BOOK REVIEW / Confessions of a failed revenger

THE INFORMATION Martin Amis Flamingo £15.99

The grown-up Martin Amis, the man in the world, the father (the father with a father: imagine looking across the lunch table and seeing Kingsley as your future), has been having a torrid time. A publicly torrid time: ticked off by the Thatcherite dragon lady, AS Byatt, then shmoozed by Melvyn Bragg. Between a justified fury and a soft place. And, all the while, there's this ticking in his head; the vulture, the crow, scratching at the sawdust of mortality. Martin's teeth, the jawbone of a writer, a matter of debate in the prints. He's pictured as one of the gnomes of Zurich for holding out his bowl for a spoonful of Murdoch's gruel. For a wage that would make any self-respecting orthodontist blush. Not worth leaving the golf-course for that sort of small change.

You can't switch off the information, that's the curse; no way of killing the authorial "pilot light". The writer is always on, he's wired. Sweating on a mattress, waiting for the self-addressed brown envelope with the black border: "Time's up, you're dead, forgotten." It's a warriorlike destiny being a career smoker, a career hermit - locked away like a Kafka bug when the world is happening elsewhere. The trick then is to outflank time, to make the language so elegant and speedy that time will leave you alone, not notice you, the geek at the desk. You stay still, the recluse in William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland, while the cosmos turns to dust.

The Information is macerated in two substances: information you don't want and "trex", the dreck, the grunge from which we weave our lives. A number of characters, cartoons (cartoons of cartoons), busy themselves at the fringe of the action, scraping the trex off their shoes, but they are camouflage; the project is solipsistic. The project is Me. MA. Martin Amis. The noble squalor of the wordsmith divided against himself. Richard Tull ("Rich-at-all?"), grubber, virtuoso of envy, failed revenger, and Gwyn Barry, an overrewarded nothing, Oxford's most successful import from the Welsh valleys since Howard Marks or Woy Jenkins. As with Ben Jonson's humours, the names are the men. Tull(e), "a thin, machine-made net of acetate, nylon, rayon" - and Gwyn Barry, with the reversible moniker of a Sixties crimper, answering to the location of a low-rent funfair around the corner from Cardiff.

The women are all on day release from Dennis Potter television plays. Their names - Gina, Belladonna - not so much the names of Potter characters as of the actresses who play them. Which seems very appropriate. They gamely squeeze into other women's costumes.

They provoke, exasperate, provide a shoulder to cry on; do the stuff that women do. Tull makes quite a production out of this nocturnal blubbing - temper tantrums and standard, run of the millennium, death-of-the-sun frets and fevers. Gravity has got him, turned his tongue to anthracite. He's rancid, stuffed with too many bad biographies. He's living in a Whitehall farce. He'd like it to be a tragicomedy, so he invokes Beckett, Borges, Evelyn Waugh. He does the English country-house weekend routine. He associates with post-Yardie freelance bother squads. And gets the chat spot-on. He's a part-time anthropologist of the metropolitan scene, terrified of becoming one of those old men with a suitcase in a callbox. The legion of the "reforgotten", the unread. An insomniac, he doesn't count sheep, he counts Powys brothers.

The Information has been seen as the conclusion of a London trilogy that opened with Money and London Fields - but that argument doesn't stand up. They're all the same book, a template worked over three times, retyped rather than rewritten. (Just as Tull tries to denounce Barry as a plagiarist by producing a pseudo ur-text of his best-selling novel.) These books engage with London on the level of style journalism: fashions, lingo, indoor sport, the entropy catalogue. Dosed with significant weather and cosmology implants. Material the poets, who are at the bottom of the pecking order, were exploiting 20 years ago. Amis is an authentic dandy, an intelligence who has to live with boredom, the demands of narrative, the necessity of walking some character across the room and out of a door. Which is why his prose works best in kit form, as a sample, a promo. He is the apotheosis of Granta Man. The Information reads like 500 pages of smart, highly finished extracts. It doesn't add up. It's a Herbie Hide of a novel, a pumped cruiserweight, flashy, fast, brave and hopelessly overmatched.

The American picaresque which provides the book's central section satirises things that are beyond satire. There's nothing more that needs to be said about a culture that can come up with Newt Gingrich. But America is where the money is - and the teeth. Chicago, Bellow's turf, like a gleaming lakeside denture. Amis has to prove himself against the professionals, the Updikes. But he's been reading the wrong Americans. Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, that miraculously balanced essay on the paranoid, does everything The Information attempts, and more, in just over a hundred pages. Douglas Woolf's The Timing Chain, with its delicate and ironic account of an author's visit to his publisher, makes Amis's version look leaden-footed.

The writer who stands in the way of Amis's claim to be the laureate of Notting Hill is the protean Falstaff of late-century English literature: Michael Moorcock. A man who has worked as a Sexton Blake hack, an anthologist, a retriever of lost reputations, a self-plagiarist and a fabulous assembler of urban mythologies.

Amis is something less than this, a talent; a journalist's writer, great copy, a journalist's idea of what a writer should be. In the real London, in the smoke, writers don't exist. Books don't exist. In London Fields, in the pub with that name, he's unknown. Less than a face. But that could soon change. Perhaps with the move to Murdoch's evil empire, he'll become the literary tub. One of the blue-chip air terminal gondolas racked alongside his stablemates - Lord Archer and Lady Thatcher. Something sky commuters pick up to keep the fear at bay. Until then I'll stick with the idea that Amis has written the wrong book. Nick Leeson (Dick Lesion?), that's the story he should have done. It could have been another Bonfire of the Vanities.

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