Martin Amis' latest novel is the most talked-about book of 1995 - for all the wrong reasons. But since money and envy have always been his themes, what's new this time?
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IN his collected letters, John Cheever recalls attending a function at the White House with another irksomely gifted John - Updike. "I did everything," Cheever says, "short of putting a cherry bomb in his bug juice. It was great." Is this a grand old man of letters talking or a peevish adolescent? Both, of course. There is a glee in Cheever's tormenting of the younger writer, but there is also a whiff of fear. The fear that when they come to read out the roll-call of 20th century Immortals they will have gotten the wrong John. Literary rivalry, you see, isn't just a fight to the death; there is far more at stake than that: it's a fight to the afterlife. Plaudits for a brilliant newcomer are hard for a novelist to bear, but what if the success, the prize you had modestly collected in your dreams, was awarded to your oldest - and stupidest - friend? It is this splendid cosmic joke that drives Martin Amis's new novel.

Richard Tull, Home Counties bohemian, and Gwyn Barry, stolid Swansea boyo, shared rooms at Oxford. After Richard took an effortless first and Gwyn a sweaty second, they came down to London where Richard made a name for himself as a Young Turk book reviewer - mercilessly gutting mediocrities - while Gwyn wrote Chaucer crib notes for supermarkets. As he entered his thirties, Richard was well ahead of the game: he had the better girl (svelte Gina, so unlike Gwyn's lumpy Gilda) and a novel under his belt, Aforethought - well received, or at least received with generous mystification. When we first meet Richard and Gwyn, however, they are on the eve of the big Four-O. Times have changed: it is night and Richard is awake, weeping.

Reasons to be tearful include: the promising author is now reduced to reviewing increasingly vast biographies of increasingly minor poets; he spends a day a week salvaging copy - "Gobis and Saharas of talentlessness" - for a vanity publisher; he has twin boys, one of them asthmatic, both operatically demanding; he drives "a terrible red Maestro"; he has a suppurating overdraft and a cyst on the back of his neck. The one thing he doesn't have, by contrast, is a reliable erection. As for his novels, they have gone from merely unreadable to wholly unpublishable. Richard and Gina still live in the west London flat they moved into when the street was up-and-coming, but all the neighbours who were going places have gone. When Richard is drunk or smoking dope - preferably both - he thinks the TVs in his street are "softly crackling about Richard Tull: newsflashes about his most recent failures; panel discussions about his obscurity." Worse than all this, though, worse than cysts and children, there is Gwyn.

A mile away in Holland Park, Gwyn lives in a Brobdingnagian wedding cake with his wife, the luscious Lady Demeter. Gwyn has made good because he has written a bad book: Amelior, the New Age tale of a multicultural commune - a global bestseller widely saluted for its "bravely unfashionable optimism". The very title contains bitter (amer) and better (melior), which more or less gives away the pivot of Amis's own book: everything that has made life heavenly for one man makes it hell for another. It's more than the pivot, it's the plot: the sports duels, the two-tier author tour to America - Gwyn travelling First and fighting off the fans, Richard fulfilling everything that is understood by Economy. So what is he to do? He could lob cherry bombs into Gwyn's bug juice, but Richard doesn't just seek revenge; he seeks to raise revenge into an art form, the only kind he can manage these days: "A literary endeavour, a quest, an exaltation ... he was going to fuck Gwyn up."

In a way this is nothing new. Amis has always stoked his work with envy - Success has love-hate brothers, Dead Babies has a dwarf who wants to be "tall, tall, tall", Money has the slob who wants to be slick. But this is the first time since The Rachel Papers that the envier is also the smart one - all the desiring has an intellectual lustre, a refined ironic sadness. Every little rancorous thought is delivered in a tone of droll grace. (Readers of this newspaper will have heard the tone before, in 1992, when Amis interviewed Nicholson Baker: "I was of course very hurt that Vox was doing so well.") The foul-breathed savagery of John Self has been sweetened into something almost classy. And class is the crunch: for once Amis is writing on a level with his hero, is doing what he so admires in Saul Bellow. Amis can talk about Milton because Richard would talk about Milton; he can steal a sequence of cadences from V S Pritchett; the writing can be unfurled in all its superb suavity with none of the social sleight-of-hand upon which Money depended. Richard is the last word in mock heroism, with the mockery turned up full, and the everyday horrors of his non-adventure - taking the boys to "Dogshit Park", wrestling a dud hoover through the streets to a repair shop - are both rife with self-pity and riddled with brilliancies. Here is Richard the tennis fiend: "Even his shoes were intolerably antique: beige, canvas, intended to enfold the thoughtless trudge of explorer or humorous imperialist. You expected him to carry a wooden racket in a wooden press and a plastic shagbag full of bald balls pried free from the under-gardener's lawnmower." Every other word is stroked and plumped like a cushion: a luxury learnt from Nabokov. The attention is so manic that it could easily wear you down, but the conceits are never conceited. They don't shout look at us, they decorously declare: look at this life.

