Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dead Babies by Martin Amis

Twenty-five years after this book was written, Amis would describe in his ambitious novel The Information, the books written by the protagonist Richard Tull: "Aforethought was first person, Dreams Don't Mean Anything strictly localized third; both nameless, the I and the he were author surrogates...." (p. 125). That "localized third" narrative is this book, Dead Babies (1975). It is his sophomore effort in what is loosely referred to as the "Apprentice Trilogy." I have to say that this is a great book, the reader sensing a Ten Little Indians-type of doomed ending. An epigraph from the 3rd-century satirist Menippus alerts the reader that this will be a Menippean satire. Ultimately, the story is about country cottage carnage. Diedrick (Understanding Martin Amis) reveals that the phrase "Dead Babies," which refers to a variety of humanist beliefs that most members of the group have declared defunct, is derived from Swift's Modest Proposal, which calls for the killing and eating of Irish babies.

The story takes place over three days at the estate of Giles Coldstream, the Appleseed Rectory (think flower power gone to seed, Apple resonates with the Beatles) and involves ten characters suffering from "street sadness...and cancelled sex" (pp. 20, 96, 133, 162, 182). Amis lists the characters at the front of the book, dividing them into 3 groups (6 residents: Appleseeders, 3 Americans, and 2 Others). Each character's bio appears scattered throughout the 72 chapters of the book, viz. Quentin (Renaissance man, parents killed in plane crash, book reviewer for Yes, a career (p.38) that echos the author)(chap. X) and Celia (chap. L) Villiers, Andy Adorno (abandoned by mother)(chap. LX), Giles Coldstream(wealthy hypochondriac fearful of losing his teeth, has oedipal complex (p. 108)) (chap. XXX), Keith Whitehead ("court dwarf", drug tester (p. 20), Rabelaisian descriptions of his obesity abound (pp. 129-130), only gets respect from the Tuckles (p. 45), period of insanity in asylum - Blishner Institute) (chap. XL), Diana Parry (socialite born of wealthy divorcees, promiscuous for whom "two-night stands were...a rarity" (p. 68) meets Andy in Ronda, Spain, sanest of the Appleseeders) (chap. XX), Marvell Buzhardt (Jewish intellectual and hedonist, virtual "pharmacist" for the weekend, author of The Mind Lab)(chap. 11), Skip Marshall (gay, father raped him (p. 52) and murdered mother in Tennessee (p. 54), found in Arizona roadside ditch by Roxeanne and Marvell) (chap. 15), Roxeanne Smith (of perfect body), Lucy Littlejohn (a hooker, note the surname)(chap. 7), and Johnny (joker who terrorizes Diana (p. 81), Keith (p. 129), Giles (p. 148), Celia (pp. 173, 176), Skip (p. 204, enabled at p. 145), ...)(chap. LXX). The Americans are a threesome or a "troy" (pp. 11, 52), as in ménage à trois, that Keith met "when I toured the States last year" (p. 128).

The authorial persona appears occasionally to remind the reader of his control over the other eleven. Regarding Keith, "Well, we're sorry about it, Keith, of course, but we're afraid that you simply had to be that way. Nothing personal, please understand - merely in order to serve the designs of this particular fiction" pp. 146-147), designs being the Menippean satire.

The book spans 3 days. The neurosis of each character is traced to the Oedipal triangle (Giles' mother's sexual advances, Skip's mother murdered by his father). Very little of the sex talk is consummated, despite some amusing efforts. At one point, Andy says "'I think I Mailered her, actually---up her bum'," (p. 29) poking fun at our American author with a little porno taxonomy. Also "sexual lassitude and disgust seemed to be everywhere among the young, and two-night stands were becoming a rarity" (p. 68). The funniest is a scene where Andy's romancing of Diana gets derailed - "'Then they just let go, and the earth soars up and - AW, MY RIG!' Andy backed off, half doubling over. 'The, my fuckin' snake!'" (p. 71). Amis makes a statement when the group is immediately bored by a porn film (p. 165) but captivated by the eroticism of another film based on Hollywood decorum (p. 166).

Early on, we learn that Quentin has been reading Diderot's Le neveu de Rameau (p. 3), one of the great Menippean satires of the 18th century. Diedrick sets this up nicely. Here Amis provides an intertextual clue to his own narrative. Amis stages dialogues ("those conversations" (chap. 37, pp. 140, 143, 149, 155)) between Marvell and the others echoing the two speakers in Diderot's famous book: one is an unrepentant hedonist, the other clings to the belief that civic virtue is compatible with materialistic hedonism. This all comes to a head in Chap. 37: "Those Conversations." Marvell is the voice of hedonism: "In the seventies...they separated emotion and sex," (p. 122) to which Quentin defends love and monogamy (p. 122), even feudalism (p. 139). Diderot believes hedonism is an outcome of materialism - "'We're ecstatic materialists,' said Andy" (p. 140). Later, "'...perversion is an environment that is now totally man-made, totally without a biology'" (p.154), which resonates with the Marquis de Sade's belief that perversity is Enlightenment's mastery over nature.

Mikhail Bakhtin provides an extended definition of Menippean satire in his book Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics (1974). He writes "the idea...has no fear of the underworld or of the filth of life." As Diedrick states, Amis rubs the reader's face in it where the worst tendencies of the present are exaggerated and projected onto a post-seventies future that has become a theater of cruelty, with the body as its stage. The simulated beating of an aged comedian (part of a guerrilla theater group called the Conceptualists) at the 'Psychologic Revue' (chap. 25) is mirrored in the pain and humiliation the characters visit on one another. This all comes to a head when it is revealed that one member of the party murders those at Appleseed who remain after other group members have taken Giles and Keith to Hospital to no good end. At the end of the day, false evidence is planted to make it look like murderous Conceptualists raided the Rectory. To what degree does the ruthless murder of the weekend assemblage betray the author's wish to exorcise his own generation ? Read the book, those taking safe harbor in certain characters may be surprised.

This is one of only two Amis novels (The Rachel Papers) to become a feature film. It was released in 2000 and called The Mood Swingers in the U.S. It is the directorial debut (and swan song) for William Marsh (American who lived in London), is a faithful adaptation, but appears dated (despite some millennial updating), largely because it took 9 years to raise the funding (see Y. Allen et al., Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors: a Wallflower Critical Guide). The only actor of note was Paul Bettany. The film has a heavy emphasis on the Conceptualists, with Giles watching a news broadcast of their "Gestures" early on.


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    1. I just finished the book and very much enjoyed this review! I needed some sort of grounding after being disappointed with the last 20 pages or so. I found the need for a killer/Conceptualist unnecessary... as Andy Adorno said "we're all dying" (or something to that effect). The idea that anyone in that foggy headed group would be down for blood does not seem to blend with the general zeitgeist of indulgence. Thank you, also, for pointing out Rameau's Nephew, I completely breezed by it - as it was in the last 20 pages and did not pertain to Keith. I plan on reading it next, and might enjoy its Menippean efforts even more than Dead Babies! But it won't have Amis' lexicon laden and uniquely British sense of disgust and futility. That's only Dead Babies territory.

      I also checked out the trailer for the film adaptation and I'm glad that you confirmed what seemed obvious - that the movie stunk largely. The book definitely reads like a film, but a film from 1975. The kids in look way off the mark.