J’Accuzi

Frank Kermode

  • The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America by Martin Amis
    Cape, 208 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 224 02385 3

Martin Amis begins this collection of ‘left-handed’ (i.e. journalistic) pieces by deploying two standard topoi. The first is the modesty topos, duly described by Curtius, though under the tendentious title of ‘affected modesty’: ‘I am inadequate to the subject; I haven’t really done enough work, etc.’ ‘Oh, no doubt I should have worked harder,’ writes Amis, ‘made the book more representative, more systematic, et cetera. It remains, however, a collection of peripatetic journalism.’ He goes on to say that it’s quite hard work xeroxing from bound volumes of periodicals, and that the actual writing of the pieces put him to some trouble. So much for modesty. The second topos, unnoticed by Curtius, might be named ‘accidental book-writing’. Somebody asks you to write a book about America, and, riffling through your clippings, you discover to your gratified surprise that you’ve already written it. Many of us have had this experience, peering hopefully at our disject reviews and essays, written in all probability when we should, in our own opinion, have been doing something more right-handed, more systematic, more serious. It’s like having a baby without knowing you’re pregnant: no nausea, no check-ups, just the bother of getting the layette together in a hurry. Alas, such pregnancies are usually of the phantom variety, and the product, like that of the usurer’s wife in the folktale, turns out to be nothing but a little moneybag. He who depends on the accidental book-writing topos had better use the modesty one as well.

However, when one discounts these tactical moves and reads on, one quickly sees that there isn’t much to apologise for in this collection. A few pieces might better have been omitted, a few could have been more generously extended: but taking the thing as a whole it stands up not only as a book about America but as a prodigiously gifted one. A reviewer ought to try to say how, with so much against him, the author pulls this off. The easy answer is that the book is ‘beautifully written’, but as Amis himself remarks, that expression has been devalued, and nowadays means little more than ‘freedom from gross infelicity’. What we’re dealing with here is felicity. This kind of writing has nothing whatever in common with American New Journalism, some pieces of which, as Amis notes, are as long as Middlemarch, and positively Asiatic in manner. He, on the other hand, is brief and relatively Attic (‘Vidal’s looks, in common with everything else about Vidal, are dear to Vidal’s heart’). These differences in length and manner may have something to do with the exiguous spaces in which English, as opposed to American, journalists have to operate: but there is also a difference of temperament, of which one might take a rough measure by comparing, say, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ with The Armies of the Night.

Amis knows America, and not just the gaudy places, occasions and persons his job compels him to seek out: he knows it as an English writer. He comes into his own stories in various disguises. He wears a badge calling him ‘Marty Amis’, less to identify him, than to prove he is not really himself at American conventions. Usually he represents himself as pretty low-key, hunched, demure and perceptive, saving the wit and the occasional indignation till later: l’esprit de la machine à écrire. This is the spirit in which he confronts his beloved America – land of the profit-making casualty ward, the taxi-metered ambulance; where making money, like mass murder, is an autotelic pursuit. It isn’t surprising that the author of Money is deeply interested in what Americans do with their huge accumulations of the stuff.

One of the things they do is to give it to evangelical preachers, including Jerry Falwell, who once had the ear of President Reagan, and who is obviously enjoying the Last Days, since he believes, with millions of other fundamentalist Americans, including, it seems, the President, that there will quite shortly be a nuclear holy war over Jerusalem: after which, he assured Amis, ‘Russia will be a fourth-rate power and Israel will astonish the world.’ Amis attended a Reagan rally at El Paso, Texas. ‘I strolled among the Skips and Dexters, the Lavernes and Francines, admiring all the bulging Wranglers and stretched stretch-slacks. This felt like Reagan country all right, where everything is big and fat and fine. This is where you feel slightly homosexual and left-wing if you don’t weigh twenty-five stone.’ Reagan is greeted with laughter, applause, cheers and whoops; the whooping seems to be a new development, but a mere supplement to the laughter, which doesn’t ‘express high spirits or amusement but a willed raucousness’.

Another thing they do with their money is spend it in places like the Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, the tallest hotel in the world: you take the scenic elevator to the 72nd floor and enjoy a Cloud Buster (‘a refreshing blend of coconut milk, pineapple juice and vodka served in a souvenir replica of the Hotel’) for $7.95. Down below, at the time of the author’s visit, black children were being murdered, nobody could say why or by whom.

There’s a certain link between money and death, which is what makes Claus von Bülow so famous. There’s a link, also, between money and not dying for as long as possible, like the ‘mottled, golf-trousered oldsters’ of Palm Beach, whose lawns are like Astroturf, whose carpets are like bubblebaths, and who are all perpetually in good shape, the women ‘still going strong, prinked, snipped, tucked, capped, patched, pinched, rinsed, lopped, pruned, pared, but still going strong’. There is a further link between money and sex, symbolised by Hugh Hefner’s circular bed and his lifestyle therein. The Playboy operation, and with it Hefner’s ‘den of innocuousness’, as Amis calls it, has been transferred to California, land of the innumerate billionaire, ‘where a game of Scrabble is a literary event’.

