- 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’.
Of course, Richard proves no better at revenge than at anything else. The over-laboured joke of the book is the comprehensiveness with which he fails, and the rashness with which he ever assumes ‘this is the worst.’ Richard doesn’t just get charged with drunken driving, he drives his car head-on into a police station. His latest novel doesn’t just prove unreadable, it gives people splitting headaches, double vision, lands them in hospital with vasomotor rhinitis. He sends Gwyn a random copy of the enormously fat Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, with an anonymous note pretending that it mentions him – and it does. He swallows his Larkinesque pride at never having been to America, and accompanies Gwyn on a publishing tour of the States, but his cunning attempts to sway the judges of the ‘Profundity Prize’ only ensure that Gwyn wins. He hires a professional thug to do Gwyn some serious damage, but the professional turns out to be a psychopath, and it is Richard who gets beaten up, and his own family who are placed at risk.
As Richard’s strategies variously fizzle out or detonate in his face, the narrative takes the form of one of the many books he’s failed to write: ‘The History of Increasing Humiliation’. We soon realise that all plot lines, all other characters exist only in so far as they serve to detain Richard in a never-ending ‘Mahabharata of pain’. If Gwyn never quite seems a worthy subject of Richard’s outsize fury, it is because he never carries much conviction as a subject. Similarly, the women in the novel remain mere objects of desire and disappointment. They may know all about tears (a woman crying is ‘make-up in melt-down’), but they don’t get to read Proust, write books or take any decisions: Amis frankly gives up on the attempt to make them more than two-dimensional, acknowledging ‘difficulties of representation’. He also reminds us more than once that literary genres are in a muddle, now that ‘decorum is no longer observed’, but perhaps another decline is unintentionally mapped in this novel, a descent from black comedy to mechanical farce. For despite the ever-entertaining wit, the only twist is that there is no twist, and a terrible predictability sets in, as though Richard’s chronic habit of failure had consumed the novel itself.
The Information makes much of rivalry and hatred between authors, but to describe the book’s subject as literary rivalry seems a category mistake, of the kind Richard’s son Marco repeatedly makes (‘If you told Marco why the chicken crossed the road, Marco would ask you what the chicken did next’). Rather, The Information is a study of envy and egomania that happens to play itself out in the world of publishing. Nicholson Baker in U and I probed the devastating realisation that Updike ‘writes better than I do and is smarter than I am’. Here, though, there is no sense of one writer warding off another’s potentially crushing influence, or of the fragile accommodations made between near-equals. It has long been a tenet of Amis’s writing that rivalry (like success) is something that American authors are particularly good at; he has written about the enmity of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, and now cites Berryman’s unease at Lowell’s pre-eminence (‘Who’s number one? Who’s number one?’). But how does this relate to The Information? Richard writes Joycean novels on a scale of difficulty that would make even Gilbert Sorrentino blanch (his latest involving no less than 16 unreliable narrators). Gwyn’s work, by contrast, is so politically correct and user-friendly that, as Richard outrageously comments, it would only be remarkable if he’d written it with his foot. If The Information has anything to say about literary rivalry it is because, for Amis, writing is an activity as inherently confrontational as tennis, or tag wrestling. Authors ‘are competing for something there is only one of: the universal. They should want to go the mat.’ There may seem something ludicrous about the notion of an exclusive ‘universal’, as though truths (like publishers’ advances) are in limited supply. But then the author, according to Amis, is the one who wants it all, who cannot be satisfied: ‘like all writers, Richard wanted, and expected, the reverence due, say, to the Warrior Christ an hour before Armageddon.’
If The Information fails to induce apocalyptic awe, it may be because, apart from the droll sketches of literary circles, this new novel is a very familiar Amiscellany. There’s too much of the same: male envy, not least between authors and near twins; furious games of tennis (‘you haven’t got a backhand. It’s just a wound in your side’); alcohol-fuelled trips to America, empire of trex; sad men staring disgustedly in bathroom mirrors at faces blasted with age and ridden with ‘big boys’; villains who speak a post-Yardie patois and believe in getting their retaliation in first; talk of ‘batch’ and ‘spinst’, and orthodontic descriptions of urban decay (‘the sound of fiercely propelled metal as it ground against stone ... the whole city taking it deep in the root canal’). The cosmological interludes of London Fields return with a vengeance: ‘The quasars are so far away and getting further away so fast.This is to put Richard’s difficulties in context.’ This is also to risk a sense of fatigue, for over-use can make such astronomic comparisons seem all too dull and sublunary, perhaps prompting us to recall the Total Perspective Vortex featured in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that exquisite torture which does nothing more than show you your ultimate significance in relation to the rest of the universe.
Yet the loss of all sense of proportion is, of course, why Amis is so enjoyable to read. As the narrator of his first book, The Rachel Papers, at once laments and demonstrates, ‘one of the troubles with being over-articulate, with having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions, is that every turn in the conversation, every switch of posture, opens up an estate of verbal avenues with a myriad of side-turnings and cul-de-sacs.’ An improviser’s sense of the possible is both a strength and a flaw: we may feel that with The Information Amis has ended up down a cul-de-sac, but his writing is still fantastically rich. There is no better place to find the spot-on perception: Americans call everybody ‘sir’, but manage to make the word sound like ‘mac or bub or scumbag’; people’s mouths ‘nuzzle the necks’ of cellular telephones, and bike messengers wear ‘city scuba gear’; a flock of birds rears up ‘like a join-the-dots puzzle of a human face or fist’; in pre-natal classes, adults sit around on the floor and gaze up at teacher ‘like the children they would shortly bear’.
