Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Ben Okri was born in Minna, Nigeria in 1959. He studied comparative literature at Essex University. The Famished Road (1991), is dedicated to Grace Okri, the author's mother, and his partner, Rosemary Clunie, a UK painter and print maker. This Man Booker Prize winner has written the classic magical realist novel of West Africa, in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez . The title was taken from a poem by Wole Soyinka (1986 Nobel Prize for Literature) – "May you never walk / When the road waits, famished."

The story, a blend of Yoruba myth and postcolonial postmodernity, is set on the eve of independence of Nigeria in 1960. In Yoruba thought, death is not the end of life; it is rather a transition from one form of existence to another. Its narrator is Azaro, a "spirit-child,'' an abiku, a famished baby of ambiguous existence, who is destined to die in infancy and be reborn to the same mother over and over again. Okri describes Azaro's struggle to resist his fate and to survive with his family hunger, disease, and violence. The story is simultaneously situated in the world of dream, of those waiting to be born, of dead. Azaro's spirit-companions are constantly trying to pull him back into their world. Azaro's father undergoes a series of mythic battles and his mother keeps the family together with her courage and hard work. The sinister shaman Madame Koto, whose bar Azaro visits, degenerates with her corrupt deals. Finally Azaro must choose between pains of mortality and the land of spirits.

The 500-page novel is made up of 8 Books. The Famished Road is told in the 2nd person from Azaro's point of view. To get a sense of the book's scope, it is interesting to summarize the action:

SECTION ONE. Book One: "In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry" (p. 3). So begins the book. Lazaro speaks on behalf of the other spirit-children or abiku when he says "There was not one amongst us who looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see." (p. 3). The spirits lure him out of his body and he finds himself in a coffin, presumed dead. on recovery his name is shortened to Azaro. An herbalist offers to sever Azaro's connection to the spirit world, but his parents could not afford the ceremony (p. 8). His colorful entanglements with the 'other side' fill much of the book. Azaro had made a promise to return, which will haunt him later. Azaro learns to ignore spirits camouflaged as normal people. Azaro makes contact with Madame Koto (p. 47), local bar owner.

Book Two: Azaro befriends Madame Koto and spends his time at the bar, but she worries that he brings bad luck. She hangs a fetish to remedy the situation. As a result, many new clients arrive (mostly spirits). Azaro is kidnapped by two albino spirits at the bar. Azaro escapes in the marsh. Politicians (Party of the Rich) come to the village and hand out free powdered milk. The milk was tainted and the sick villagers revolt. Azaro realizes the fetish is attracting spirits. He steals the fetish and buries it in the forest. Azaro wanders into the city only to discover his father working as a salt porter: "My wanderings had at last betrayed me, because for the first time in my life I had seen one of the secret sources of my father's misery" (p. 149). His father is ashamed at his discovery. Thugs from the Party of the Rich return and wreak havoc. Theme of good vs. evil begins.

Book Three: Madame Koto's bar is expanding. Azaro saw a girl in the bar that Madame Koto could not see. The spirit girl kept blowing out his match (p. 209). Thugs from the Party of the Rich promised to get Madame Koto electricity. Madame Koto starts to place greed and power over what is right. Azaro returns home to witness blood and machete marks at their home. Azaro has a vision of his mother dying. He feels his 3rd eye opening (p. 229). Azaro's father schemes to borrow money from Madame Koto to pay the rent. Azaro recognizes the poisoned milk distributor at the bar. Azaro slept and woke to find a frightening mask. He stared through it to see a different world (p. 245). He returned to the clearing where he buried the fetish. A tree had grown there, which he climbed and wore the mask to see the world change drastically. A giant approached. The mask stuck to his face. The beast attacked him, he lost the mask, and the beast crushed it.

Azaro's father tells story (p. 258) of the "King of the Road." The king would eat travelers who did not make food sacrifices to him (not unlike Amis' short story The Little Puppy That Could in Einstein's Monsters). People set out to poison him and it made the king go mad and eat himself until only his stomach was left. The stomach became part of all the roads and the king was still out there waiting and hungry.

Book Four: Koto upgrades the bar with a gramophone machine, Azaro thinks it is a spirit box. Prostitutes and many spirits start to populate the bar. Azaro wandered the woods and saw a white man giving orders to workers hooking up electricity. The white man kills a lizard (p. 278), considered bad luck. Thugs attack Azaro's father because of his politics. The rainy season arrives. A pit opens up and swallows the white man giving orders, his arrogance sealed his fate (p. 288). Ironically, the white man thought they were the real Kings. At the bar a 3-headed spirit tells Azaro to shut his eyes. He could still see (3rd eye) (p. 298). The 3rd eye is considered to be the eye to look into the spirit world and into one's self. The mystical hidden eye made Azaro a much more powerful person. The spirits pressure Azaro to return to the spirit world and keep his promises (made in Book One). Azaro refuses and is told to expect a 4-headed spirit to come for him next.

