My feelings about Martin Amis are complicated, as is surely only proper. His latest novel is odd and discontinuous and in the end incoherent, with much stopping and starting, and echoing of previous novels, and quoting from Shakespeare, and other things that might be adduced as evidence of artistic stalling or, alternatively, as developments towards a late style – there’s even a bizarre final-act revelation involving a lady draped in ‘the hijab’, which could make sense only in a Winter’s Tale-type romance. Let’s begin, though, with a wave in the direction of some good bits. On what ageing does to the skin of the middle-class male body:
As you pass the half-century, the flesh, the coating on the person, begins to attenuate. And the world is full of blades and spikes. For a year or two your hands are as nicked and scraped as a schoolboy’s knee. Then you learn to protect yourself. This is what you’ll go on doing until, near the end, you are doing nothing else – just protecting yourself. And while you are learning to do that, a doorkey is a doornail, and the flap on the letterbox is a meat-slicer, and the very air is full of spikes and blades.
Sheep, as heard by townies on holiday:
Naa, said the sheep. Nah. Nah! … The entirely understandable boredom (ragged, end-of-tether) that went with being a sheep.
And the traditional Amis shortarse anxiety, owned up to and acknowledged in the person of the hero – who is called Keith Nearing and is said to occupy ‘that much disputed territory between 5’6” and 5’7”’ – but also redoubled, in a wonderfully horrid low comic coup, by a minor character called Adriano, who is rich, aristocratic, handsome, a daredevil, and only 4’10”: ‘You know what they looked like?’ someone says, having seen Adriano standing next to his well-over-six-foot brother. ‘They looked like a bottle of Scotch and a miniature. The same brand and the same label.’
The novel begins with much throat-clearing and attention-seeking, the sort of thing Fay Weldon said she learned from working in advertising – lots of sensational copylines designed to draw you in. ‘This is the story of a sexual trauma’; ‘She loomed up on him unclothed and unarmed, with her pincers of bliss’; ‘It was the opposite of torture, yet it twisted. It ruined him for 25 years.’ The actual set-up scene is terrific: it’s 1970, and Keith is 20, an English literature student at London University, on holiday at a rich friend’s castle in Campania. He’s gone for an evening stroll in the nearby village with Lily, his on-off lover, and Scheherazade, her second-best friend, both girls English and blonde and, for southern Europe 40 years ago, somewhat underdressed. ‘Swiftly and surreally’ they are surrounded ‘by a swarm of young men’,
whooping, pleading, cackling – and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and knaves, shuffling and riffling and fanning out under the street-lamps … The energy coming off them was on the level … of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot – but they didn’t actually touch, they didn’t actually impede; and after a hundred yards they fell like noisy soldiery into loose formation, a dozen or so contenting themselves with the view from the rear, another dozen veering in from either side, and the vast majority up ahead and walking backward. And when do you ever see that? A crowd of men, walking backward?
There is much potential – hot girls, massed men, explosive sexual frustration – for the sort of ugly comedy Amis often enjoys, but it’s handled with a restraint that turns, almost, to earnestness, as a wise old homosexual pads on to caution that they should look ‘at these guys with a bit of perspective’. Italy, the man says, is just beginning to make the transition from ‘shame and honour. It’s like Afghanistan. Or Somalia’ (the first of many weird and anachronistic irony-of-history references to the early 21st-century clash of civilisations). And if looking at ‘these guys with a bit of perspective’ were not un-Amislike enough, here and elsewhere the book contorts itself to present these girls with almost bien pensant sympathy. Later, Eric Hobsbawm – ‘a distinguished Marxist historian’ – is cited, and so is the Equal Pay Act, and the National Organisation for Women. And ‘The Female Eunuch … Women’s Estate … Sexual Politics … and Our Bodies, Ourselves’, which ‘all appeared in 1970, back to back, and with perfect timing. It was official. It was here, and just for Keith.’