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

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.

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.

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; A Thriller With Something on Its Mind; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 100-104.