Book Five: Azaro's father has decided to train to be a boxer. Azaro gets into more trouble with the spirits and his father beats him senseless. Azaro stops eating and he "began to leave the world" (p. 325). He retreats further to punish his parents as they stand vigil next to his bed. The 3-headed spirit joined him on the 4th day. Azaro follows the spirit against his better judgement because he is mad at his parents. He came to a valley with ever-changing colors. The spirit explained the meaning of Heaven. His father's shouts materialized as a storm. His mother wept and houses flooded (p. 331). They approached a great river, a ferryman wants them to cross. Azaro's father had an herbalist at his bedside and cut a chicken and let it bleed on Azaro (p. 339). The spirit let out a scream, started losing heads, and died. Azaro wakes up to elated parents.

In this book, Azaro has the ability and knowledge that he can return to the spirit world to "live" and physically "die." he makes the active decision to bear out life's difficulties despite the other easy way out. his effort to spite his parents was reckless as his return was a close call (the herbalist had to intervene). Although his parents were at his bedside, he was worlds away. Okri beautifully captures the symbolism between the parents actions (yelling, crying) and what happens in the spirit world.

SECTION TWO. Book Six: Azaro's father became obsessed with boxing and called himself Black Tyger. His appetite grew and Azaro and his mom had to eat less. Azaro noted in the darkness, floating yellow eyes were watching his father shadow boxing. The yes went into a swamp and Yellow Jaguar emerged to challenge Azaro's father. They engaged in a massive fight, trading advantages. Azaro cried out "USE YOUR POWER" (p. 357) and eventually his father won. He said that a man named Yellow Jaguar had been a famous boxer in the area. Azaro realized that his father had beaten a boxer from the spirit world (p. 358). His father was disappointed that no one had seen the fight. As son of a powerful spirit priest, Azaro's father does not take advantage of his power until this point in the novel.

Azaro saw a shadow that turned into a boy, Ade (p. 369). They became friends. Madame Koto bought a car and would careen around the neighborhood wildly. Her bar began to serve beer, higher class than palm wine (p. 383). Azaro's father challenged 7 men to a fight at once and beat all of them. His notoriety grew. Thugs came by his house with the Green Leopard (p. 393), a former boxing champion. A blind man distracted the father during the fight. A large crowd had placed their bets on the Green Leopard. Again, Azaro's father found the will to win, despite the pummeling he took. The father went into a deep sleep, and fought a 7-headed spirit who wanted Azaro. Azaro's grandfather had attacked the spirit and cut off two of its heads. The Priest of Roads had freed Azaro's father by taking his place. He used boxing as a channel to the spirit world. Azaro's father started reading classic books like Arabian Nights and the Bible. His father wanted to do something for the downtrodden, because he now had a clear vision of right and wrong. Azaro's father threw a party (p. 413) attended by beggars (led by the beautiful Helen (p. 442)), thugs, and wizards. A melee broke out.

Book Seven: Azaro goes to Madame Koto's to spy on her for his father. He has a vision for the country and wants to discuss politics. A fight breaks out between the thugs and the beggars. Azaro has a vision that 5-headed spirit is coming. Azaro met a female midget at the bar (p. 458). He saw that many of the politicians had goat legs and hoofs for feet. The midget morphed into a 4-headed spirit. A man in a white suit hit Azaro's father. A crowd placed bets against Azaro's father. He could not seem to touch the strange looking man. The blind man again distracts Azaro's father. Ade helps to remove the blind man. Ade had a magic that would not work on someone wearing white (p. 472). Ade and Azaro are kindred spirits. Many spirits liked to "live" in the material world and pretend to be alive. Azaro's father grabs the opponents collar and rips his coat and pants. The man looked inhuman and like an animal. With the loss of his white clothes, the father was able to beat him. Azaro's father was hanging on for life back at the house. Azaro and his mother were both in the father's dream. They awoke and worked to bring back the father's spirit (p. 481).

SECTION THREE. Book Eight: Azaro's father was redreaming the world (p. 492), trying to make it right. He lived out whole lives in other lands. Azaro's father awoke on the 3rd day and said they were protected. Azaro's father's greatest battle was in his head. He fought, lived, died, was born and repeated the process of living in various different lives in the "real" time span of 2 days. The story ends upbeat with the individual able to make the world better.

In this native culture, there is a strong link between the living and the dead. Reincarnation is very real and spirit people can remember earlier lives. Spirit children are misunderstood and feared by common villagers because they communicate with the dead. The close link to the spirit world makes the notion of death more akin to a vacation. It is assumed that souls don't really die; they wander the earth waiting to be reborn in a new body. Okri says "The world is full of riddles that only the dead can answer" (p. 75).

