old Man's a Dustman" (p. 16), a song sung in real life by Princess Margaret (sister of QE II). His wife Pamela eventually succumbs to an equestrian accident, but Hal is quick to engage the services of a "greatgranddaughter of concubines" (p. 21) an exotic mistress, He Zizhen. Note "He" is pronounced "her." Amis has fun with the androgyny inherent in the forename - "He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He" (p. 22). At one point, Hal uses the royal "we" in "we will enter He" (p. 121). His 15-year old daughter, Victoria, is headed for scandal when a nude video is released to the press, filmed at Yellow House (part of a vacation château at Cap d'Antibes) (pp. 55, 84). Other "actors" in that film clip turn out to be very close to home. Henry's attendant, Brendan Urquhart-Gordon (nicknamed "Bugger", meaning homosexual, who chose chastity over "the reification of his schoolyard nickname" (p. 84)) is very close to the Princess. Contemplating the porn film imbroglio, he wonders "Is pornography just filmed prostitution or is it something more gladiatorial ?...Gladiators were slaves. But could win their freedom. What exactly has happened to you ? he asked himself. Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse. If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body..." (p. 259). These lines are from Shakespeare's King Lear. More importantly, they also appear at the end of the Beatles' "I am the Walrus" (see _Beatles:I_Am_The_Walrus for the extended lyrics including the BBC radio production of King Lear audible in the background). Ultimately, Jo Andrews conspires with He to obtain the tape and blackmail the authorities to return to Britain. Jo is a sentimental gangster and misses "the sound of leather on willow at the village green" (p. 312). We are talking cricket here - leather (the ball) and willow (the bat). The king and princess abdicate, abolishing the monarchy. So much for Victoria's secret !

In the 3rd story line, Clint Smoker, star reporter for the downscale tabloid the Morning Lark, is writing articles wreaking havoc on the "wankers" who read the rag. In a hilarious scene, he runs an article on "Readers' Richards" (p. 71) and includes a 12-inch ruler "renumbered to make it look like a six-inch ruler. Soon after dawn it started coming in: word of the Black Thursday suicides" (p. 70). Clint is working to fabricate a scandal with Ainsley Car, has-been footballer that involves Car's wife, Beryl, catching him in flagrante delicto with Lark staffer Donna Strange. His boss, Desmond Heaf (p. 26) suggests that Clint launch 'the byeline 'Yellow Dog' (photo of snarling pariah)" (p. 203). Although he talks a good game, Clint is sexually dysfunctional, he has "a little problem" (p. 30). He gets involved in a texting relationship with "cyberpal" (p. 44) k8 (Kate). She is sympathetic to his shortcoming "it's not size th@ m@ters, clint. it's love th@ m@ters" (p. 103). Many of her text messages populate the novel, one stands out and the line "r u o fait with the poetry of ezra £?" has been commented on as a clever six-word story (see in a blog by Lezard entitled "Six words can't tell good stories" (just google it). k8 says:
my only 1: thank u so much 4
your e of consol8ion. i don't no y,
but things are clearer now. it feels as
if a gr8 w8 has been lifted from
me. Even as my father lies in st
&drew's, f8ally unwell...u no
what i'm thinking? i think i'm
4lling in love with u, clint. yes u,
and no 1 else. u, clint! u, u, u! r u
o fait with the poetry of ezra £? as
i transmitted this, i thought of the
lines: '& now i bring the boy in,
on his knees, & send this 1,000
miles, thinking.' i'm mad 4 u, clint,
come 2 me on your return. only
when u & i r 1 will i feel truly @
peace. 10derly, k8.
ps: i vener8 yellow dog. i lite c&les
to yellow dog. i make a god of
yellow dog.

The Ezra Pound lines are from Exiles Letter. Note 'o fait' is 'au fait' in French, meaning proficient in. Just after meeting her for the first time, "His first thought was: Shelley. The undulant frizz of hair..." (p. 326). This is actually a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley, famous poet, known to have an androgynous appearance. In a hilarious text, he discovers that k8 is a transsexual. Here it is -

'1st, the $64,000?, clint: 6. u needn't worry. It'll be a relief 4 u 2 no this: i'e never had a ., clint.'
'A what?...Period?'
'I've never had a ., clint. that's y i was so tickled th@ u seemed 2 want 2 initi8 a deb8 about children. as if i want a br@! '
'And I'm relieved, am I ?'
'4 you're not th@ way inclined, r u, clint.'
'Why do you say that?'
'y?' in scribendo veritas, yellow dog. it's all in h&, clint. i've been under the nife. but not 2 destroy - 2 cre8! i've got tits & a 2l, clint. they do an operation where they w.'
'What did I hear you say to me ?'
'They w, clint....clint, what r u thinking ? said k8.

