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F E B R U A R Y 1 9 9 8
by Frank Kermode
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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.
Night Train 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.
Though an experienced homicide cop, Mike Hoolihan is charged with investigating a suicide. The victim happens to be the daughter of the police commissioner, a man to whom Hoolihan is deeply deferential (she mentions that at some point in the past he saved her life, but we hear nothing more of this, and anybody interested will have to wait for a prequel). The young woman, who seems to have been perfectly happy and sane, is found naked in a chair, having shot herself three times in the mouth ("a .22. A revolver. Not a zip. Or a faggot gun. You know like a derringer or something"). Hoolihan gets the job of informing the commissioner, who, abhorring the notion of his daughter's suicide, asks Hoolihan to conduct a quasi-private investigation with a view to showing that she was murdered. In Hoolihan's interrogation of the dead woman's lover, a very smart college professor called Trader Faulkner (the name of a real actor: there are some name games going on in the book, bait for a certain kind of Nabokov fan), she actually accuses him of the crime, with all manner of lies and bullying, but he turns out to be absolutely innocent and devoted. Once again there is a spin on the genre: this is not a murder investigation, though some would prefer it to be. This parody of the American police thriller is always saying that's not what it is. (Again, the trick is Nabokovian, which Amis, a keen admirer, would doubtless be happy to admit.)
Opportunities arise for Amis to do something he is very good at: giving expression to his horror at the thought of what men and women can do, sometimes must do, to one another. His police heroine witnesses the autopsy. "Here it comes," she says, before giving a detailed account of the procedure. "The electric saw is navigating Jennifer's cranium ... and now you wait for the pop.... The cranial pop is as loud as a gunshot." She goes home to her cheap apartment, where the night train can be heard passing close. The night train is a symbol -- the arrival at a dead hour of death and the fear of it, a problem Amis from time to time feels obliged to consider.
SINCE part of the pleasure of fiction is the reality it seems to represent, one can't help being impressed by all the information about the sociology of suicide, police procedure and parlance, the special problem of female police officers, and so on. But now and again, as the book moves on to a denouement not very surprising but still unusual (clues aren't real clues; the dead woman's happiness didn't go very deep), the reader may feel let down in certain ways. In establishing that his narrator is a woman, Amis feels obliged to give her a conventional soft streak. This shows when she is discussing her relationships with the victim, whom she has known as a child and as a remarkable adult beauty, and with the distressed father. Here she falls out of police parlance into a sentimental linguistic void: "I watched her grow into a kind of embarrassment of perfection. Brilliant, beautiful. . . . To-die-for brilliant. Drop-dead beautiful." Of course, Hoolihan, who can use the expression "a kind of embarrassment of perfection," has to be something of a literary stylist; she is famous for her case reports. "Compared to what you guys give me to read," says a sergeant, brandishing her report before the squad, "this is fucking oratory. It's goddamn Cicero versus Robespierre." Parlance? Somebody's kidding here, surely. And there are other lapses that may be endemic to the genre of crime novel:
Crime scenes you look at like cartoon puzzles in the newspapers. Spot the difference. And something was wrong. Jennifer's body was beautiful -- you wouldn't dare pray for a body like that -- but something was wrong with it. It was dead.Raymond Chandler himself had such weaker moments.
To make up for that embarrassment of imperfection there is a whole dimension to the novel that I haven't yet mentioned, and its existence is another indication of how this police novel distances itself from police novels. Jennifer was an astronomer, working, it is said, on the Milky Way's Virgo-infall velocity. Hoolihan goes off to the Institute of Physical Problems, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, to ask Jennifer's boss what she had done there all day and whether she had seemed happy. The boss offers a lecture on such things as dark matter and Hubble's constant and the Boötes Void, "a cavity 300 million light years deep." Will the universe stop expanding and contract -- the Big Bang followed 80 billion years later by the Big Crunch, followed possibly by another Big Bang, and so on, "the eighty-billion-year heartbeat"? There are tributes to Stephen Hawking, linking his disablement to his ability to see what others missed. This, then, was the sort of thing that Jennifer thought about. It should have been energizing to be aware of standing on the edge of a paradigm shift, like Copernicus and Galileo; yet she may have seen what others missed, looking directly, like Hawking, at blackness and death. She had talked with her boss about death; was she laying a false clue, or hinting at a Pascalian terror at the eternal silence of those infinite spaces? The boss himself acknowledges that the major revolution of consciousness he predicts will not be bloodless. Drop-dead beauty will continue on occasion to drop dead, appalled by the universe.
So this is a serious novel. This police is investigating not just a suicide and not just human failure, intelligible unhappiness at the thought of the urban and terrestrial voids, but, ultimately, horror at the voids of a universe in which human felicity and misery are inconceivably trivial emotions, and the night train alone makes sense.
To argue that all the book's ambitions are realized would be to say far too much, but it is right to emphasize that Night Train is serious, because the shadow of its famous tough-boy author will probably fall across it and prevent many people from seeing it as such. That is what happened with another of Amis's shorter novels, Time's Arrow. And his most recent previous book, The Information (admittedly not among his best), was pretty well drowned out by the clamor about his teeth and his advance. His own fault, for encouraging the hype? Maybe, but that isn't really literary business. There is, on the page that we have somehow to read clearly, some authentic power, a large, pure ambition, a hunger to be serious.
Frank Kermode, a former King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University, is the author of many books, including Not Entitled (1995), a memoir.
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; A Thriller With Something on Its Mind; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 100-104.