Friday, November 24, 2006
Martin Amis, House of Meetings (Cape 2006). To quote Dylan, “I don’t be-leeeeeve you!”
Amis’s new novel is narrated by a World War II Red Army veteran. He fights in the war. He’s locked up in the gulag afterwards. He clashes with his brother, also in the camp, over a beautiful Jewish Muscovite called Zoya, not imprisoned, whom they both love. The narration is positioned from an end-of-the-century perspective, round about the time of the Beslan siege; our hero is now a wealthy expatriate, telling the story for the benefit of his young American niece. Or step-daughter. To be honest I can’t remember what her relationship is to the narrator. She’s barely there, as character. Mind you, none of them are; not even the garrulous narrator. House of Meetings is a short book, 196 pages, and it attempts to give us a through-a-chink vision of the vastness of human suffering of the War, the Gulag, of Russia then and now. But Amis doesn’t pull it off. House of Meetings doesn’t compel.
It’s not that it’s a badly written book, or at least not badly written at the level of the sentence, although paragraph-by-paragraph, or page-by-page, it can clog. Who needs to be told that:
In the 1930s there was a miner called Aleksei Stakhanov who, some said, unearthed more than a hundred tons of coal – the quota was seven – in a single shift. Hence the cult of the Stakhanovites, or ‘shock’ workers etc etc…
It’s not as if Stakhanovite is excluded from the dictionaries. Or there’s the Look-and-Learn history of:
Georgi Zhukov, General Zhukov, Marshal Zhukov: I served in one of his armies (he also commanded a whole front) in 1944 and 1945 … Georgi Zhukov was the man who won the Second World War.
But this isn’t where the problem lies. (We can say: well, he is supposed to be an old man explaining himself to a teenage American …). Nor does the problem inhere in the frequent, ‘er, say what?’ apothegmatic moments (‘When a man conclusively exalts one woman and one woman only “above all others”, you can be pretty sure you are dealing with a misogynist. It frees him up for thinking the rest are shit.’ Really? You think so?) The problem lies somewhere else.
Reading it made me wonder: what does it profit us for a British writer to write a Russian novel? Not what does it profit the writer, for he’s free to indulge himself as he pleases (free speech, naturally). Amis is free to respond to the extensive research he’s done amongst the published historical accounts (all carefully noted and acknowledged in a two-page endnote); to inhabit an idiom that clearly fascinates him. But what does it profit us? It’s not as if there’s any shortage of brilliant Russian writers of Russian novels, many of whom lived through the experiences they are describing, and can therefore write passages such as:
In the Gulag, it was not the case that people died like flies. Rather flies died like people. … The death rate was determined by the availability of food. In “hungry ’33” one out of seven died, in 1943 one out of five, in 1942 one out of four. By 1948 it had gone back down again, system-wide. 
-- without causing the reader to picture Amis (as I once saw him) in Browns, on Saint Martin’s Lane in London, scoffing a lavish, well-oiled and long-lasting lunch with fellow novelist David Lodge. Eating, indeed, with an almost Stakhanovite relish. Or to take another example: I wonder if we can labour through Amis’s passages on ‘the dirt and the cold, the hunger and the hate’ , on how the cold comes ‘like pain’ and how
in the space of three minutes we saw a bitch sprinting flat-out after a brute with a bloody mattock in his hand, a pig methodically clubbing a fascist [a fellow prisoner, this] to the ground, a workshy snake slicing off the remaining fingers of his left hand … and, finally, a leech who, with his teeth sticking out from his gums at right-angles (scurvy) was nonetheless making a serious attempt to eat his shoe. 
-- without turning to the back-flap and noting that Amis lives half the year in balmy Uruguay with his beautiful wife. (But there’s the question of teeth, of course. Amis had famous trouble with his teeth, of course. Not scurvy, but nonetheless …. a point of imaginative entry into his hellworld, perhaps?)