Friday, January 21, 2011

More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow is Martin Amis' favorite author, he virtually worships him, so as an Amis fan, I will be reading some of Bellow's oeuvre. Bellow was born in Quebec, two years after his parents emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia, but spent most of his life in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, soon after Humboldt's Gift was published. Bellow wrote this book (1987) in his eighties, Amis' review of the book appears in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov. Bellow's novels tend to be light on plot - Blades (Chicago Tribune) opines "conversation, not action, is character." He calls Bellow our preeminent "op-ed novelist" whose craft bears fruit in this tragicomedy of Eros. Bellow pokes fun at himself in the novel saying "I've got a scheme for pushing Flora Lewis off the op-ed page and taking her place" (p. 102).

The book takes place in an unnamed (better to say nameless) Midwest Rustbelt (pp. 146, 246) city, although there is a hint that it could be Indianapolis (p. 251). Much of the novel is narrated by the prolix intellectual Kenneth Trachtenberg, suffering from "partial deafness" (p. 47), who has an unnaturally intense reverence for his luftemensche maternal uncle, Benn Crader, botanist (Professor "Chlorophyll" (p. 26)). Ken has emigrated to the U.S. from Paris to be closer to his uncle, but there are early signs of this backfiring: "I had come to America to complete my education, to absorb certain essential powers from Uncle, and I learned presently that he was looking to me for assistance" (p. 92).

Ken is witness to another whose life is more colorful than his. "Adoration" is an understatement of Ken's feelings toward Benn. Ken on Benn "For me he had the "magics"" (p. 23). "Ours was a genuine, I'd say a devouring, friendship" (p. 26). "My only aim was to protect his goddam life" (p. 32). "In some sense he had become my father" (p. 34). The two are both Profs at the local university, Ken a Russian studies expert. Ken and Benn seem to be unable to overcome problems they are having with relationships, especially with strong and "aggressive" (p. 86) women. They are both the walking wounded of the sexual revolution. This is in contradistinction to the notorious philandering father Rudi Trachtenberg, born in "Valparaiso" (p. 24) and living the ex-pat life in Paris as an "outstanding cocksman" (p. 65). "He put on the kind of sex display you see in nature films" (p. 24). "Papa didn't end a ruined débauché...I'm the one with the damages" (p. 35). His sexual inferiority is a "phallic cross I've had to carry" (p. 189). For their part, Ken and Benn view love in a morose fashion: "Except in a melancholy connection, you seldom hear about love anymore" (p. 44).

Ken analyzes to the nth degree ("I was going too far in my speculation" (p. 80)) the passive Benn's misfortunes with women, especially a brief encounter with one Della Bedell, a neighbor, who seduces him (against his will, well he felt it would be unfair to her to resist) after luring him into her apartment to change a light bulb. Later, Benn plans to marry Caroline Bunge, while Ken is in Seattle meeting with his ex-girlfriend Treckie to discuss parenting of their daughter Nancy. Benn makes an "undignified escape" (p. 75) from Caroline by taking Ken on a trip to Kyoto, but the overt sexuality of a strip show sends the two packing back to the Midwest.

Benn's major love interest is the beautiful and wealthy Matilda Layamon. She was well educated with "more degrees than a thermometer" (p. 136). He marries her (albeit without Ken's permission!), Ken is "still sore because he cheated on me - broke the rules of our relationship" (p. 113). They occupy a 1911 Baroque apartment (the Roanoke) which plays prominently in the relation with Matilda. In Ken's words "it's a three-cornered match: Matilda, me and the Roanoke" (p. 154). Benn is drawn into a vortex of scheming around the recovery of a real estate fortune made by Benn's own uncle (Harold Vilitzer) at the expense of Benn's family homestead, ultimately the site of a 102-floor (p.200) skyscraper owned by a Japanese multinational, "Ecliptic Circle Electronics" (p. 44). In the end, Vilitzer dies from a heated discussion prompted by a force discussion with Benn on the topic of repatriating some of the funds to Benn and his sister Hilda. Benn sends his wife ahead to the funeral in Miami and books himself a trip to the North pole for his lichen studies. Ironically, Benn's trip to the North Pole removes him from the "magnetic attraction of anarchy" (p. 330).

Ken indicts the marriage to Matilda, citing Balzac "Balzac very specifically tells you that only children born to wealth make dangerous wives" (p. 48). In general Ken disapproves of Benn's women, calling him " a phoenix who runs after arsonists" (pp. 198-199, 334). And further assessing Benn's "betrayal" - "and Uncle Benn, hitherto eligible to be described as a dear man, even a good man, assisting to the degradation of Love. Love, the very essence of the Divine Spirit" (p. 277). Early in the book, Ken refers to "the fallen state in which our species finds itself" (p. 19). Ultimately, Benn blames himself for losing his connection to his inner self, symbolized by his failure to spot a fake azalea: ' "A stooge azalea - a stand-in, a ringer, an impostor, a dummy, a shill ! I was drawing support for weeks and weeks from the manufactured product. Every time I needed a fix, a contact, a flow, I turned to it. Me, Kenneth ! After all these years of unbroken rapport, to be taken in." He cried this out - I could see it - among all those washers and dryers. "The one thing I could always count on. My occupation, my instinct, mt connection...broken off" ' (p. 300).

