History Boy

History Boy

The narrator of Martin Amis’s House of Meetings describes the collapse of his soul through forty years of Soviet history.


Martin Amis is an artist of airports and transatlantic travel: You can almost smell the duty-free in his prose. His finest novel, London Fields (1989), is a mesmerizing epic of lowlife crime and semiprofessional darts, and it opens with the view from the JFK red-eye into Heathrow. “Shaken awake to a sticky bun at 1.30 in the morning, my time,” the narrator tells us, “I moved to a window seat and watched through the bright mists the fields forming their regiments, in full parade order, the sad shires, like an army the size of England.”

In Amis’s new novella, House of Meetings, our hero returns to the shuttered home of his nephew, a private in the Soviet army who has just been killed in Afghanistan, and pauses at the door. “You may wonder how I had the leisure to do it,” he comments, “but I thought of Wilfred Owen.” He then gives a short summary of Owen’s famous poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” a mournful prayer for those young Englishmen dead in the mud of France, unable to hear the “bugles calling for them from sad shires.”

Samson Young, the narrator of London Fields, is a cynical B-list American novelist who apartment-swaps his way to London to finish his new book. The nameless speaker in House of Meetings is an extravagant Russian bruiser who survives a decade in a gulag labor camp and tells of the collapse of his soul through forty years of Soviet history. It may come as a surprise, then, that both should borrow those same “sad shires” from the wistful World War I poet. But Amis’s narrators often like to borrow things, literary and material, that aren’t strictly theirs: a line of poetry, another man’s lover, certain biographical details. His novels usually star a central character who resembles the novelist in age and interests: Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers (1973), Xan Meo in Yellow Dog (2003), a character called Martin Amis in Money (1984). They share a tone of literate distance or, as the Amis stand-in and failed novelist Richard Tull describes his own prose style in The Information (1995), a voice that’s “urban, erotic and erudite.”

Amis is a writer deeply conscious of his literary and social status. He is the son of the famous English comic novelist Kingsley Amis, a fact frequently raised in the great flood of media attention he generates in Britain. The profiles riff on the same material: Kingsley’s complicated marital arrangements, Martin’s teeth and huge advances, his second wife’s big house in the Hamptons, his ease, his patrician charm. Academics ponder his Oedipus complex; the tabloids make the same points in snide asides. “Lucky Martin,” they call him, after his father’s famous first novel, Lucky Jim, or “Smarty Anus.” The London Daily Mail ran a long, envious account of the launch party for House of Meetings.

These are, of course, Amis’s own fictional concerns in miniature. The Information is an uproarious story of literary envy (involving a character more than a little reminiscent of Amis’s estranged friend Julian Barnes), and Money is, after all, called Money. His novels love little more than a rotting body or a wounded family, and they revel in nicknaming and wordplay. A haircut is, in Money, a “rug-rethink”; in London Fields a car is an “A-to-B device.”

Amis invites the biographical reading: Explicitly in Experience (2000), his often lovely and deeply self-indulgent memoir of his relationship with his father, and implicitly throughout his fiction, his writing often hinges on the association of the narrative voice with the actual man. His stand-ins are poised at the edge of self-mockery. In Money, “Martin Amis” weeps at the televised coverage of Princess Di’s wedding, and in London Fields, Samson Young contemplates a possible detour for his career as a novelist. “A think piece, maybe, based on my own experiences,” he muses, “a substantial (and publishable?) meditation, extending to some eight or ten thousand words, on the way America has started to fulfil–”

He breaks off here, for the actual Amis did the rest. Between the two novels that made him famous, Money and London Fields, Amis published The Moronic Inferno (1986), a collection of his travel writings about America. The title betrays his prejudice. Faced with success and sympathetic editors, Amis did what any proudly male writer would have done: He toured the trash, wrote what he liked, indulged his obsessions. The book is less travel reportage than an account of cultural oddity. He writes here like a rhetorical tourist: Isn’t the Playboy family weird? Ain’t Palm Beach the strangest place? Aren’t American novelists and Hollywood directors all secret freaks?

Amis always lusted for America. While his characters are deeply English, embedded in the sleazy hierarchies of London pub life and literary snobbery, what they want is America: America is the fetish, the object. Charles Highway, the overwhelmingly precocious narrator of The Rachel Papers, knows his way around William Blake and the cafes of London and can talk his way into Oxford, but what he really wants is to sleep with Rachel, the American model. Amis’s desire for the United States stretches and distorts his characterization; his plots buckle under the strain of somehow getting the characters on flights to JFK. It is farfetched that an English newspaper would hire an unsuccessful English novelist to write a story about the US book tour of another English novelist, but it is a necessary plot twist in The Information. Amis followed that novel with Night Train (1997), a police procedural thriller narrated by a female American cop.

For a novelist daydreaming about America and obsessed with airplanes, the next step was perhaps inevitable. Amis’s fiction and the new American reality coincided. In March 2004, The New Yorker published a short story, “In the Palace of the End,” about the daily life of the body doubles of the son of a great Arab tyrant, Nadir. In the mornings, the doubles torture “suspects”; in the afternoons, they are filmed having sex with “a series of picked beauties in the Recreation Wing” of the palace. The job, though, has its downside. Due to the frequent assassination attempts upon “Nadir the Next,” his body is patterned with scars, and the doubles must permit their own skin to be similarly traced with the writing of violence.