Cute pun, "they w" (they double you!). In scribendo veritas is found in Amis' memoirs (Experience, p. 337). It can be translated as " I tell you truth by writing." He's not keen on the "tranny" and is enraged and heads to confront Andrews, who he suspects is tied with k8. Clint kills Andrews and his henchman, Simon Finger.

The 4th story line is elusive for most readers. There are some subtle references in the opening chapter to the Royce Trayner saga. Most readers miss the tie-ins. Looking up, Xan spots a plane in distress and notes "a descending aeroplane can sound a warning note: one did so, above - an organ chord, signalling its own doom" (p. 10). The notion of turbulence is also at ground level "A ragged and bestial turbulence, in fact, a rodeo of wind - the earth trying to throw its riders" (p. 9). This image will return in the final paragraphs of the book. Also, in the opening chapter we are tipped off that yellow is the color of illness (think jaundice). Before entering the bar, Xan "sniffed the essential wrongness of the air, with its fucked-up undertaste, as if all the sequiturs had been vacuumed out of it. A yellow world of faith and fear..." (p. 10).

Description of Flight CigAir 101 on Valentine's Day (Feb 14), encountering "slipstream turbulence" (p. 59) between the hours of 9:05am and 6:27pm, is interspersed among the other story lines throughout the book. The flight number echoes Orwell's 1984 torture chamber in Room 101. Widower Reynolds Traynor is repatrioting the body of her husband Royce to Houston (p. 32). However, she is having an affair with Captain John Macmanaman ("if they get through this alive, she was going to make him marry her" (p. 331). The casketed corpse of Royce Traynor seems to be full of life and contributing to the plane's malfunction. The casket shifts into position to carry out it's mission - "He rolled on his side and pitched up against a rank of canisters marked HAZMAT (Hazardous Material): Class B and Class C-3 dynamite propellants and rocket motors for fighter-aircraft ejection seats" (p. 131). "Extreme turbulence would be needed before Royce could make his ext move...Like the past, he was dead and gone. But Royce was still hard and heavy with it..." (p.175). This resonates with Amis' rendition of Joseph Stalin in Korba the Dread. who still was able to contribute to the deaths of many from his coffin. Eventually, he frees himself from the plane. "Decompression, explosive decompression, was what he wanted to bring about, and the collapse, the catastrophic strangulation, of the cabin floor, with all its tubes and veins and arteries. Most proximately, the blown door would mean his own escape (he would be the first to go), his martyrdom, after death" (p. 281). He aspires to be linked with suicide bombers and pilots.

The incendiary theme of incest figures in each story thread. After his head trauma, Xan acts differently towards his daughters. Contemplating negatives in his life, he notes "The worst thing had to do with Billie" (p. 145), a harbinger of his sexual feelings towards his daughter. There is a fascinating little scene where Billie says "I went out to the shed where Daddy was and we saw the fox on the roof...I couldn't breath. Daddy hugged me too hard" (pp. 173, 215). The fox on the roof is a reference to the composer Darius Milhaud's (sounds like Meo) "The Ox on the Roof." At night he worries about the safety of his daughters. "I can't protect them. They're mine, and I can't protect them. So why not rend them ? Why not rape them ?" (p. 217). Xan embraces his atavistic self when he says "Look at the future. Us, us victims, we're not so frightened and repelled by the way the world is now: the end of normalcy. We always knew there was no moral order. So sleep with Billie, and introduce her to the void" (p. 236). In a grotesque extension of male privilege he says "'If you wanted to sexualize your relationship with your daughter - she'd go along with it. What else can she do?' This had proved to be a terrible transmission: de-enlightenment. He wished he could forget this; he wished, in Billie's phrase,that he didn't know again. Her power, her rights (which depended on what ? Civilization?) had seemed to disappear; and his power, his rights - they had corrosively burgeoned" (p. 252). Other characters carry the trauma of incest with them. Cora Susan reveals to Xan that "Between the age of six and nine, inclusive, my father raped me once day" (p. 235). There is also an incestuous inference to Henry IX and his daughter. "Subliminally, in his dreams, it worried him. The sexual coincidence: himself, in the Château, with the otherness of He in his arms; and, across the lawn, the Princess surprised in the Yellow House" (p. 87). Victoria responds in a letter of hers by saying "May I close with a few quotations from your letter ? 'Thoroughly rotten...It's my poor character...Sweetheart...let us be in this together.' Uh-huh? "I dare not close my eyes for fear of what I may see.' Oh go on and close them. It's nothing you haven't seen before. I didn't ask to be born. (p. 202).