Lest the reader forget, Ken has his own problems with women, including Treckie and Dita. He recognizes the analogues in his own life: "All this may appear to be about me. It really isn't; it's about Uncle Benn, the circumstances of his marriage to Matilda Layamon, the struggle with Harold Vilitzer that resulted from it. I bring it forward only as it relates to him. But of course I was affected by these thoughts on the sexual problem and I took part in all of this" (pp. 73-74).

Visiting his mother Hilda in a Somali refugee camp in Tug Wajale (p. 118), Ken laments his lack of success in getting her sympathy for his formulation that "The East has the ordeal of privation, the West has the ordeal of desire" (p. 100). "I suppose I shouldn't have brought my preoccupations to this land of famine and genocide" (p. 101).

Ken is endlessly doting on life's "pain schedule" (pp. 11, 100) where "the hardest items of all have to do with love" (p. 11). Benn's amatory ineptitude is worrisome to Ken. Ken believes Benn "was a sex-abused man" (p. 54), "a woman-battered man" (p. 55). "Benn was a plant artist who was not qualified to be a love artist" (p. 301). In response to a reporter's question about the effects of radiation on plant life, Benn says "I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation" (pp. 87, 241, 315). On love, Benn says to Ken "Your views on love are pretty familiar to me - that everybody is on a separate system" to which Ken replies "The petit système à part" (p. 192). Back on the heartbreak theme "there are no mass movements against heartbreak, and no demonstrations against it in the streets" (p. 197).

Ken also keeps recalling the "long polar night" (pp. 20, 54) theme based on Admiral Byrd's memoir Alone, where those who withstand isolation in small groups for long periods of time really "find each other out...You are hemmed in on every side by your inadequacies" (p. 20). The narrator mentions the Russian labor camps in Kolyma (pp. 20, 100) and Magadan (p. 100) - could this have encouraged Amis to write his Koba the Dread ? Also Ken mentions that in Paris he "used to visit Boris Souvarine, the great biographer of Stalin" (p. 26). Ken keeps quoting the English poet Matthew Arnold "who wrote that he was thirty years old and his heart was three parts iced over" (pp. 72, 128, 278), an image from Ken's mentor in Paris, Yermelov (p. 72).

Benn muses on his own way of seeing the world: "It was Lena who had introduced me to the valuable idea that modes of seeing were matters of destiny, that what is sent forth by the seer affects what is seen. She liked to give the example of Whistler the painter when he was taken to task by a woman who said "I never see trees like that," He told her, "No, ma'am, but don't you wish you could?" (p. 305). Whistler's interlocutor deprives herself of rich and vital pictures of the world. This vignette appears in Owen Barfield's study in anthroposophy, Saving the Appearances (p. 24), a book which influenced Bellow in the writing of Humboldt's Gift.

Bellow's narrator turns a simple fable into a complex meditation. Ken ponders the meaning of life and opines "you have no reason to exist unless you believe you can make your life a turning point" (pp. 68, 188, 247). And later: "I was referring to my Project Turning Point - that, really, conscious existence might be justified only if it was devoted to the quest for a revelation, a massive reversal, an inspired universal change, a new direction, a desperately needed human turning point" (p. 315). ""Useful elucidation" was another weakness of mine" (p. 92). Just maybe all of Ken's thoughts "don't get us anywhere: our speculations are like a stationary bicycle. And this, too, was dawning on me. These proliferating thoughts have more affinity to insomnia than to mental progress. Oscillations of the mental substance is what they are, ever-increasing jitters" (p. 301) Towards the end of the book, regarding Benn's remorse of his uncle's death, Ken learns from Benn that "you can love a man without loving what he did to you" (p.323).

Bellow pokes fun at Ken's expense when Ken stumbles on a passage from German writer E.T.A. Hoffman that parodies Ken's concern for Benn's survival among the American philistines: " 'Oh, Ferdinand, dearest, beloved friend!...what will become of the arts in these rough, stormy times ? Will they not wither like delicate plants that in vain turn their tender heads towards the dark clouds behind which the sun disappeared ?...The children of Nature wallowed in lazy idleness, and the most beautiful gifts she offered them they trampled under foot in stupid wantonness...' " (p. 331).

