Books: One-2-one disconnections in the new mobile zone
As a teenager, Deborah Levy disdained the uncool young Amis. Now he's got the information, she warms to a sadder, sexier writer
Saturday 26 September 1998
by Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99, 232pp
WHEN THE Information got shafted by most critics, I started quite to like Martin Amis. The novel's central figure, a failed, middle-aged writer whose tears at night are information he does not know how to process, seemed to whip up a storm in an already hysterical atmosphere of male uncertainty. Suddenly, the author's own rather sycophantic constituency spent a lot of time producing column inches about his mid-life crisis, his marriage, his book advance and, most of all, his teeth. This obsession with the molars of the nation's most literary Bloke seemed to me to be a weirdly misplaced attempt literally to get inside the head of a man - a fumbling autopsy behind the bike shed.
For my generation of comprehensive schoolgirls who actually liked reading, Amis was definitely uncool. We went out with boys who wore eye shadow, and Amis kind of represented the opposite atmosphere. The macho characters in his early novels,the men who hunted and hated women, were of no interest to us. Amis came across as old-fashioned, posh, and very, very straight - although we read the work of older writers, such as J G Ballard, with great excitement.
Yet despite the inauspicious launch of my relationship with Amis, I believe that serious readers and serious writers have a contract with each other. Our lives change and we re-arrange what matters to us: we live through the same historical events, and the same Pepsi ads. Writers and readers, nervously sharing this all too fluid world, circle each other to find out what the hell is going on. And it is the middle-aged Amis I find myself wanting to read.
His work has got sexier, sadder. There's more panic and mess and felt life - perhaps just more information. This is certainly true of : nine short stories, most written in the 1990s, with the exception of the title story and "Denton's Death", from the 1970s. The form suits Amis. He knows that structure can make or break a story and he doesn't muck about. He creates a world in half a page, a character in two lines of dialogue.
The most substantial story, "State of England", rolls in at 40 gripping pages. Its subtitled chapters expediently map a culture of speed, greed and trash: Mobile Phones, Burger King, Motor Show, Rhyming Slang. Mal, a small-time thief and his estranged wife Sheilagh, meet on the running track at their son's school sports day. Mal wears a linen suit but spoils the effect because his face has been cut up in a recent encounter with vicious opera-goers. Sheilagh is none too pleased with her husband because he has run off with an Asian babe.
Like Don DeLillo and Richard Ford, Amis writes movingly about (absent) fathers making amends to their sons: the Saturday lunchtime in McDonalds where they sit "like lovers over their last supper". This is an England of broken homes, changing identities, of men trying to find a language to talk to women; a one-2-one culture of disembodied conversations into mobile phones.
At one point, Mal instructs his wife to hide behind a bush two metres away while he calls her on his mobile: "Sheilagh? Mal. Right... Since I left you and little Jet I... It's like I got gangrene or something..." Sheilagh watches her husband, "both his arms round his head like a mouth organist," because he is talking into his phone and crying into his sleeve. Mal wants to escape from words into silence and, of course, Amis won't let him.
"Let Me Count the Times" is one of three satirical stories in which whole worlds are inverted - although I think Amis is a better stylist than satirist. Vernon is a married man who starts an affair - with himself - and enjoys the thrill of not being caught. He tosses himself off on business trips, in the office, in the bathroom and, sad trainspotter that he is, counts the times. The reader gets the feeling that Vernon does not so much want to relieve himself as to be relieved of himself.
"Career Moves" echoes the theme of The Information: the gap between the agonising success of one writer and the failure of another. Poets become big players and are flown first-class to Los Angeles while screenplay writers submit their manuscripts to small magazines. A sonnet titled "Composed at - Castle" opens in 437 theatres and takes $17 million in its first weekend; meanwhile, a famous screenplay writer dies impoverished in a hostel. This is genuinely hilarious.
A would-be writer also features in "The Coincidence of the Arts", which together with "State of England", is the heavy hitter in this anthology. This time it is America, class and race, that Amis does not so much scrutinise but toy with, through the bleary eyes of an English bohemian baronet living in Manhattan. The "deeply white" Sir Rodney Peel finds his life has become entangled with the black super of his apartment, Pharsin, who has written a novel he wants the baronet to read.
Rodney Peel can't be bothered to read a novel about "the agony of the African-American male". He would rather watch synchronised swimming on TV. Pharsin's wife, however, has her revenge on the louche baronet. She understands that Peel is part of a dying class - dead white meat - and that it's tragic her husband should care about his opinion.
Saul Bellow once said of Hemingway that "for his generation his language created a life style". Yet there is nothing about the lifestyles in that anyone would want. In a sense, this is Amis's achievement. He has written that comedy is the last genre that means anything - probably because comedy allows the writer's vocabulary and strategies of assault to become more elastic. shows that comedy is the most appropriately cruel genre for a world in which people want more than they have.
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