The novel ends on an upbeat note when Xan sees his daughter Sophie (greek for wisdom) walking for the first time. He has an epiphany of her birth, "and the zigzag, the frantic scribble of the heart-monitor (experience of Amis' own daughter Fernanda) as Sophie toiled within. He was already crying when she came (as he had cried when the boys came): not because of what they faced but because of what they had already suffered, all alone and at their smallest. And minutes later, when Sophie came, for the first time in his life he was contemplating the human vulva with a sanity that knew no blindspots..." In the end, his daughter helps him regain his moral vision and humanity. After reading his daughter's

Amis manages to squeeze in his incendiary comments about the post 9/11 milieu - "Anyone who looks remotely Arab should have their lives made an absolute torment for the rest of the century" (p. 161).

"Rictus" sighting (p. 128). Amis uses the word "epithalamium" several times in the book, a word he may have learned in Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (p. 124).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Einstein's Monsters by Martin Amis

Martin Amis has written (1987) a polemical essay and 5 potent short stories dealing with nuclear weapons in a manner in which could only have been conceived by him. Some of these short stories paved the way for his future novels, e.g., Time's Arrow. In the Author's Note, he states "Einstein's Monsters, by the way, refers to nuclear weapons but also to ourselves. We are Einstein's Monsters, not fully human, not for now." This is a book about nuclear anxiety.

In the Introduction, entitled "Thinkability", he starts out in a marvelous fashion "I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had. I didn't really make the most of them. I spent half the time under a bubble. Even as things stood, I was born in a state of acute shock. My mother says I looked like Orson Wells in a black rage. By the fourth day I had recovered, but the world had taken a turn for the worse. It was a nuclear world" (p. 1). Amis explores the twisted logic behind nuclear arsenals. "What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons ? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons ? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons ? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons ? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can't get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons" (pp. 2-3).

Martin and his famous father Kingsley have long disagreed on nuclear weapons. "I argue with my father about nuclear weapons. In this debate, we are all arguing with our fathers. They emplaced or maintained the status quo...My father regards nuclear weapons as an unbudgeable given" (pp. 13-14). However, one notion père and fils shared was to "épater les bien-pensants" (p. 15) (shock the right-minded), I did say polemical. The notion of thinkability implies that earlier generations actually felt that winning a nuclear war was thinkable. "Let no one think that it is thinkable (p. 16). Wat to know what nuclear winter would be like ? "Mars gives us a plausible vision of a postnuclear world. It is vulcanized, oxidize, sterilized. It is the planet of war" (p. 21). Each of the 5 stories below imagines a different "unthinkable" post-nuclear future.

"Bujak and the Strong Force" is highly allegorical. The time is 1985, the narrator is a Jew named Samson (a foreshadowing of London Fields) whose ancestors were killed in concentration camps, who has abandoned writing, yet "This is the only story I'll ever tell, and this story is true" (p 38). Samson's Japanese wife Michiko, lost relatibes in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Bujak is a neighbor and patriarch, a widower who lives with his mother Roza, hus daughter Leokadia, and his granddaughter Boguslawa. The neighborhood referred to the the muscular Bujak in nuclear terms, as a "deterrent" (p. 41). Nevertheless, he returns from a trip to find his family murdered (his own personal holocaust), two vagrants asleep in his home, but he refrains from killing them. Deciding not to kill them, he fails to fulfill the reader's expectation. From Bujak's standpoint "All peculiarly modern ills, all fresh distortions and distempers, Bujak attributed to one thing: Einsteinian knowledge, knowledge of the strong force" (p. 46). Bujak's explanation is also that of Amis, it is the "hidden denominator" (p. 48). Samson recalls Bujak as "Einsteinian to the end, Bujak was an Ocillationist claiming that the Big Bang will forever alternate with the Big Crunch, that the universe will expand only until unanimous gravity called it back to start again. At that moment, with the cosmos turning on its hinges, light would begin to travel backward, received by the stars and pouring from our human eyes. If, and I can't believe it, time would also be reversed..." (pp. 58-59). A few details follow that are consequent to time reversal, laying the foundation for Time's Arrow.

