Satisfaction

Julian Loose

  • The Information by Martin Amis
    Flamingo, 494 pp, £15.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 00 225356 9

Clearly, for Martin Amis, enough is nothing like enough. To read him is to discover an author as voracious as his characters: like Terry in Success, who specifies that ‘I want all that and I want all that. And I want all that and I want all that. And I want all that and I want all that.’ Or like the fast-food, fast-sex junkie John Self of Money, who always gets less than he bargains for, yet keeps going back for more: ‘I would cheerfully go into the alchemy business, if it existed and made lots of money.’ Amis goes to any length to remind us of our whole-hearted addiction to the unwholesome – to alcohol, say, or nuclear weapons. The central character in his new novel, The Information, is so committed to smoking that he wants to start again before he’s even given up: ‘Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn’t be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette.’ Keith Talent in London Fields feels much the same way about pornography: ‘He had it on all the time, and even that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted it on when he was asleep. He wanted it on when he wasn’t there.

In The Information, a pitilessly professional literary agent explains that nowadays the public can only keep in mind one thing per writer. Authors need definition, ‘like a signature. Drunk, young, mad, fat, sick: you know.’ Amis’s handle could well be: insatiable. And not just because he has become such a Post-Modern operation that, as we used to say of Madonna, even his publicity gets publicity. One of his favourite metaphors – for accumulating phone-calls, deals, anxieties – is of jets stacked in the sky above some fogbound airport (perhaps ‘Manderley International Junk Novel Airport’), a consummate image for contemporary over-stimulation and over-supply, for what can barely be accommodated and yet won’t nearly suffice. Amis once proposed ‘never being satisfied’ as Philip Roth’s great theme, but it is the boundless nature of need that he, too, endlessly celebrates and satirises. And if Amis is the poet of profligacy, the expert on excess, it is because he is himself full of what he might call male need-to-tell, what John Updike has diagnosed as an urge ‘to cover the world in fiction’. Money may have been the definitive portrait of Eighties materialism, but Amis has a sly suspicion that we haven’t yet tired of reading about the things we cannot get too much of – like fame and money, sex and information.

Amis’s latest anti-hero suffers from too much information, and not nearly enough fame, money or sex. Richard Tull, a ‘charisma bypass’, lives on the obscure margins of the literary world. The author of a clutch of difficult novels with hopeless titles like Aforethought and Untitled, he works as a shamefaced employee of a vanity publisher, edits the aptly named Little Magazine, and reviews ever-fatter biographies of ever-more second-rate writers (but at least ‘when he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed’). Richard’s lot goes beyond the common unhappiness of the mediocre. The morning post brings demands from his publishers for the return of advances on unwritten books, and a solicitor’s letter from his own solicitor; he is acutely impotent, and – plagued by intimations of his own mortality (having just hit 40) – cries to himself in the middle of the night. What twists failure’s stiletto ever deeper is the corresponding success of his only friend, Gwyn Barry. Gwyn has written a blandly accessible novel about a New-Age utopia and, inexplicably, become an international bestseller. Richard is more than bitter: he is consumed beyond all reason, ‘exhaustingly ever-hostile’. And so, in the best tradition of Amis characters, he formulates a plan, a mission: ‘to fuck Gwyn up’.

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