Bellow defines his own fictional style "if you want to think in America, you also feel an obligation to provide a historical sketch to go with it, to authenticate or legitimize your thoughts. So it's one moment of flashing insight and then a quarter of an hour of pedantry and tiresome elaboration - academic gabble. Locke to Freud with stops at local stations like Bentham and Kierkegaard. One has to feel sorry for people in such an explanatory bind. Or else (a better alternative) one can develop an eye for the comical side of this" (pp. 190-191). Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) opines that in this novel, Bellow may have reached a "turning point" not only in his own career but in the development of the realist novel: a point at which the "primordial person" rather than his alteration by "the conditioning forces," is of crucial interest. In Bellow's own fiction, in any case, it is the "secret" of the human being, his "hidden design," that the novelist's art is increasingly dedicated to unfolding.

The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis

The War Against Cliché (2001) is probably the best choice one could make for the final reading assignment, if intending to read all of Amis' oeuvre, as it spans a huge canon of literature and other media. So here I am - 20 books later on a project that started last June.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America

As the title indicates, this book is highly critical of America, but it is a criticism tempered and somewhat confounded by Amis' complicated Ameriphilia. After all, he has made a habit of sending his characters to America (John Self in Money, the narrator in London Fields, and Richard Tull in The Information; he imports Americans in Dead Babies as well as Rachel's boyfriend in The Rachel Papers). The preoccupation with nuclear destruction carries over from Einstein's Monsters. Diedrick opines that this effort to force a collection of disparate essays to fit a conceptual scheme imposed retrospectively is strained. Such pigeonholing is unnecessary and irrelevant. He warns that these are journalistic articles, "the hack and the whore have much in common: late nights, venal gregariousness, social drinking, a desire to please, simulated liveliness, dissimulated exhaustion- you keep having to do it when you don't feel like it" (p. x). In the introduction to The Moronic Inferno (1986), Amis explains the title's origin:

"I got the phrase 'the moronic inferno', and much else, from Saul
Bellow, who informs me that he got it from Wyndham Lewis.
Needless to say, the moronic inferno is not a peculiarly American
condition. It is global and perhaps internal. It is also, of course,
primarily a metaphor, a metaphor for human infamy: mass, gross,
ever-distracting human infamy. One of the many things I do not
understand about Americans is this: what it is like to be a citizen of a
superpower, to maintain democratically the means of planetary
extinction?" (p. x).

Consider some of his reviews of contemporary authors. In general "British critics tend to regard the Amercan predilection for Big Novels as a vulgar neurosis - like the American predilection for big cars or big hamburgers" (p. 1). Nevertheless, regarding William Burroughs he says "Like many novelists whose modernity we indulge, William Burroughs is essentially a writer of 'good bits' - ironically, Amis has been criticised for insufficient plot. Regarding John Updike's Rabbit trilogy, "Updike toys with plot and incident, then flirtatiously retreats" (p. 156) and "In every sense it constitutes an embarrassment of riches - alert, funny and sensuous, yet also garrulous, mawkish and cranky. Updike often seems wantonly, uncontrollably fertile, like a polygamous Mormon" (p.157). Amis could be easily describing himself (maybe he is). His comments on Philip Roth reveal his own tendencies as well. Amis identifies 3 kinds of Roth women, the "Girl Who Will Do Anything", the "Ball-Breaker", and the "Big Woman" (pp. 42-43). These 3 women are found in London Fields, in Nicola, Hope, and Kath, respectively. The two essays on Saul Bellow form the bookends of this collection. Bellow says "Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything" (p. 202), a phrase applicable to the protagonists in Other People and Money. This line also appears in The Pregnant Widow (p. 364).
Truman Capote represents all that is American excess: "Truman Capote lived the life of an American novelist in condensed and accelerated form. By the age of eight he was a writer, by the age of twelve he was a drunk, by the age of sixteen he was a celebrity, by the age of forty he was a multimillionaire, and by the age of fifty-nine he was dead" (p. 40).

Steven Spielberg's secret connection with his audience is ascribed in part to "the very blandness of his suburban origins - a peripatetic but untroubled childhood...I wondered if he had ever really left the chain-line ranch-style embryos of his youth" (pp. 147-148).

Amis' essay on AIDS ("Double Jeopardy: Making Sense of AIDS") is noteworthy for what Diedrick (Understanding Martin Amis) calls "an example of sustained imaginative sympathy." Amis begins by inviting the reader to step into the shoes of a gay male. The assault is two-fold, for being gay and a public health menace. He uses the colloquial term "5-H club" (hemophiliacs, Haitians, homosexuals, hookers, and heroin addicts). My post (2/21/10) on Amy Wilentz' book The Rainy Season mentions the Creole word katrach, referring to the four "H"s (homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and Haitians), a derogatory expression that now irks Haitians.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

This is a book that would be a very tough read without knowledge of the bulk of Amis' fiction and memoirs, especially in the sense that it is a pseudo-autobiography. The title refers not to The Pregnant Widow's own prolonged gestation, but to an altogether vaster theme: the phrase is taken from the Russian intellectual Alexander Herzen, who argued that "the result of a revolution is like a pregnant widow: the father is dead but the child has not yet been born." According to Amis, this is the case with feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: they are epochal events whose consequences have even today only entered their "second trimester." Ariel's song about "sea change" in Shakespeare's The Tempest plays throughout the novel:

"Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell" (p.91).

