Monday, June 30, 2008


My beach reading this year consisted of Martin Amis' first two novels: The Rachel Papers (1973) and Dead Babies (1975). Of the two, I probably preferred the first, though the latter is no doubt "better." In other words, the first proposes a coming of age story in what could still be called "a sentimental education." And if no one in Amis is actually sentimental in any sense of the word, well, that's really the point, isn't it? Sexuality is simply the basis for comic misadventures, as is most other things desire might inspire (like trying to get into Oxford). But if "droll" is the word that comes to mind most while reading The Rachel Papers, "rot" is the word most prevalent in the consciousness (or somewhere just in the anteroom) while reading Dead Babies: not that the narrator of either uses either word, but it's more like the tone of the novel takes its impetus from the implications of its respective word when applied to behavior.

In Rachel there is at least that long tradition of long-suffering first person narrators -- for instance, Holden Caulfield, though Salinger's malcontent is not quite as stymied by his own hormonal surges, or Portnoy, which is more to the point since the teen-age impetus to have sex at any cost (including the cost to dignity and the fact of not much fun) is the main driving force.  In Rachel it's as if someone as self-aware as Nabokov's Humbert were merely a feckless teenager, yet one with Nabokovian ego issues and literary panache. Amis' Dexter is glib, oily, jaundiced, horny, conniving and ingenuous as is required by the simple fact that teens are in flux, and his voice makes for diverting reading, to the extent that such persons as Amis populates his world with can ever be diverting (and sometimes they can be, of course, if only because he writes them so well).

But the only point in reading Dead Babies is to indulge the narrator's manic glee in concocting pay-offs. For this is a narrator for whom "rot" (as in, love, and all that rot, or art, and all that rot etc.) is the basic fact of our mortal existence and must be countenanced in order for any work to be true, clear-eyed, and "funny." Whatever one does is "rot" because everyone is rotten. It's certainly a propitious novel, in as much as Johnny Rotten himself was soon to burst upon the pop cultural scene. So Amis has got his feet (or his shoes at least) planted in the right swim. It could be said that there are glimpses in DB that Amis is not subsumed by his narrator, that in fact he believes a "road not taken" existed at one time and that fact -- even if of no use now -- indicates some other potential. But not for him to point the way there or attempt to render its demands or consolations. Rather let's gas about with the fallen, give 'em their day and their due and them and us our/their just deserts. No lack of ingenuity in inventing humiliations, but not much else.

Considering the Brit-ness of this Brit lit, we might almost say that the fact that their culture as it existed since the apex of Empire was now fucked made them rather acid. Then along came Maggie. So it's either get right down with the guttersnipes, or exhibit the posh stuff that works for tourists, à la Princess Di (also yet to come) and Merchant/Ivory. So it goes -- while I was at the beach, Salman Rushdie (straight from cameos in a movie with Helen Hunt and in a video with Scarlett Johansson) appeared on Craig Kilbourne ("the Scottish guy") to hawk his latest novel -- fitting in as much as, after all, novelists are simply a species of entertainer. As such I can say, sorta, that Amis kept me amused -- he's so artfully arch, idn't 'e? -- and did give me a not unnuanced feel for that great sinking feeling called living in the '70s.

I don't wanna hear about what the rich are doing
I don't wanna go to where the rich are going
They think they're so clever, they think they're so right
But the truth is only known by guttersnipes
--Joe Strummer/Mick Jones, "Garageland" (1977)

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