- Night Train by Martin Amis
Cape, 149 pp, £10.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 224 05018 4
For three words once, in 1987, Martin Amis sounded like D.H. Lawrence. ‘Art celebrates life,’ he wrote in his keenly anti-nuclear Introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, and then he went back to being himself: ‘and not the other thing, not the opposite of life.’ Before nuclear weapons had dawned on him – ‘I say I “became” interested, but really I was interested all along’ – it was not always clear what life Amis’s writing was on the side of. It had always seemed, reading the novels (though not, interestingly, his journalism), as if he wanted to find things to celebrate, but was hard-pressed to do so. Or that the reader had to work out what might matter to him, infer it from his exhilarated ridicule. The acute sense of people’s vulnerability in his writing made him sound like someone embarrassed by his own seriousness rather than a natural satirist. He seemed unduly self-conscious about being committed to anything other than himself as a writer, and the studied recklessness of his remarkable style. There are novelists who want to interest the reader in their characters, and novelists who want to interest us in themselves. In the second case the style is always tantalisingly suggestive of the life the writer must be living, or the unusual person he is. One of the many remarkable things about Amis is that he’s never been quite sure which kind of writer he wants to be; and at his best – in Success, in Money, in Time’s Arrow – he has been able to be both. The moralist and the celebrity are awkward bedfellows; they have to be as artful as Amis can be to pull it off.
The moralist in Amis has always insisted that not everything is literary; has done his best, that is to say, not to write campus novels – even though all his books are haunted by academics, either literally as characters, or as implied readers and critics. ‘It doesn’t look very literary out there, just now,’ Amis wrote in 1985. But literariness is like the vanity of the Miss Bertrams in Mansfield Park, which ‘was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it’. It doesn’t look very anything out there, without our descriptions of it (and nothing could be more literary than that ‘just now’). The idea of the literary has always been tricky for Amis – something both loathed and desired as a safe house – largely because he is a very literary writer obsessed by everything that is anti-literary in the culture (i.e. everyone and everything in the culture that doesn’t like books). His way of showing us in his novels how supposedly unliterary it is out there has been to write about urban poverty, violence, the streets, people who don’t read literature. And Amis then makes all this very literary indeed; which usually means, in his novels, frighteningly funny. So out there becomes in here very fast; and in here becomes very claustrophobic. Though he often writes about, indeed is fascinated by, the kind of people who would never read his books, or find them funny, it is not always obvious that there is an out there there. The longing in his books – and there is a lot, however muffled it often is by being too jokey or too explicit – is not merely for something more reassuring than contemporary life. It is for a way out of his vision of things. ‘Novels,’ he once wrote, ‘are all about not going out of the house.’ And his novels are most poignantly about style as solipsism.
Amis’s fiction uniquely picks up on a curious paradox of contemporary life: that the more we are told – by modern science as much as by TV, two of Amis’s obsessions – that there are other universes and other people, that there is more ‘out there’ than ever before, the more we feel trapped in our own lives. The more there is the more we feel excluded from. All Amis’s characters seem to live in their own tunnels – and he has an uncanny ability to evoke the eerie isolation and isolationism of their lives – with a narrator always trying to find an alternative to tunnel-vision. Self-consciousness, as a threat and a promise (the furtive logic, the demonic secrecy people live by), has been his great preoccupation, which makes suicide, especially the suicide of the nominally happy – the theme of Night Train – an obvious subject for him. If the ur-title of Amis’s work is Other People: A Mystery Story, the title of his least good novel, then we might have seen this one coming. Money, after all, for which Night Train is the darker sequel, was ‘a suicide note’. Nothing makes people more other to us than their suicide. Nothing makes them seem both more and less the authors of their own lives. Every suicide, like every mid-life crisis, is a whodunnit. So after The Information, in its wake as it were, comes the far more troubled and troubling Night Train: a mock-thriller about a subject profoundly unmocked by its author. And one of Amis’s most interesting books.
In a sense Night Train is two books, one of which could be called ‘A Reply to My Critics’. Writers, unlike politicians, should never listen to their critics. And on a first reading some of the least convincing parts of Night Train are those in which Amis tries to confront, if that’s the right word, political correctness; or rather, his own much-vaunted lack of it. He is rarely good at ‘doing’ women and blacks, and often quick to satirise those who are eager to be virtuous. (He is also, it should be said, very good at doing the ways in which people are often not very good at ‘doing’ these things.) But the flaunting of men’s idiocy about women, and their terror of other men, quickly became part of Amis’s stock in trade. Since all good satire is complicit with what it exposes – and every prejudice is a boast – what Freud called ‘the laughter of unease’ cuts both ways. Amis’s revelation about nuclear weapons was also a revelation about his own writing – nuclear weapons are the satirist’s ultimate device. They make a mockery of everything. And if you can destroy everything it might make you wonder what, if anything, you might want to keep. Of course the guilt of the satirist – the sight of the compulsively facetious becoming importantly earnest – is itself ripe for satire. For post-nuclear Amis, derision has become a more complicated thing. ‘Allow me to apologise in advance,’ the policewoman Mike Hoolihan, the heroine and narrator of Night Train, says very early on in the book, ‘for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and the bigotry.’ Night Train tries to be partly about what there might be to apologise for.
