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.

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