Is there a link between money and the arts? Yes, the link is American fame, quite unlike any other kind and inseparable from money. There was, on the popular side, Presley, with his colossal meals of junk food, his drugs, his nappies. But much lesser figures have to enjoy or endure fame too. It is uncontrollable. Multiple rapists and winners of ugly-contests are bombarded with offers of marriage. So what happens to somebody like Truman Capote? Amis interviewed him quite brilliantly but you can see how desperate the fun must have been. Capote was a celebrity at 16, a multi-millionaire at 40, and dead at 59. ‘All the excess, solipsism, paranoia and ambition of American letters was crammed into those years.’ When an English writer makes a hit (according to Amis) he buys a new typewriter. An American begins a long struggle with fame. Mailer is interviewed here, ‘wondering how much of his charm he will need to disclose’ – an older man now, but still the one who followed up a good book by being famous, by peddling a philosophy ‘grounded on drugs, mighty orgasms, fistfights, and doing what he liked all the time’. Burroughs fares no better: most of what he writes is ‘trash, and lazily obsessive trash, too’. Joan Didion is suitably seared. Brian de Palma, the light-fingered flash trash movie brute who can’t even walk properly, is asked by the interviewer to explain ‘why his films make no sense’, not a sequitur in sight. Neither do Hitchcock’s, says the genius; neither does life. Gore Vidal comes off better, since Amis has a slightly excessive admiration for Vidal as essayist, and also he can be amusing. Why did it cross his mind to want to be President? Well, he says, I’m good on TV, which is what it takes. ‘Admittedly I lack the character and wisdom of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. But the office itself ennobles.’ Mr Vidal works mostly in Italy, to avoid the fate of stay-at-home American writers, which is alcoholism, but he’s famous just the same, and also very rich, for the American public gives him money too.

Amis warns us not ‘to indulge our vulgar delight in American vulgarity’. And to call much of what he reports simply vulgar would be crassly to miss the point. What I particularly like about this book is that even when it is funniest it isn’t missing the point. Here is the author at a Falwell service in Virginia, when the preacher asks the congregation to form threes and pray together out loud: ‘Until that moment I had been performing a nervous, if quite passive, imitation of a devout Virginian. When people jotted down apophthegms I took notes; when they sang hymns I mimed along; when they prayed for salvation, I prayed for a Winston King Size and a large gin and tonic. But suddenly the young man on my left, who had kindly shared his Bible with me during the readings, turned to me and said, “You wanna pray together?” – and I, for some reason, said, “Surely.” ’ The young man asks the Lord to help America in its hour of etc, etc, and to ease Sue-Ann’s rheumatism; Amis, ‘in rocky Virginian’, babbles out ‘something about our people in Tehran ... ’ He could go through with this not only because he is resourceful and amusing but because Falwell is a serious problem and needs every bit of ridicule that can be mustered. When it is necessary to be serious about serious people, he is. Diana Trilling, not easily flattered, might well be pleased to have it said of her that ‘you have to watch what you say when she’s around,’ to ‘weed out your lazier, sloppier thoughts’. And Amis’s favourite American seems to be thoughtful, gloomy, energetic Saul Bellow, who gets both the opening and the closing essays. Bellow gave currency to the expression ‘moronic inferno’, which Amis thinks apt not only to America but to the rest of us; it is hard to feel cheerful about it; Bellow of course doesn’t, though it seems Spielberg does, and Amis quite likes him for it. However, he has most sympathy for intellectuals who are deeply dismayed by modern America. Wherever you look – Chicago, California, Georgia, New York – corruption, moral and mental idiocy. The writers – Didion, Talese, Mailer are given special treatment – underline the message. Nothing is real until it is turned into TV, fed into PR. And this America, book-burning, creationist, mass-murdering, sick with health, impoverished with money, personal relationships swamped in jargon – this America is the blueprint for a possible future elsewhere. Why, then, do we like it? Why do intelligent Americans like it? It sounds terrible.

Long ago Marcuse used to tell us how a ‘free’ society could be repressive, the needs of its members pre-programmed, and how to protest against this would be to incur the charge of wimpishness. And it is true that the programmes have grown more exigent, the cults of celebrity and money more extreme, anti-intellectualism grosser and more aggressive. Much the same is true, allowing for differences of degree and style, of our own society. In fact, the delighted horror Amis communicates is very much the kind you feel in the funhouse: we see a carnivalised, distorted version of ourselves. And behind the carnival there is, as there must be, an order, and strong voices still speaking for it. We would do well, as we giggle, to reflect on the survival through all the hype, the bogus entertainment, the dangerous politics, of a genuine American radicalism, a willingness to follow through if a cause seems just, regardless of cost and inconvenience. The agent might be the Supreme Court (even as at present constituted) or it might be Gloria Steinem. We, who tolerate limitations on freedom unknown to Americans, might feel a bit embarrassed about some of the consequences. Pondering Steinem’s ideals, Amis asks: ‘Would I want to be a writer in a feminist utopia? Would anybody? Wouldn’t it encourage the general thirst for ready-made or second-hand lives’ at the expense of personality? These are English misgivings, and Amis admires Steinem without wanting to be part of her world. For one thing, the energy costs would be enormous.

Anyway, the encounter of the fascinated but somewhat daunted Englishman with the moronic inferno or funhouse is a huge success because it is perceptive, witty and felicitously written. Just a little more editorial care, a little less of that English sprezzatura (very un-American), could have eliminated some repetitions: ‘jacuzzi-infested’ is better the first time round than the second, and even Gore Vidal’s epigrams lose quality, except in the opinion of Vidal himself, when reiterated. But all that is easily forgiven, for this is a terrific book.