On the surface, the book is structured like Dead Babies. The story is set in a castle in Campania, Italy, where Keith Nearing, a 20-year-old English literature student; his probationary girlfriend, Lily (34-25-34); and her friend, Scheherazade (37-23-33), all at the Univ. of London, are on holiday during the hot "summer of 1970" (p. 9). Davidson (The Second Pass) comments that one naturally thinks of the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, who staves off death each dawn by telling the King a story that can only be completed the following night. Here, Amis himself plays an unlikely Scheherazade, somehow keeping the pages turning despite the absence of incident.

The castle is owned by a cheese tycoon (Jorquil, Scheherazade's uncle). These three are soon joined in their idyll by: Adriano, a young Italian count as full of virile confidence as he is lacking in stature; the spectacularly dissolute Rita (32-30-31), referred to as "the Dog" (p. 172); the adolescent Conchita (who reappears in the Coda) and her enormously fat caretaker, Dodo; Scheherazade’s boyfriend, Timmy, an obliviously earnest evangelist; and Gloria Beautyman (Jorquil's girlfriend, 33-22-37, with the "farcical arse" (p. 107)), whose ladylike veneer conceals a nature far stranger and more deceitful than anyone could ever guess. Classic Martin Amis prose sets the stage for these twentysomethings:

"The Me Decade wasn't called the Me Decade until 1976. In the summer
of 1970 they were only six months into it; but they could all be pretty
sure that the 1970s was going to be a me decade. This was because all
decades were now me decades. There has never been anything that
could possibly be called a you decade: technically speaking, you decades
(back in the feudal night) would have been known as thou decades. The
1940s was probably the last we decade. And all decades, until 1970,
were undeniably he decades. So the Me Decade was the Me Decade,
right enough - a new intensity of self-absorption. But the Me Decade
was also and unquestionably the She Decade" (p. 49).

The narrator is Keith's superego (we don't explicitly learn this until near the novel's end), or conscience, in 2009. It isn't until late in the book that the narrator becomes overtly apparent: "...Wait. Is this the time to clear up the question of who I am ? Not just yet, I don't think" (p. 348). and 16 pages later "...I ? Well, I'm the voice of conscience which made such a dramatic comeback between his first and second marriages), and I perform other duties compatible with those of the superego" (p. 364).

Keith's sister, Violet, is based on Amis' own sister, Sally, described by Amis as one of the revolution's most spectacular victims. Richard Bradford, whose The Biography (of Amis) is due this March, opines that most of the characters are stand ins for figures from Amis' life: Nicholas (his brother Philip), Kenrik (Rob Henderson, Amis' best friend), Gloria Beautyman (Tina Brown), Neil Darlington (Ian Hamilton), Scheherazade (Mary Furness). Graydon Carter (The New York Times) reveals that Lily is Gully Wells (editor). Brendan Bernhard (New York Sun) opines that Nicholas is a Christopher Hitchens surrogate, based on the lines "[he is] perfect for television...Very well informed. Handsomer than any man has the right to be. And more left-wing than ever" (p. 302). Bradford observes that the book's closest counterpart is his most significant non-fictional work, Experience. What would a novel by Amis be like if written in the manner of his memoirs ? Now we have it. Bradford suggests Amis has invented a new sub-genre: beneficent autofiction. On top of this, there is an absence of anything resembling a plot (notwithstanding narrator's comment on p. 310).

Pollitt (Slate) is elegant in her description of the protagonist's tribulations. Keith plows through all the canon of Western literature (including Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748)), each book about women's virtue: "It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at east in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall, this woman ? What'll they write about, he wondered when all women fall ? Well, there'll be new ways of falling..." (p. 269). Keith makes a bumbling pursuit of of the voluptuous but straitlaced Scheherazade, taking almost as long as Lovelace's siege of the virginal Clarissa - and similarly anticlimactic. It takes 1200 pages before Lovelace drugs and rapes Clarissa, whereupon she kills herself, leaving him with endless guilt.

Keith's girlfriend Lily is like a sister to him. She is listed on his "chart" (p. 163) of sexual conquests. When having sex with her, he has to fantasize that she's someone else - she's all too glad to help (p. 214). At one point she pretends to be Scheherazade. "Making love to Lily was no longer repetitive, exactly, because it got more treacherous every night. Men have two hearts, he thought, the over, the under. And as Hansel applied himself to Gretel, his overheart was full, it beat, it loved, but his underheart was merely (and barely) functional - anaemic, insincere" (p. 142) and later - "Men have two hearts - the upper, the nether" (p. 259).