"Insight at Flame Lake" is alternately narrated by12-year old schizophrenic Dan, whose father, a nuclear physicist ("one of the Fathers of the nuclear age," p. 68) committed suicide, and his uncomprehending uncle Ned, who invited Dan to spend the Summer at the lake with his wife Fran and newborn daughter Hattie. Dan stops his meds and becomes delusional, and is convinced that the baby can talk ("I don't think that Fran or Ned suspects for a moment that the baby can talk" (p. 73) and that "the baby has schizophrenia" (p. 70). In the end, Dan takes his own life, Ned fails to recognise the hopeless world of "distortions and malformations" (p.68) that Dan inherited, leaving him few options besides suicide. One can make the case that since Dan's "urine contains bufotenine, a chemical originally isolated from toad venom" (p. 68) and passed on genetically from his father, an inherited form of nuclear-aggravated schizophrenia led to Dan's death.

"The Time Disease" is the first postapocalyptic story in the book. The nuclear exchanges that have led to nuclear winter have led to the eponymous epidemic in which the aging process is reversed, restoring energy and vitality. People are dying of youth. "Twenty-twenty, and the time disease is epidemic...We all think about time, catching time, coming down with time" (p. 80). In this inverted world, feeling of any kind causes pain. It is a world of numbness, endlessly boring TV shows and books, reminds me of people riding the commuter trains home from work, expressionless. The short story focuses on the TV-producer narrator's (Lou Goldfader) ex-wife, Happy Farraday, a leading Daydrama star, who is taken ill with the disease. Naturally, she seduces him, yet at the story's close "I show no signs of coming down with time" (p. 97).

In "The Little Puppy That Could" Amis, employing a very saccharine tone, plays on the myth of Andromeda, who was to be bound and sacrificed to a sea monster, only to be saved by Perseus. The young girl in the story, Briana, changes her name to Andromeda. In this postapocalyptic world, where villagers possess "no deep memory" (p. 118), the village is terrorized by a homovorous dog, who feasts on humans once a week, acting as a "Natural Selector" (p. 126). This monstrous hell-hound oozes "saliva...capable of dissolving human bones" (p. 110). Andromeda takes in a puppy that "seems to have wandered off the pages of a children's story, recalling "The Little Engine That Could" (Diedrick). The puppy is the "antimatter or Antichrist" (p. 129) to the dog. A weekly lottery to choose a sacrificial human results in Andromeda "going to the dog." Ultimately, the puppy (Perseus) outmaneuvers the dog, yet both vanish in the flames, as matter and antimatter. R. Falconer (N. Tredell, The Fiction of Martin Amis), makes the case that the puppy acts spontaneously while the dog does so by habit. But spontaneity is associated with genetic memory. The puppy wins its victory when its memory is aroused. A post-apocalyptic time reversal is implicit - "Many human beings...were mildly dismayed to find themselves traveling backward down their evolutionary flarepaths" (p. 109), playing to the puppy's advantage.

In this story of a post-holocaustal future where the sexual status quo has been deformed, men have become interchangeable - Tim and Tam and Tom (p. 118) - subject to the role of monstrous matriarchs, who demand to be pleasured. Now that fertility is a scarce commodity, the world is held hostage by the womb, not the penis. A. Mars-Jones (N. Tredell, Op. cit.), points out that this inversion is a testimonial to the author's revulsion at a world of women with male privileges. At the end of the story, Andromeda, in the form of transformed puppy, has found herself a real man "his arms were strong and warlike as he turned and led her into the cool night. They stood together on the hilltop and gazed down on their new world" (p. 134). A. Mars-Jones adds "The Bomb has made men effeminate and women repellently assertive. Now a proper polarization of the sexes will make possible some sort of renewal."

"The Immortals" is the last story, where "Apocalypse happened in the year A.D. 2045" (p. 139). The narrator, one of the last human survivors of a nuclear holocaust, is indestructible, a permanent observer of the cycle of human history who witnesses its final achievements of autodestruction. In the words of D. Profumo (N. Tredell, Op. cit.), "Cynical, sophisticated, and blase, he seems to enjoy the god's-eye view of the Wandering Jew, Orlando, or a Struldbrugg. But it transpires that this is all a hallucination suffered by a "second-rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now painfully and noisily dying of solar radiation along with everybody else" (p. 148). This is a world that embodies the death of all children, past and future.

Death of children is a common theme in Einstein's Monsters - the murder of Bujak's granddaughter, the suicide of Dan, the near-deaths of Hattie and Andromeda. Falconer observes that Amis plants a surprise twist in each story: Bujak does not kill the murderers, Dan does not kill Harriet, the 'time disease' is youth, the puppy becomes a human being, the immortal is not so.