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.

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