Any other writer would kill to reach this high style. Amis can stroll the heights at leisure, and you sense that - whether from boredom or guilt or wanderlust - he likes to get down and stretch himself, the aesthete working out in the tough guy's gym. And so we enter Amis's other London, his rough guide to the moronic inferno. Outside Gwyn's palatial pad sits a dirty orange van, and inside the van sit Scozzy, who is 31 and white, and 13, who is 17 and black. They are drinking fizzy Ting and fermenting harm on Richard's behalf, and you never quite believe them. Amis has great antennae for street Iago's argot, but he isn't in-terested in the world of which it speaks. The Information is not the democratic symphony it would like to be; the low-life exists to threaten, and it has no place in the high style. Amis has to rig the evidence: Scozzy, we are told, is reading Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. Excuse me? According to the rest of the book, even the people who you would expect to be reading Elias Canetti aren't reading Elias Canetti any more. Nobody is reading Elias Canetti. Nobody is reading. They may be reading Gwyn Barry, but that doesn't count. Only in a middle-class dream could the cultural decline of England, where novels are written by newscasters, be stalled by the literary tastes of the criminal classes.

SO how much information do you need to read The Information? A garbage truckful, according to recent reports which have thrilled to the parallels between Amis's turbulent circumstances and the new book. The press is keen on art-life sleuthing because, let's face it, good gossip is a damn sight easier to read than great literature. People who would never have read a word of Amis in their life have now read 10,000 words about his deserted wife, his young sons and his long, competitive friendship with Julian Barnes, which was terminated when Barnes's wife, the agent Pat Kavanagh, was dropped by Amis for the sake of a bigger advance. If, as Scozzy assures us, "carpet" is slang for 300 quid, then Amis's fee could cover the floor of Earl's Court with a few rugs to spare. All this will bring him new readers, no doubt, but will they be the readers he needs, the readers who need him? Can prose become popular without turning into popular fiction? "A million people can't be wrong," says Gwyn. "A million people are always wrong," says Richard. Those seeking a roman clef will be disappointed: the key doesn't always fit. Gwyn Barry is not Julian Barnes, nor was meant to be.

With his minor gifts and major-league shystering, Gwyn is far closer to Alun, the hero of Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils. He also contains John Braine, catapulted by Room at the Top from richly deserved obscurity to media stardom. Amis interviewed Braine in 1975. "One wonders," he wrote, "what sort of shape the late Fifties imagination must have been in to get itself captured by such a modest and unsophisticated book." Substitute mid-Nineties for late Fifties and you have the case against Amelior, and the abiding grievance behind The Information. If it had merely been a satire on literary one-upmanship it would have been a hilarious, gloriously readable but finally limited book - a small book. What makes it a big, important one is that in its obsessive scrutiny of success and merit, and the gulf between the two, it fans out into a remarkable indictment of contemporary standards. Amis is telling us that polite fiction - Amelior Regained, Paradise Postponed - has won the war; in an impolite world that is not just irresponsible, it's a scandal. The Information has a passage of dazzling compression, where we pan down the aisle of a 747, taking in the reading matter in each section: Daniel Deronda and Homer in Coach, "chunky chillers and tublike tinglers" in Business, nothing at all in First. Barbarians used to carry a club, now they travel in it.

If The Information is a plea for literary values, it is also acrid with suspicion of family values. In The Rachel Papers, 22 years ago, Amis wrote: "With a chick on the premises you just cannot live the old life." There is nothing in The Information to suggest he has changed his mind. If anything, the craving has got worse, because in the intervening period a new ideal has surfaced: men and women gently harmonising as childcarers. This vision goes out the window from the moment that Marco, one of the twins, bounces a rubber troll across his father's bald spots while Richard is trying to write. Cyril Connolly saw the author impeded by the pram in the hall, but how about the troll on the skull?

If there is an autobiographical element to The Information, it surely lies here, in the appalled realisation of paternal duties, in the fragile (indeed smashable) contract between fathers and sons. The book is dedicated to Amis's own sons, and if, when they grow up, they want to understand their father's actions, they need look no further. In Richard's life, Marius, the other twin, comes home from school in a green sash "commemorating some extraordinary achievement in art or football." In that wonderfully vague "or" the reader hears the precise accent of male neglect. This inattention leads directly to the book's climax: Richard has been so busy with his childish revenger's comedy that he doesn't notice when tragedy comes to call for a real child.

Of course, the usual niggles remain. Amis has still not succeeded in creating a great, or, let's be honest, even a believable female character. But you can't accuse the book of prejudice against women, as you could London Fields, because The Information has a more interesting project in mind: it is prejudiced against men too, against the hopeless fantasy of freedom. And yet, there is pathos when Amis tips our gaze from Richard's all-too-human blunders to the indifferent Universe - you know then that his struggle isn't about a chip on the shoulder, but a sliver in the heart, an icy appreciation of mortality, and the will to burn on as a bright star after everything you were is extinguished. I didn't feel angry as a woman reading this book; sad, perhaps, at its ringing restatement of the weary stand-off between the sexes. I don't like the message, but I suspect it's true; and besides, how can you shoot a messenger who delivers the bad news with such panache?

This is the extraordinary achievement of The Information: it could have been a sour book, depressed as it is by what has happened to books themselves, brought low by the comforts of hearth and home. Instead, the very act of surveying the damage somehow lights Martin Amis up and gets him going: the writing is on fire.

! `The Information' by Martin Amis is published on Thursday by HarperCollins at £15.99