The protagonist is a rapist. The narrator commits one rape that swings the plot about. Moreover he has a history of serial rape (‘I marched with the rapist army … In the rapist army everybody raped’). But the handling of this jars badly, specifically the way Amis emphasises the issue of the remorse of the serial rapist. Can we read about how ‘we know quite a lot about the consequences of rape – for the raped’, but how nobody considers ‘the consequences for the rapist … the peculiar resonance of his post-coital tristesse for example: no animal is ever sadder than the rapist’  without wondering whether Amis knows what the fuck he’s talking about? He marches, of course, with the sensitive middle-class liberal writers army. In the sensitive middle-class liberal writers army everybody experiences the regret, and guilt, the muted remorse that liberal writers feel, in their pampered and artificially comfortable way. I carry a spear, way off in the back, in this selfsame army, so I think I know what I’m talking about. But I do not know, and have every reason to doubt, that the catastrophically widespread phenomenon of rape as an act of war is performed by suchlike sensitive flowers. It seems to me more than insensitively wrongheaded to suggest that it is. It seems amazingly obtuse and stupid; as if rape is only something that happens a little way along the line of a continuum that also includes ‘persistent courtship’ or ‘taking advantage of a person’s weakness of judgment’. Which is pretty much how it comes over in this novel.
I’m making, I think, a very straightforward point here. It is not that a writer must have personal experience of what s/he writes about. That would be a stupid thing to say. Shakespeare was not a 90-year-old Dark Age British King, or a Moorish soldier in the service of the Venetian republic, or a Scottish mass-murderer. But he did at least know how to represent these people such that we believe in them. I didn’t believe in Amis’s narrator, or his brother, or the perfectly blank piece of sexual fetish for whom they both fall. I didn’t feel in my gut, the way I ought to have done (the way the book requires me to do in order to work) the depth of horror of the topics Amis has tapped out here on his wordprocessor. I didn’t believe any of it.
I am not saying that a wealthy Western writer is somehow disqualified by virtue of his/her wealth or Westernness from writing about Eastern suffering. That also would be a stupid thing to say. I’m not making a prescriptive judgment: writers can write whatever they want. But I am suggesting a criterion of post factum judgment, and one that goes to the heart, I think, of Amis as a writer. What is wrong with House of Meetings is, I think, what was also wrong with Yellow Dog, and The Information and most of Amis’s big recent fictional endeavours. Not that they are badly written, for Amis devotes a goldsmith’s attention and detail to every single sentence, a strenuous and fernickerty attempt to scratch-in and pound-on eloquence and memorability. Neither is it that his books are particularly ill-conceived. House of Meetings tackles an important subject; the Russian 20th-century is certainly as pressing a subject for great art as it has ever been. But I just didn’t find it to be believable. I wasn’t hostile to the book when I picked the book up; I was as ready as I ever am with a new novel to suspend my disbelief; but nevertheless my disbelief remained there on the ground. I didn’t invest emotionally in, didn’t connect with, didn’t feel on my pulse or accept with my subconscious mind, that this is a real world.
When the heckler called our ‘Judas’ at that 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall Bob Dylan concert, Dylan famously replied, with his characteristic drawl: ‘I don’t be-lie-e-e-eve you! You’re a lie-ar!’ Perhaps he meant ‘I don’t believe you just said that!’ but I like to think he meant something else, something along the lines of: ‘are you kidding?; maybe that’s how you feel; but believe me kid it simply doesn’t work. It’s really not a believable heckle.’ Dylan, however annoyed you may be that his strings are vibrating over electric pickups, is not Judas. The heckler is making the noise of heckling, going through the heckle-motions, but he hasn’t really got the knack of heckling. Amis, however much detail and whatever finesse he brings to the process of transforming his historical data into a novel, is not a Russian novelist of the grand school. He can’t ventriloquise the necessary.
There is a quality that some writers have, and which some writers, no matter how technically gifted and skilled they are, simply lack: and it is that ability to make us believe in the story they are telling. To generate the smoke and to angle the mirrors so that we invest faith (the evidence of things not seen) in the reality of the world they are building. Amis lacks this ability. This may sound like an ad hominem observation, as if I’m saying that the caricature grotesque celebrity-figure of Amis as Writer somehow intervenes between us and our pleasure: but I don’t mean it that way. I’m talking about the missing component in the text, not in Amis’s own personality (for this latter is something about which, after all, I have no first hand knowledge). It’s not easy to pin down how or why his writing lacks it, or to suggest ways in which he might work his craft to achieve it. It’s the spark that would make his Frankenstein’s monster into more than a slab of decaying meat. That spark. You know the one I’m talking about.
The Information wasn’t as bad as all that. In fact, I think The Information can pretty easily be tied to the author-function Martin Amis of The Rachel Papers, Success, and Money. I think he kind of floundered after that, though, and went fucking ‘round the bend at 9/11. I doubt he’ll produce worthwhile fiction again--and certainly not as long as he’s married to Isabel Fonseca.
Yes I’m not being fair to the Information, which was interesting and readable if not altogether there. But Yellow Dog was every bit as terrible as the reviewers said it was.