A Thriller With Something on Its Mind

It tends to get lost in discussions of his teeth, but Martin Amis is teetering on the edge of profundity


NIGHT TRAIN


REVIEWS ought to be of books, not authors, but in some cases the distinction is more easily stated than sustained. An author can be famous for a fastidious avoidance of publicity, like Thomas Pynchon, or for courting it, like Norman Mailer. It must be close to impossible to read the books of either without thinking of the personalities projected, silently or noisily, by the men themselves, their publicists, and the media generally. Of course, there are hundreds of novels by authors who aren't famous in this way, but they and their publishers almost certainly wish they were. The energetic or mysterious public images of the writers are reflected back onto their books, and we buy the books less because we seek an uncluttered aesthetic experience than because we want to know what their celebrated authors have been up to lately. They themselves can hardly be indifferent to this situation, and the history of modern fiction provides many instances of authors getting thoroughly confused about their aims, achievements, and deserts; one need mention only Hemingway. He remarked, in The Sun Also Rises, that "nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters," but he thought that as a writer he should try. He succeeded, at least if public notice is the criterion; but he was too intelligent not to understand the cost of this irrelevant triumph, musing in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that "writing, at its best, is a lonely life.... [The writer] grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates."

A thriller with something on its mind

A great deal of precious energy is wasted in this way, and energy has a peculiar importance, perhaps especially where American male authors are concerned. Saul Bellow thought that "the code of the athlete, of the tough boy," was "an American inheritance ... from the English gentleman -- that curious mixture of striving, asceticism and rigor, the origins of which some trace back to Alexander the Great." Nowadays there is evidence that some Englishmen are trying to retrieve their lost virtue, and the way they go about it is to imitate American energy. Nothing is more inventive or changes as fast as American slang, and nobody notices and imitates it more promptly than certain English writers. A whole generation of sophisticated English readers believes that nowadays the best writing in the language is American -- Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, and, to go back a little, Saul Bellow.

MARTIN Amis, who has often announced his special devotion to Bellow, shares this passion for the latest ways of talking American. From the outset of his career he has been a Bellovian tough boy. We know, or think we know, a lot about him, and not only from his novels. He is said to have been expelled from school. He gave the hero of his first novel, published when he was twenty-four, a voice with a "habitual ironic twang, excellent for the promotion of oldster unease" -- his own voice, perhaps, except that the "ironic twang" is American, or at any rate "mid-Atlantic." Money, one of his best novels, is set in America, and so is this new one. Amis has recently announced his intention of emigrating, we learn from the newspapers, which regularly make a fuss about his life -- the size of his advances, his passion for snooker, his failure to win the Booker Prize, the disastrous condition of his teeth, his divorce, his fractured friendships with his agent and her husband, the novelist Julian Barnes. And behind all this is the odd fact, now seen as almost too familiar to be worth mentioning, that he is the son of a celebrated novelist, from whom he has inherited an English brand of elegant misanthropy and an interest in the satirical possibilities of virtuoso syntax and popular semantic variations -- admittedly, Americanized to a degree that would probably not have greatly pleased Kingsley Amis.

So in reading Martin Amis it is hard indeed to forget one's conviction (probably erroneous) that too much is already known about him; his public shadow comes between reader and book like a cataract. Reviewers who resent this intrusion (and Amis certainly has enemies) tend to ignore his virtues, which are those of intelligence and style. These would be readily perceived (in his writing, not in newspaper reports) by some ideally unclouded eye. Of course, Amis has helped in the construction of that public shadow, and if even the well-disposed reviewer cannot quite banish it from his sight of the book, the fault is partly Amis's own.

puts a characteristically heavy initial spin on its story. It is set in a large, unnamed American city and narrated by a police officer. "I am a police," it begins.

That may sound like an unusual statement -- or an unusual construction. But it's a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also.

This opening paragraph is very deliberate and hardworking. The odd use of "police" (whether it's true American police parlance or is only on this occasion said to be, to create an authoritative insider voice) is justified as "a parlance" -- an equally unusual usage, unknown to the heaviest version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike "police," it is not defended. "I am a police" is repeated three times, so it must be true, and then we learn that the police, though given a masculine-sounding Irish name, is in fact female. Her national origin plays no part in the story. "Police" is gender-free; it is a mark of the solidarity of the police, who need solidarity because they are, on the account here provided, everybody else's enemy. So they even use a dialect, a parlance, that is part of their defense against the larger world. It must be said that Amis is an accomplished speaker of this dialect -- or at any rate sounds as if he is, which is the important thing.

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