The offbeam precision of the Martian poet is only one of Amis’s modes, but it lends his writing such casual authority that frequent assumptions of the first person plural are unusually persuasive, even when ‘we’ would rather be included out: ‘Bitter is manageable. Look how we all manage it.’ ‘We may think we are swearing at others, at traffic. But who is the traffic?’ Hungry for the universal, and attentive to the vagaries of excess, Amis will go places other writers won’t: ‘if we think about it, we all know the sneak preview of schizophrenia, with the toilet paper, those strange occasions when there seems to be no good reason to stop wiping.’ Often, though, Amis’s imagined reader seems more specific, a product of what Richard’s son calls ‘male-pattern boldness’: ‘The sense of relief, of clarity and surety a man feels, at the prospect of temptation, when he knows he has washed his cock before leaving the house.’
In his earlier novels, a more-or-less-recognisable ‘Martin Amis’ might appear and make playful remarks, such as: ‘I really don’t want to join it, the whole money conspiracy.’ Martin Amis’s presence in those books modishly alluded to Heisenberg’s principle (an observed system interacts with its observer) and dramatised the unequal, even sadistic relationship between author and creation. The Information features more of ‘Martin Amis’ but less of the playfulness. Richard can’t seem to decide if our present ironic age ends up with stories about writers, or with stories about ‘rabble, flotsam, vermin’. Certainly it is the latter which allowed Amis and ‘Amis’ to come into their own. Where in London Fields we learn that Keith Talent went through his mid-life crisis at the age of 19, or read that ‘in common with Leo Tolstoy, Keith Talent thought of time as moving past him while he just stayed the same,’ the gap between the protagonist’s low-life awareness and the author’s cruelly superior understanding was the joke, the ironic motor for the fiction. But The Information is dominated by Richard Tull, a figure who (success and readability apart) is much like Martin Amis. Admittedly ‘Martin Amis’ tells us about the very specific perils of teenage dating when you stand only 5-feet-six (‘or 5’ 6½”, according to a passport I once had’), but he, too, takes his kids to Dogshit Park, shares many of Richard’s thoughts, and would seem to know what it is to experience a mid-life crisis – or, rather more grandly, ‘a crisis of the middle years’.
That crisis finds narrative expression in a kind of theatrical throwing-up of hands: ‘how can I ever play the omniscient, the all-knowing, when I don’t know anything?’ Amis-the-narrator keeps reminding us that he doesn’t control his own characters (‘To be clear: I don’t come at these people. They come at me. They come at me like information formed in the night.’) Where the unstoppable John Self knew he had our sympathy (even if he wanted ‘much, much more of it’), ‘Amis’ makes a show of interrupting himself, dismissing language and fiction as inadequate to the task, losing his patience like a harassed teacher: ‘We are agreed – come on; we are agreed – about beauty in the flesh.’ But this forsaking of authority is everywhere betrayed by flexes of authorial muscle (‘I think we might switch for a moment to the point of view of Richard’s twin sons’), and by the sheer virtuosity of the writing. No one since Sterne has described impotence with such relish, even summarising the theme in literature (‘as for Casaubon and poor Dorothea: it must have been like trying to get a raw oyster into a parking meter’). Perhaps the one thing Amis cannot do, we realise, is communicate a Beckettian sense of exhaustion, or a feeling that he is no longer in control. When he declares that ‘the information is telling me to stop saying hi and start saying bye,’ we can’t help but note that only Amis would say it that well, with that vernacular spin – and, of course, want to say it at such length.
Redundancy is integral to the Amis project. Richard Tull delights in the self-defeating way in which abbreviations – MW for microwave, FWD for Four Wheel Drive – contain more syllables than the words they represent. Similarly, Amis flourishes three dazzling similes when one would do, or conjures up the perfect image, only to take it one step further: ‘If the eyes were the window to the soul, then the window is a windscreen, after a transcontinental drive; and his cough sounded like a wiper on the dry glass.’ Amis likens the beer-sticky streets of Ladbroke Grove to the darkness and fire of Pandemonium, and indeed his similes are increasingly Miltonic, always threatening to detach themselves from the main narrative and strike out on their own. Thus Richard, about to enter Gwyn’s large and lavish house:
Gwyn’s set-up always flattened him. He was like the chinless cadet in the nuclear submarine, small-talking with one of the guys as he untwirled the bolt (routine check) on the torpedo bay: and was instantly floored by a frothing phallus of sea-water. Deep down out there, with many atmospheres. The pressure of all that Gwyn had.
The primary pleasure of reading The Information is that of being regularly swept up in these epic, frothing digressions. The effect is like the description of an American interviewer Richard encounters, whose superficial ‘warmth’ and ‘niceness’ have been turned up on the dial ‘as if these qualities, like the yield of a hydrogen bomb, had no upper limit – the range had no top to it – and just went on getting bigger and bigger and better as you lashed them towards infinity.’ Such passages are so enjoyably overwhelming, so addictively all-consuming, that you feel you want to read a novel by Martin Amis even when you are reading a novel by Martin Amis.