As a returning lord

John Lanchester

  • Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis
    Cape, 127 pp, £5.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 224 02435 3

This comes from ‘Thinkability’, the introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, and is, in a way, a typical Martin Amis paragraph:

Every morning, six days a week, I leave the house and drive a mile to the flat where I work. For seven or eight hours I am alone. Each time I hear a sudden whining in the air or one of the more atrocious impacts of city life, or play host to a certain kind of unwelcome thought, I can’t help wondering how it might be. Suppose I survive. Suppose my eyes aren’t pouring down my face, suppose I am untouched by the hurricane of secondary missiles that all mortar, metal and glass has abruptly become: suppose all this. I shall be obliged (and it’s the last thing I shall feel like doing) to retrace that long ride home, through the firestorm, the remains of the thousand-mile-an-hour winds, the warped atoms, the grovelling dead. Then – God willing, if I still have my strength, and, of course, if they are still alive – I must find my wife and children and I must kill them.

Amis’s most obvious assets as a writer are his ear (‘When you’re writing,’ he told John Haffenden, in an exchange published in Novelists in Interview, ‘you run it through your mind until your tuning-fork is still’) and his energy. In the quoted paragraph, both are as they always were; the lines are also characteristic in the completeness with which they follow a train of thought, giving an effect of free-standing finishedness, like a stanza of verse.

In another way, though, and at the same time, it is quite a shock to find Amis writing in this new tone, a tone so anxiously and sombrely personal. ‘I would certainly sacrifice any psychological or realistic truth for a phrase, for a paragraph that has a spin on it,’ he told Haffenden: ‘that sounds whorish, but I think it’s the higher consideration. Mere psychological truth in a novel doesn’t seem to me all that valuable a commodity. I would sooner let the words prompt me, rather than anything I was representing.’ Einstein’s Monsters is a collection of five stories and an introductory essay, a collection which represents a spectacular retreat from – or advance beyond – the detached aestheticism of that loftily Nabokovian credo. The book announces an obsession with nuclear weapons; it also announces a new tonality in Amis’s writing, a darkening and a loss of exuberance in his address to the world. Saul Bellow, an exemplary figure for Amis in more than one respect, is relevant to the transition we are witnessing here: ‘Bellow has made his own experience resonate more memorably than any living writer. And yet he is also the first to come out on the other side of this process, enormously strengthened to contemplate the given world.’

The experience which resonates most memorably in Amis’s five novels is described by Charles Highway, narrator of The Rachel Papers: ‘One of the troubles with being over-articulate, with having a vocabulary more developed than your emotions, is that every turn in the conversation, every switch of posture, opens up an estate of verbal avenues with a myriad side-turnings and cul-de-sacs – and there are no signposts but your own sincerity and good taste, and I’ve never had much of either. All I know is that I can go down any one of them and be welcomed as a returning lord.’ In creating themselves through language, Amis’s protagonists – as well as being a laugh a line – have a fluidity of character that can be dangerous, and not only to themselves. The business of educating yourself out of this condition parallels the ethical self-training that all writers of fiction undergo. When, in Money, we meet the character Martin Amis, he seems, in his fully developed selfhood, a curiously stiff and priggish figure (‘I get up at seven and write straight through till twelve. Twelve to one I read Russian poetry – in translation, alas. A quick lunch, then art history until three ...’) compared to the unformed, uneducated John Self, the attractive monster of language and of appetite. A sentence of Northrop Frye’s has a lot of bearing on Money: ‘The culture of the past is not only the memory of mankind, but our own buried life, and study of it leads to a recognition scene, a discovery in which we see, not our past lives, but the total cultural form of our present life.’ Amis has passed through that recognition scene, but Self has not: he is not free. This theme is another source of Amis’s kinship with Bellow: ‘Many times in Bellow’s novels we are reminded that “being human” isn’t the automatic condition of every human being. Like freedom or sanity, it is not a given but a gift, a talent, an accomplishment, an objective. In achieving it, some will need time or thought or help.’ ‘Human’ is, in Amis’s writing, a word which always has a special weight, a special glow.