Keith is reading 2 novels which plant a sinister scheme in his head: drugging as a means to achieve consummation. In Austen's Northanger Abbey, Isabella is "drugged on money" (p. 112). In Smollett's Peregrine Pickle, "Peregrine had just attempted (and failed) to drug (and ravish) Emily Gauntlet" (p. 55). Keith fumbles his attempt to drug Lily (p. 213) so she'll sleep through what he hopes will be the great assignation, but Scheherazade changes her mind at the last moment. Keith consoles himself with the uninhibited Gloria. The conjunction of these two events - rejection by Scheherazade and glorious sex with kinky Gloria - plunges Keith into a trauma of sexual befuddlement that lasts for 25 years. Men can dish it out but they can't take it. After Gloria "Keith already knew that he was in another world; knew, too, that he was in quite serious trouble - but only psychologically" (p. 251). Stated simply, the 21 year old Keith experienced incredible sex from an older woman (p. 276 if you must do the field work) and will have a tough time experiencing that with other women.

Rodwan (Open Letters Monthly) makes the observation that Amis treats lives as though they were texts. He describes lived experience in terms of fiction, and the real owes its realness to its correspondence to literature. We have explored this in my post below (10/9/10) on The Rachel Papers, where we see that few of Charles Highway's experiences are direct ones, they tend to be lived through his literary "experience," as in the hilarious "Celia shits" (Swift) episode with Rachel. "Walking in his studio, and getting out of bed, and all the rest of it - this was no longer a Russian novel" (p. 182), he writes of Keith's evolving middle-aged despair. "It was an American novel. So, not much shorter, but with perceptible gains: a general increase in buoyancy, and far less stuff about everyone's grandfathers" (p. 182). Referring to Scheherazade's tardy boyfriend "Timmy'll be along in a chapter or two" (p. 40). In his pursuit of Scheherazade, he borrows from the classics: Keith takes a page from Jane Austen's Emma "If Keith paraphrased Mr. Knightly, would Scheherazade realise, at last, that she was in love with him?" (p. 158).

Keith's whole summer experience is literary: "The Italian summer - that was the only passage in his whole existence that ever felt like a novel. It had chronology and truth (it did happen). But it also boasted the unities of time, place, and action; it aspired to at least partial coherence; it had some shape, some pattern, with its echelons, its bestiaries" (p. 310). Edmund White (The New York Review of Books) observes that by contrast, life - the life he goes on to live - "is made up as it goes along" (p. 310). This contrast between the rare, well-made, already novelistic experience and the more common, messy, improvised shapelessness of ordinary experience explains the shift from the tidy social comedy of youth to the baffling weirdness of age - and the exploded shape of this book (which abruptly changes into a Coda beginning in 1971, bringing the reader to the present).

Keith exhibits multiple parallels to the author, "he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven" (p. 10). "The bit of his body that Keith hated was the bit that wasn't there. He suffered for his height" (p. 72). "And he wrote to the Lit Supp, asking for a book to review on trial. He wanted to become a literary critic" (p. 75). Amis also wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. That comment notwithstanding, it is interesting that Keith "knew he could never become a novelist. To become a novelist, you had to be the silent presence at the gathering, the one on whom nothing is lost" (p. 75). This quote is from Henry James' The Art of Fiction (1884). Amis left out some of the quote "Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience, and experience only," I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" Of course, "Experience" was the title of his memoirs. The narrator opines: Keith "was a minor exponent of humorous self-deprecation" (p. 315), a trait for which Amis is revered. Amis' love of Nabokov, novelist and lepidopterist (see Visiting Mrs. Nabokov) is lyrically represented in butterfly imagery (pp. 33, 40, 42, 58, 203).

Rodwan (Open Letters Monthly) observes that Lily notices degeneration in Keith's thinking when he believes he's found the key to visualizing the bodies of Jane Austen's characters. He theorizes that when Austen says in Northanger Abbey, that Catherine Morland's figure gains consequence that consequence is "code for big tits" (p. 128). As Lily observes: "First it was all moral patterning. And felt life. Then it was all drugs and fucks. Now it's all tits and arses" (p. 128). Alert readers will recognize that these evolutionary descriptors correspond to Amis' first 3 novels (The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success). Keith's way of looking at books, and at life, does follow the pattern of reducing everything to the base and elemental: "Pride and Prejudice, Keith could have said, had but a single flaw: the absence, toward the close, of a forty-page sex scene" (p. 219). Ironically, at least one reviewer had the same complaint about Amis' own book !!

