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.