In Venus Envy, the most riveting critique of Amis’s style, Adam Mars-Jones mentions the pertinent fact that in his Introduction to Einstein’s Monsters Amis ‘makes no reference ... to the most single-minded demonstration of nuclear protest, the Peace Camp at Greenham Common, or the larger movement of which it is part’. Again, very early in Night Train, Mike Hoolihan, who seems unusually cultured (i.e. Oxbridge-cultured) for a middle-aged American cop, starts lecturing us, on her author’s behalf, about murder:
in full consciousness and broad daylight men sat at desks drawing up contingency plans to murder EVERYBODY. I kept saying out loud: ‘Where are the women?’ Where WERE the women? I’ll tell you: they were witnesses. Those straggly chicks in their tents on Greenham Common, England, making the military crazy with their presence and their stares – they were witnesses. Naturally, the nuclear arrangement, the nuclear machine, was strictly men only. Murder is a man thing.
The problem of writing from the virtuous point of view is that it comes out as cliché: virtue is mostly unoriginal. The writing only comes to life here with the ‘straggly chicks’ and the ‘murder is a man thing’: that is, where we want to take issue with the imaginative strength of the prejudices brought into play. ‘Witnesses’, a word made fashionable by the Holocaust Studies industry, is too portentous, too palpable in its designs on us. Amis often makes Hoolihan sound like a slangy, street-wise academic.
In Money there was a character called Martin Amis. In Night Train there is, in a sense, a character in drag called Martin Amis, who is the narrator of the book. Or, to put it another way, a character who is the opposite of the ‘real’ Martin Amis: ‘I used to be something,’ the female cop Mike Hoolihan writes, ‘but now I’m just another big blonde old broad.’ Hoolihan is so glaringly, so brashly literary that Amis makes us wonder what he’s up to. Hoolihan is the writer of the book, a shrewd ‘reader’ of crime scenes, suicide notes and character; she solves crimes like a novelist writes a book (‘I had to do this alone and in my own way. It’s how I’ve always worked’); she makes umpteen literary allusions; she’s even in a biography ‘discuss-group’. Amis is so accomplished – so admiring of the word-perfect 20th-century Flauberts: Pritchett, Bellow, Updike, Nabokov – that even though there may be notes we don’t like in his writing, there are never false notes. And yet it is too obvious that Mike Hoolihan, however much (at long last) she ‘represents’ the female voice in Amis’s boyish fiction – and she is, curiously, one of the most haunting narrators in Amis’s work – does not sound like a female cop in Homicide in ‘a second-echelon American city’ (even though few of us have known any). A cop like Mike, who by her own account (the only one we ever get of her), has ‘come in on the aftermath of maybe a thousand suspicious deaths’, would not, one imagines, write a book like Night Train, or ‘apologise ... for any inconsistencies in the tenses (hard to avoid, when writing about the recently dead) and for the informalities in the dialogue presentation’. If there is a joke here who is it on? And why does the writer have so much to apologise for? An apology, as Amis knows, is also a justification and an excuse. Like a suicide note, Night Train asks to be read more than once.