In Einstein’s Monsters, Amis writes about becoming human, but in a form new for him – the parable. ‘The Little Puppy That Could’ (debts acknowleged to Nabokov and Kafka) is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which ‘natural selection had given way to a kind of reverse discrimination or tokenism. Any bloody fool of an amphibious parrot or disgraceful three-winged stoat had as much chance of survival, of success, as the slickest, the niftiest, the most singleminded dreck-eating ratlet or invincibly carapaced predator.’ A village is being terrorised by a giant, homovorous, dog; an adorable little puppy arrives, is adopted by the anomalously beautiful Andromeda and is given a home and a name (Jackajack). Eventually there is a catastrophic immolation, and a rebirth:

She opened the door and said,

  ‘Jackajack?’

  The boy stood there, against a swirl of stars, his body still marked by the claws and the flames. She reached up to touch the tears in his human eyes.

  ‘John,’ she said.

  His arms were strong and warlike as he turned and led her into the cool night. They stood together on the hilltop and gazed down at their new world.

The tone of this, and the explicit sentimentality it risks – perhaps more than risks – is something new in Amis’s work. The story leaves a blurred, uneasy feeling in the reader’s mind: a feeling you get used to in Einstein’s Monsters. ‘The Immortals’, again set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, is narrated by a character who has lived for millions of years (‘I think I must have been a dud god or something’) and is now in New Zealand, watching the last human beings die. But there is a twist: it turns out that one of the symptoms of radiation sickness is the victim’s illusion of immortality. ‘Sometimes I have the weird idea that I am just a second-rate New Zealand schoolteacher who never went anywhere or did anything and is now painfully and noisily dying of radiation sickness along with everybody else.’ On a first reading, the story is a Woody Allen sketch (‘If I thought the Permian age was the pits it was only because I hadn’t yet lived through the Triassic’) with a darker-than-usual ending. With further readings, however, the story takes on a more sustainedly compassionate timbre and its focus seems to shift, so that its emotional centre is no longer the surprise ending but the pain and loss which are evoked almost parenthetically: ‘A million times I have been bereaved, and then another million. What pain I have known, what megatons of pain.’ This modulates into the truth: ‘It’s strange how palpable it is, this fake past, and how human: I feel I can reach out and touch it. There was a woman, and a child. One woman. One child ...’ The stories in Einstein’s Monsters are haunted, as is the introduction, by the imagined deaths of children. Often, this death (these deaths) is where the real imaginative weight of the story seems to be placed; the emotional balance is, as in ‘The Immortals’, slightly off-centre. In ‘Insight at Flame Lake’, the schizophrenic son of a recently-dead atomic scientist holidays with his uncle and aunt and their newborn baby. The baby is at risk from the schizophrenic, who has thrown his medication into the lake (he has ‘insight’ – he knows he’s sick); unborn children are at risk from the bomb (the scientists have a standing joke – ‘Dad: “Death to the babies.” Andrei: “And to your babies.” Dad: “And to your babies’ babies” ’); children at large are just plain at risk. The nephew kills himself, and the story ends with the voice of his uncle, in a passage whose strength comes from the restraint with which it hides real bitterness and despair behind a casual, throwaway manner:

On the back of the half-gallon carton of homogenised, pasteurised, vitamin-D-fortified milk there are two mugshots of smiling children, gone missing (Have You Seen Them?). Date of birth, 7/7/79. Height, 3’6”. Hair, brown. Eyes, blue. Missing, and missed too, I’ll bet – oh, most certainly. Done away with, probably, fucked and thrown over a wall somewhere, fucked and murdered, yeah, that’s the most likely thing. I don’t know what is wrong.

We get Amis’s answer to the question ‘what is wrong?’ in the first story in the collection, ‘Bujak and the Strong Force’. It describes Bujak, a sixty-year-old strongman and philosopher whose mother, daughter and granddaughter are murdered. Bellow gets the source-acknowledgment, but the story also owes a debt to Capote, Mailer and the ‘non-fiction novel’ of murder, a form which Amis has criticised for its lack of ‘moral imagination, moral artistry ... When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply, with murder – and with the human messiness and futility which attend all death.’ ‘Bujak’ is an examination of murder which seeks to restore the moral artistry by seeking a cause for apparently random action – seeking it, and finding it too. ‘All peculiarly modern ills, all fresh distortions and distempers, Bujak attributed to one thing: einsteinian knowledge, knowledge of the strong force. It was his central paradox that the greatest – the purest, the most magical – genius of our time should introduce the earth to such squalor, profanity and panic.’ The murderers are ‘vivid representatives of the 20th century – Einstein’s monsters’, just as the Author’s Note has told us that ‘we are Einstein’s monsters, not fully human, not for now.’

