Cloud Cover

Adam Phillips

  • 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.

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