In all Amis’s fiction there has been a nostalgia – an odd mixture of yearning, excitement and dread – for a bit of amoral rough and tumble. For a tough and callous male world of the inarticulate and the sexually simple (like Keith in London Fields); for the streets as the extra-curricular, where violence doesn’t seem to hurt. Mike Hoolihan, as a police-person would, has ‘seen them all: jumpers, stumpers, dumpers, dunkers, bleeders, floaters, poppers, bursters. I have seen the bodies of bludgeoned one-year-olds. I have seen the bodies of gang-raped nonagenarians.’ Amis is the master of the escalating list; of the grotesque or the bizarre hysterically whipping up into nightmare and nonsense (as in his description of John Lennon’s decline: ‘bed-ins, bag-ins, be-ins, in-ins’). But the effect of his often brilliant verbal delirium is to make things wordy and unreal, language warding off the experience it describes, whisking it away. So Hoolihan implausibly combines the thug and the poet. She has been through it – the contemporary civil war on the streets – has seen it all, and, in her own (that is Amis’s) way, articulated it. And because she has been through it – has earned her words, something the novelist himself might worry about – and presumably because she is a woman, she is allowed to be a Sensitive Person. Or even a sentimental one. ‘But the minute you really go into someone. You and I both know that there’s always enough pain.’ Hoolihan is talking here to the father of the girl who has just killed herself (he was once Hoolihan’s boss). But in or out of context this is, by anyone’s standards, an archly ambiguous construction. On the one hand, she is saying simply: everyone is more unhappy than they seem – this is what intimacy always reveals. On the other hand, she is saying something more unsettling about sex and violence: about what sex may be like (murder or suicide). And Amis is knowingly using her, his male-named female narrator, to say these things. In other words, Hoolihan as a device, as a shrewd and suspect invention, allows Amis a broader register of feeling than is usual in his narrators; some of it too deliberately assuaging of his critics, but some of it extremely puzzling. And not in a trivially self-conscious way; partly because the novel is more subtle than Amis’s previous books about the terrifying mislogic of self-consciousness. Hoolihan doesn’t sound like she ought to sound, if she is what she says she is. What she says, or rather writes – the way she represents herself – doesn’t tally with what she is. Just like the faultlessly happy – ‘a kind of embarrassment of perfection’ – suicide, Jennifer Rockwell: at once the double and the nemesis of the narrator. If no one is out of character when they commit suicide, i.e. behaving eccentrically, what does that say about character or our capacity to make sense of it? This is not, in any simple sense, a literary question.
Amis may be trying to oblige his critics in this book – showing that he is taking them seriously as they get crosser and crosser with him – but he is also writing about one version of every parent’s worst fear: the suicide of their child. That is, the death for which they would feel most responsible. The death they might feel to be their murder. Or, in the case of Jennifer Rockwell (the daughter of a cop), want to have investigated as a murder. So Night Train is at once a spoof of a detective novel: Hoolihan is investigating a crime that was solved when it was discovered, and for which the perpetrator cannot be punished, in which the punishment is the crime. And a metaphysical thriller about cause and effect: ‘we all want a why for suicide,’ as Hoolihan says. And the novel makes much gruesomely amusing play with the fact that when it comes to suicide it’s easy to get the who and the how, but the why is a big problem. So the question that the novel investigates – the ‘crime’ that a novelist might be better equipped to solve than a detective – is: what is character without motive? ‘Suicides generate false data,’ Hoolihan informs us: ‘As a subject for study, suicide is perhaps uniquely incoherent. And the act itself is without shape and form.’ It makes a mockery, in other (more literary) words, of the expected satisfactions of narrative. Suicide violates our sense of an ending. And frantic to make sense of it, we are forced to go back to the beginning.
Whereas nothing could be more literary than murder (we say, ‘it’s a murder story,’ we never say: ‘it’s a suicide story’). It has an agent and an obstacle course; somebody does something to someone else: it’s a conventional drama. ‘With homicide now,’ Hoolihan says, ‘we don’t care about motive.’ Motives are easy to find, and they don’t matter that much. Suicide, on the other hand, even makes us wonder what qualifies as a motive; and who, or what, all this motive-hunting is for, since it is so much after the fact. Seemingly academic. After a suicide, cause and blame become inextricable; and questions about personal agency become urgent and obscure. The first line of Hamlet – ‘Who’s there?’ – made the question interesting. Amis suggests in Night Train that it may be impossible now to put the who back into the whodunnit. ‘Stop, I said,’ Hoolihan says during one of her ‘interviews’, ‘the more you’re telling me the less I understand. Give me the upshot.’ The upshot of Night Train is that no amount of information is going to tell us who is there. And that this is no longer an Arts v. Science question, but an Arts and Sciences v. the Law question.
Trader Faulkner (you can tell how good a novel is by the names of its characters), Jennifer’s partner, can bear the enigma of his beloved girlfriend’s death because he’s a ‘philosopher of science. He lives with unanswered questions.’ Whereas Jennifer’s father is a policeman (and a parent): he’s ‘going to want something neat’. It is only the law now that can make decisions, because it has to. Only the law that sticks to the old story of a beginning, a middle and an end. The law makes closure seem possible. It makes politics a form of correction. If someone is guilty there has to be someone there who can judge them. So it is not merely gratuitous that Amis’s A Reply to My Critics is about policing; or that a fictional investigation of a suicide is the setting for questions about the differences between the sexes and the correction in political correctness. Conclusions, Amis implies in this book, are too easily jumped to. Suicide is a revelation akin to the discoveries of modern science: ‘At least 90 per cent of the universe consists of dark matter,’ the ‘TV famous’ scientist who was Jennifer’s boss tells Hoolihan, ‘and we don’t know what that dark matter is.’ There is the ‘naked-eye universe’, but the naked eye ‘isn’t good enough and needs assistance’; and there is what Hoolihan calls mystically ‘the seeing’. There is the world of character and motive and morals, and there is another world of dark matter in which time and space are deranged, at least by the standards of ordinary perception. Once a person might have been likened to a planet; now character seems more like a black hole. People are disappearances. Self-consciousness becomes cloud cover.
