Monday, December 24, 2007

Martin Amis, "The Information"

Here's the first page of The Information, by Martin Amis.

Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that... Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them. Women – and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses – will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, “what is it?” And the men say, “Nothing. No it isn't anything really. Just sad dreams.”

Richard Tull was crying in his sleep. The woman beside him, his wife Gina, woke and turned. She moved up on him from behind and laid hands on his pale and straining shoulders. There was a professionalism in her blinks and frowns and whispers: like the person at the poolside, trained in first-aid; like the figure surging in on the blood-smeared macadam, a striding Christ of mouth-to-mouth. She was a woman. She knew so much more about tears than he did. She didn't know about Swifts Juvenilia, or Wordsworth's senilia, or how Cressida had variously fared at the hands of Boccaccio, of Chaucer, of Robert Henryson, of Shakespeare; she didn't know Proust. But she knew tears. Gina had tears cold.

Richard raised a bent arm to his brow. The sniff he gave was complicated, orchestral. And when he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls falling through his lungs.

“Nothing. It isn't anything. Just sad dreams.”

Forget the mild, straight-faced sexism, or the fact that women cry at night as well (let's not argue about all that) or the imprecise unhappiness that runs through the whole novel, and gets tiresome after while; forget the references to the outer universe, the frailty of a novelist who ventures into the details of phsyics, and the foolhardiness of anyone who does so with the aim of asking the tired question of “what are we in the eyes of the universe?”

Forget the forgettable bits. But remember the bits that get stuck in the mind because they are strung with hooks of great prose. “Swing low on your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob-probes, and you will mark.” That line would look good, I think, at the start of a poem, let alone a novel. And the “distant seaguls falling through his lungs.” Where does this come from, and how does this strange image do its meaning-work? I don't know, but it works all right: empty sea, emptying sky. The striding Christ is superfluous, isn't it, as far as meaning goes? If anything it goes too far and upsets the solemnity of the occasion. But it doesn't matter, because it is a boastful, playful flourish, full of the joy of writing.

For hunters of metaphors, Amis is a teeming plain.

“Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug. Richard contemplated his sons, their motive bodies reluctantly arrested in their sleep, and reef-knotted in their bedware, and he thought, as an artist might: but the young sleep in another country, at once very dangerous and out of harm's way, perennially humid with innocuous libido – there are neutral eagles on the windowsill, waiting, offering protection and threat.”

“Now came the boys – in what you would call a flurry if it didn't go on so long and involve so much inanely grooved detail, with Richard like the venerable though tacitly alcoholic pilot in the cockpit of the frayed the time he rounded the final half-landing the front door was opening – was closing – and with a whip of its tail the flurry of their life was gone.”

But perhaps there is more to analysing a book than listing metaphors. Well.... perhaps. In a limited sense, on some days. I have to admit that there's a plot in The Information, something about sex and a well-read hitman and literary jealousy. There are themes as well. Ageing, the vastness of the physical universe, the power of art and the pushiness of life, sons and fathers, the search for the “universal.”

But I'ld say that these galvanising agents do not do as much to unite the novel as does the mood of the thing. The book has a sad, tired mood, bitter but impotent. This is the mood of the main character, who is the emotional centre of the book. We see the others through the smog of Richard's unhappiness. In this atmosphere, Gwyn's bright visions of a better earth, laid out peacefully in his best-selling novel, are depressingly fake. Richard's wife is an obsession he fails to satisfy, and her coldness towards his art is another example of her distance, the obscurity of her “private cosmogony.” America is a deafening mystery that Richard can observe but not absorb. He returns to England to the safety of its past, the place where students spend “three years in twelfth century universities with Paradise Lost on their knees.” But the past of England is also absent. England is an old baron, comically senile; a shambling mansion; the success of fake novelists; dead children on the muddy paths of Dogshit Park.

If we wanted to sum up Richard in one word, the word would be “isolation.” In the fog he hears his sons play in the park, but he cannot see them and he cannot understand their sounds. His best friend is a man he despises. His wife is part of the flurry of life, and Richard is standing on the stairs. To the men in the local pub he is a knowledge-freak, an impressive man but an outsider. Arguably, the person with whom he is most intimate is Scozzy, the well-read hitman. And Scozzy, arguably the most confident character in the book, is an irreversible misanthrope.

The Information was written in 1995, in a pre-internet age (the writer predicts that postmen will be superseded by the fax). This may be related to the fact that, in this book, “information” is not treated as a false thing, mere data, something to be contrasted with “knowledge” or “understanding.” For Richard, information is desirable, something contrasted favourably with the silence or gibberish of family members, and with the short platitudes, endlessly repeated, of publicists and sham novelists. Richard has a radio interview that is meant to be twenty minutes long but ends up at two minutes. He is determined not to label himself with a slogan, but he ends up saying nothing about his writing:

“But what is it saying?”
“It's saying itself. For a hundred and fifty thousand words. I couldn't put it in any other way.”
“Richard Tull? Thank you very much.”

Richard wants to be incompressible but ends up being invisible. Perhaps the problem of his wife is similar: in wanting to say everything he ends up saying nothing. Certainly this is a problem at other times. Extraordinarily, Richard gives a passionate speech (“You don't think that's extraordinary? Oh, but it is”). Predictably, he loses a job. Richard may want information, but not everyone does.

Is there any success or salvation in this book, any productive exchange of information, any victories of expression that are not just a retreats into obscure art or private clarity? We'll see. In the meantime, mark the prose. I can open the book at random and reliably come across a piece of writing that matches the rhythm and vividness of the first page. Perhaps it would take a long time and groping to get the message of the whole book: at that level, information is not easy to come by. But the transmission of mood and speech and image, at the level of sentence and paragraph, is as clear and informative as you could want. Does that constitute an overall message? Look for meaning in the fridge or the Friday morning, not in the stars? Look for pixels, not pictures? Whether it is or not, I think it works well as a novelists' mantra, this anti-message message. But this is too broad: if Amis has something to say here, it must be more specific than that. And whether he has anything to say or not, he has a lot to give to anyone who reads authors for their verbal gifts, their non-prosaic prose.


Andrea said...

I like the idea of a non-message message in a piece of writing. Some writers talk about a split between writing which priviledges atmosphere and style and that which engages with issues. I don't think the two are incompatible. Your point about the different layers of reading is an apt one. It's easy to get lost in a piece of writing at that sentence-para level. I wouldn't say it's a shallower way of reading, just another angle to approach a book from and for books like this one, not that I've read it, a good one.