Martin Amis

QEH, SBC, London

"I'm mad about shortness," said Chekhov. And so is these days. And on Tuesday night he was showing off just how short he is being at the moment at the South Bank, which is currently hosting a series of readings by novelists and short story writers in its "Fiction International" series.

Night Train is the title of the short new book, which is not so much a novel as "an absolute gem of a novella", as Ian McEwan put it recently with such a neat, dispassionate flourish. The difficulty with is principally this: how does he occupy himself on stage during those drum-rolling minutes when the emcee is listing his achievements? On Tuesday, he spent a long time screwing away at his inner ear, and meticulously rolling up his shirt sleeves. By the time he'd reached the elbows, it was 1991, the year of Time's Arrow and the temporal inversion of the Holocaust.

Seconds later, freed from the shackles of the past, Martin was on his feet in front of the microphone, well-tanned, hair licking at the back of his collar like Billy Fury's, bidding the audience a crisply professional "Good evening" in that mildly Oxonian voice of his.

Night Train is a grim book, and so Amis gave it very little of his time - about eight minutes in all. Three short extracts from this hard-boiled thriller set in Chicago were quite enough he'd decided. Why so little attention, though? An unwillingness to give too much away, lest it affect the book sales after the reading? Or an attack of squeamishness about its subject matter - the suicide of a certain Jennifer Rockwell, a young woman of quite stupendous talent and beauty?

For whatever reason, we got the bit about the disgusting variousness of the homicide cases in Chicago's 88th Precinct - all those bleeders and bloaters and bursters; the bit about the baby who gets stuffed into a picnic cooler because of a dispute over a diaper; and a final meaty gobbet about dead bodies.

Amis devoted the rest of his reading time to a short story about the death of a friend of his son called "What Happened to Me on My Holiday", which was recently published in The New Yorker. This work is written in a kind of clotted, sarcastic, mimic Americanese. On the page, its strange phoneticisms make it look a bit like a re-run of Finnegans Wake. Regrettably, Amis spared his London audience the pleasure of listening to him subject himself to an adenoidally nightmarish experience. Instead, he read it as though it were written throughout in standard English, which was a bit of a shame.

Fortunately, none of these brief, bleak tasters seemed to have any adverse effect whatsoever upon the bloody appetite of the book-buying public. The sight of all those people queuing in extended snake formation to have their books signed after the reading was like an action replay of the bad old days - by which I mean, of course, that old "Labour Isn't Working" poster.

Michael Glover

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