But Amis is not saying in a roundabout way that moral (or aesthetic) judgment assumes an omniscience we are not entitled to; that the ‘dark matter’ – with all its Shakespearean undertones – should temper the ferocity of our convictions. Or indeed that science is the ultimate satire on morality. Amis’s materialism is not reductive. In trying to find something ‘out there’ that resists his own apprehension of it – that resists the fabulous voraciousness of his style – he has to look very hard (and Night Train is full of vivid descriptions of the ways in which, in both senses, people look, of the specific gravity of their eyes). In Night Train the moral quest of the book is to find bearable forms of self-consciousness. Political correctness heightens self-consciousness, and assumes this to be a good thing. In Night Train political correctness is part of a larger problem, of self-awareness experienced as an obscure punishment. ‘I have no idea what I’m feeling,’ Hoolihan says towards the end of the book, but she experiences ‘random stabs of love and hate’, as though she is being murdered by her feelings. As though she is committing suicide whether she likes it or not.
In the naked-eye world morality is simply the avoidance of punishment: ‘they had a guy come down from DC,’ the only really repulsive character in Night Train says, ‘to give a seminar on social etiquette. A seminar on how to avoid sexual harassment suits.’ The police, Hoolihan implausibly insists several times in the book, never judge people, they are beyond political correctness:
We don’t judge, we can’t judge you because whatever you’ve done it isn’t even close to the worst. You’re great. You didn’t fuck a baby and throw it over the wall. You don’t chop up eight-year-olds for laughs. You’re great. Whatever you’ve done, we know all the things you might have done, and haven’t done. In other words, our standards for human behaviour are desperately low.
In a fallen world we aren’t appalled by how bad people are: we are relieved to find how good they have been, considering. Amis is often particularly shrewd about the ways in which his characters can turn pleading into special pleading. Once you’ve seen the worst does it make you morally lax, or morally generous, and how can you tell the difference? Night Train, among many other things, asks us what the consequences might be if our standards of behaviour were desperately high. After all, to be self-conscious, in the ordinary sense, is to fear that one is not being as good as one should be. If self-consciousness is a haunting intimation of failure, what would success – another of Amis’s titles – be? ‘Sir,’ Hoolihan explains to the dead girl’s father, ‘your daughter didn’t have motives. She just had standards. High ones. Which we didn’t meet.’ What is so horrifying about suicide – which is, as it were, nuclear war for one – is its implicit mockery of all the good reasons to live; its hatred of hope. The idea that life is not good enough for oneself suggests that there is something better. The suicide becomes the person with the highest standards of all. The person who, by celebrating ‘the other thing ... the opposite of life’, offers the cruellest parody of ambition.
Hoolihan’s investigation of this ‘perfect crime’ of suicide – and ‘perfect’ is perfect here – allows Amis a series of wonderful set-pieces; of combative dialogues between Hoolihan and the various colleagues, academics, scientists and suspects involved. Amis is a very traditional novelist in his (slightly guilty) relish for the educated in his novels confronting the uneducated. And Hoolihan herself, like the hero and heroine of many 19th-century novels, is an orphan, a ‘state child’, trying above all to educate herself, while at the same time educating the reader by her very lack of legitimate instruction. So the whole book is cunningly, not crassly, preachy in its literary affiliations. Amis often writes the film of the book in the book he is writing, but in Night Train he also partly makes a novel of a very interesting set of lectures: on cosmology, on TV, on the law, and above all on suicide. Robert Stoller suggested that the question the psychiatrist should ask of the trans-sexual is not, ‘Why you?’ but: ‘Why not me?’ Night Train is so accurately disturbing that it makes one ask the same question about suicide.
And yet the most remarkable writing in this book is of a piece, as it should be, with its abiding preoccupation. There are descriptions of the unselfconscious – of the grief-stricken, of the dead (after suicide, under autopsy), of people absorbed in their work – that are like illuminations. And, by the same token, descriptions of the drunk and the crazed that are irresistible. So, in what is a very dark and daunting novel about mortifying self-consciousness, about the need to come to an end, about just deserts, there is also always this: the prose-poetry that only Amis can write:
One night, near the end, a big case went down and the whole shift rolled out to dinner at Yeats’s. During the last course I noticed everyone was staring my way. Why? Because I was blowing my dessert. To cool it. And my dessert was ice-cream.