Throughout the book, there are many references to Shakespeare's comedies, recalling Shakespeare's games with androgyny "boys playing girls playing boys" (p.). In the Coda, Keith suggests to Gloria "You could go as Viola or Rosalind and dress up as a boy. She's pretending to be a boy. Passing as a boy. Wear a sword" (p. 329). At one point Rita says of her aggressive sexuality "It's because I'm a boy. I'm a boy. I'm a boy, me. I'm a boy" (p.175). Later, it's Gloria "I'm a boy. I've got a cock too" (p. 241). "I'm secretly a cock...In the future every girl will be like me. I'm just ahead of my time" (p. 281).

Ovid's tale of Narcissus and Echo echoes (excuse me) through the book. The narrator says "point three in the revolutionary manifesto...was this: Surface will start trending to supersede essence. As the self becomes post-modern, how things look will become at least as important as how things are. Essences are hearts, surfaces are sensations..." (p. 182). Gloria is a triumphant narcissist and chimes to Keith (naked in front of a mirror) "Oh, I love me. Oh I love me so" (pp. 240, 282). Self-love is missing in Lily: "The thing that mattered was whether Lily loved Lily. And she didn't" (p. 282). Keith surmises, in his relation with Gloria, transitioning out of his summer idyll: "In this new world he had entered (it was very developed, very far advanced), thinking and feeling were rearranged" (p. 260). Later "Love (he knew) made the world expand; this (whatever it was) reduced the world to a single point" (p. 266). The narrator observes: "Gloria Beautyman, at least, will be giving us something that Life badly needs. Plot" (p. 310). "Gloria was a visit from outside history. She was a visit from another clock" (p. 359).

"Something was churning in the world of men and women, a revolution or a sea change, a realignment having to do with carnal knowledge and emotion" (p. 23). Pollitt (Slate) makes the case that feminism and the sexual revolution are not the same thing, which Amis claims make "nice" girls like Lily and Scheherazade act against their nature (which is to be girls, not boys), while leaving the bad girls like Gloria, too old to have babies when the music stops. The removal of social constraints puts women at risk. Amis believes this is the reason for his sister's tragic downfall, Sally (Violet in the novel): "the revolution was a velvet revolution, but it wasn't bloodless" (p. 309). "Violet died in 1999, at the age of forty-six" (p. 357). Ultimately, Scheherazade becomes a born-again Christian and Gloria (who boasted she was "a cock" (p. 281)) wears a hijab (p. 357). None of the male libertines who populate the book is punished by the author for having sex.

More than anything else, this book is about aging and death. The subtitle to the book is Inside History. Keith ponders "the most important thing about you is your date if birth. Which puts you inside history" (p. 4). "Keith was always eccentrically stirred and moved by birth certificates (and Violet's was a talisman to him, because he was there to issue it and receive her). Your birth certificate was your BC - before Christ, before anything - and your proof of innocence. It was your ticket of entry; it put you inside history" (p. 162). "Old age wasn't for old people. To cope with old age, you really needed to be young - young, strong, and in peak condition, exceptionally supple and with very good reflexes" (p. 136). Also, "Governance, for at least a generation, Keith read, will be a matter of transferring wealth from the young to the old. And they won't like that, the young. They won't like the silver tsunami, with the old hogging the social services and stinking up the clinics and the hospitals, like an inundation of monstrous immigrants. There will be age wars, and chronological cleansing..." (p. 183). Keith reflects on his own aging "From the Me Decade to the ME Decade. From Club Med to Club Med. Great" (p. 244), ME being myalgic encephalomyelitis, and "Med" being medical. A partner to aging is boredom: "Keith, in 2009, felt that boredom was as strong as hate" (p. 362).

Readers familiar with Amis' life will know what a huge influence the poet Philip Larkin had on both Martin and his father. Larkin was famous for his general displeasure with life, especially sexuality. It is relevant that a Larkin poem takes center stage in chapter 1:

"Sexual intercourse began
In 1963
(Which was rather late for me)-
Between the end of the Chatterly ban
And the Beatles' first LP" (p. 9).

After Keith's summer in Italy "For forty months, beginning with that September when his eyes were very clear, Keith lived in Larkinland - fish-grey, monkey-brown, the land of sexual dearth. The most salient feature of Larkinland is that all women, after a few seconds, can tell that that's where you live - in Larkinland" (p. 311). The author has obviously been in the Larkinland of sexual inadequacy himself !

The narrator sums up the book in these terms: "It is the fate of all of us to fall out of love with our own reflections. Narcissus took a day and a night to die - but we take half a century...It isn't vanity, it was never vanity. It was always death. This was the true and universal metamorphosis: the agonising transfiguration from one state to another - from the state of life to the state of death" (p. 364).

Edmund White concludes "At one point close to the present Keith wonders if beauty has gone out of the world [p. 137]; if it did, it has just reentered literature through this strange, sparkling novel."