It’s ‘Bujak’ which, while providing the strongest evidence of a new range and a new compassion in Amis’s writing, also brings the difficulties with Einstein’s Monsters into clearer focus. ‘What is the hidden determinant that could explain it all?’ asks the narrator. It’s a dangerous question for a writer of fiction to be interested in. ‘The truth is,’ Amis wrote once, ‘that in the vacuum of success Mailer had fallen prey to the novelist’s fatal disease: ideas. His naiveté about “answers”, “the big illumination”, “the secret of everything”, persists to this day.’ Amis is alert to this naivety because he is also prone to it: there’s a curious simplemindedness in the idea that there will be a ‘hidden determinant’ at all, let alone one as concrete as nuclear weapons. It’s not that ‘Thinkability’ is not brilliant, and it’s not that the stories aren’t compelling – it is, they are – it’s just that the book’s polemic is suggestive rather than convincing. ‘Thinkability’ in fact undermines the stories by alerting us pre-emptively to their concerns: this effect is at its worst on the imagistic level. ‘My impression is that the subject resists frontal assault. For myself, I feel it as a background, a background which then insistently foregrounds itself.’ That isn’t what the reader feels when he reads of ‘the strong force, the energy locked in matter’, of ‘spin and charm, redshifts and blueshifts’, of the lake which ‘is like an explosion, in the last second before it explodes’, of ‘the leptons of the sun’ which ‘warily encircled the waiting earth and its strong force’, of the puppy which ‘seemed freer than air, whimsically lithe, subatomic, superluminary, all spin and charm, while the dog moved on rails like a bull, pure momentum and mass, and forever subject to their laws’. There are a lot of these images, and every single one of them is like a twenty-five-stone sunbathing nudist – very conspicuous, very inert. In writing about nuclear weapons, ‘questions of decorum present themselves with a force not found elsewhere.’ True. But: ‘The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima was a beautiful spectacle, even though it owed its colour to a kiloton of human blood.’

Einstein’s Monsters is an uneven, unsettled book. Where Money seems, on each further reading, to be more and more of an achievement (A.N. Wilson recently wrote about his regret at having failed to notice, at the time of reviewing, that it was a masterpiece), Einstein’s Monsters doesn’t give a clear impression either of success or of failure. There is certainly a new emotional range in it, but at the same time, the attempt to focus on nuclear weapons as an all-embracing explanation of late 20th-century malaise does not convince. If the book lived by that idea, it would die by it too – but it doesn’t, its real life is elsewhere. ‘Clearly, a literary theme cannot be selected, cannot be willed; it must come along at its own pace.’ That ‘clearly’ is partly a bluff: it seems to me that Amis, at some level of consiousness, chose the subject of nuclear weapons as a vehicle to demonstrate a new manner and new range of concerns; and that discrepancy between declared intention and real imaginative nexus is what causes the sense of provisionality and of strainedness in this book. Its real imaginative focus is hard to pinpoint, but it is something to do with the death of children – something to do with dead babies. In any case, however Amis got into this subject, it’s too late now: he clearly hasn’t finished with it, nor it with him. Middle Amis is upon us. As an instance of the almost visionary power that he can now attain, here is the ending of ‘Bujak’, where the image of the dead loved ones is at its most haunting:

He once said to me: ‘There must be more matter in the universe than we think. Else the distances are horrible. I’m nauseated.’ Einsteinian to the end, Bujak was an Oscillationist, claiming that the Big Bang will forever alternate with the Big Crunch, that the universe would expand only until unanimous gravity called it back to start again. At that moment, with the cosmos turning on its hinges, light would begin to travel backward, received by the stars and pouring from our human eyes. If, and I can’t believe it, time would also be reversed, as Bujak maintained (will we move backward too? will we have any say in things?), then this moment as I shake his hand shall be the start of my story, his story, our story, and we will slip downtime of each other’s lives, to meet four years from now, when, out of the fiercest grief, Bujak’s lost women will reappear, born in blood (and we will have our conversations, too, backing away from the same conclusion), until Boguslawa folds into Leokadia, and Leokadia folds into Monika, and Monika is there to be enfolded by Bujak until it is her turn to recede, kissing her fingertips, backing away over the fields to the distant girl with no time for him (will that be any easier to bear than the other way around?), and then big Bujak shrinks, becoming the weakest thing there is, helpless, indefensible, naked, weeping, blind and tiny, and folding into Roza.