Against the actual evidence of the text, The New Yorker presented this story as a parable of Iraq, publishing it next to a defaced mural of Saddam Hussein. This is a shame: The zany mockery of the story drives us into a world of marvelous illogic that outweighs the obvious political application.

The same cannot be said of Amis’s follow-up. Also published in The New Yorker, in April 2006, “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” imagines the infamous perpetrator of September 11. As Amis observes, “He was the first person on earth to say it–to say in that way.” But all political or theological complexities dissolve, for Amis’s Atta is an isolated, maniacally singular figure. “Muhammad Atta wasn’t like the others,” Amis insists, and presents him as exceptional: Atta’s motive, here, is neither a hatred for America nor a love for Islam. His “core reason was of course all the killing,” fantasizes Amis, “the putting to death.” As such, he is an apostate: a nonbeliever with a headache and a case of bad constipation. “Muhammad Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political,” Amis tells us.

This Muhammad Atta shares not only his initials with Martin Amis; he also borrows a vocabulary from the writer. In diagnosing Islamic terrorism as a pathology–“It comes from religious hurt, don’t you think?” Atta declares to the cloudy figure of the mastermind Sheikh, “For centuries God has forsaken the believers, and rewarded the infidels”–Atta presents the same ideas that Amis himself aired in the London Guardian. “The Age of Horrorism,” published on September 10, 2006, was a 12,000-word sermon fusing rich language (“the ears of these young men were still fizzing with the battle cries of molten mullahs”) and cheap analysis, while altogether refusing to engage with the historical or political specifics of its subject. Rather than doing any research, Amis apparently Googled a few key terms and lifted his opinions from Bernard Lewis, Malise Ruthven and Gilles Kepel. Like a novel, the essay proceeds by scenes and not arguments; and as in a novel, those scenes are fictional–Amis imagines a conversation between Osama bin Laden and John Walker Lindh. Ideologies become simple characters, and characters are given simple motives. Islamism, therefore, can be judged by a character sketch of one of its founders, Egyptian demagogue Sayyid Qutb, who visited the United States in the late 1940s and was horrified by the godless society he found. As an explanation for the theological innovation of Islamism, Amis hints that Qutb was secretly longing for an American girlfriend.

“The Age of Horrorism” reads like the research notes for “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” Whereas in the essay, Amis pontificates–“the terrorist, the bringer of death and hate, the death-hate cultist, is in essence the enemy of love”–in the short story Atta “decided that romantic and religious ardour came from contiguous parts of the human being: the parts he didn’t have.” Just as Amis, in the essay, describes himself bored in the security line at an airport while his daughter’s rucksack is searched, so in the story Amis imagines a scene: the naïve airport security agent asking, “Did you pack these bags yourself,” and Atta’s bored realization: “You mean I have to go through all this again?”

“The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” is an arresting story precisely because it domesticates a great demon, locating the object of so much fear and fantasy in real places–as in a cheap motel room where he cuts himself shaving. The problem is not that Amis has imagined Atta but that he has not imagined him enough. When Shakespeare and Milton came to give words to their great villains, they gave them the best speeches and forced the reader to the edge of sympathy for the devil. There’s a marvelous liberty in the language when Iago and Satan speak: They have, quite literally, their way with words. Amis, however, is limited here by what looks awfully like his own prejudices, so his Atta is hellbent on destroying not only the Twin Towers but also the complexity of Islam.

The two New Yorker stories were originally scheduled to be published as a collection with House of Meetings, and this might have made an intriguing triptych: three men of violence, embodying historical forces, acting within known matrices of morality and conclusion. As so often before, the novella opens with the memory of an airport, in this case Chicago’s O’Hare rather than the usual JFK. The narrator is traveling back to Russia on a cruise–“the Gulag tour”–to revisit the Siberian labor camp where he spent the 1940s.

Born in 1919, this man is a palimpsest of Russian history. He served under Marshal Zhukov in the Soviet campaigns of the closing years of World War II and is typically Russian, he tells us, with heavy hands and a “weakness for a humor of squalor and cynicism.” He recounts, in chronologically confused chapters, his survival in the gulag and his travels through the country (“my nomadic sabbatical”) during the 1950s. We rush through the decades of Russian history. In 1958 he goes to Moscow, where he becomes a television repairman; and then in the late ’60s he gets involved in armaments: “rotary launchers for nuclear weapons.” He profits on the black market; he has a chauffeur-driven car and an affair with the wife of a British diplomat. The years roll by. His nephew travels to Afghanistan in the war against the mujahedeen. He wears a cashmere overcoat and moves to America, “where I would be rich and free.”

This is, at heart, a love story, and America is the object of desire. “The love story is triangular in shape, and the triangle is not equilateral,” the narrator informs us, slightly pedantically. The shape is completed by the narrator, his pacifist half-brother Lev and Zoya, the girl they both love. Zoya is lovingly rendered. “She was like an act of civil disobedience,” the narrator observes. The two brothers call her “the Americas” in honor of her physique, wasp-waisted and buxom, “the giddy disjunction between north and south, and then the waist, as thin as Panama.”

Amis writes like no one else. Most writers use language to tell a story; Amis does the opposite, taking a story as the occasion for a workout with language. His prose is oddly heavy: Noting a cloud, he observes that “its leading edge had a chewed look, and was about to shred or grate itself into rain.” Or: “This was the year when the tutelary powers lost their hold on the monopoly of violence. It was a time of spasm savagery, with brute going at bitch and bitch going at brute.” The trademarks are violence and assonance, a waywardness with words that is a joy to read. The labor camp is a perfect Amis universe. Like the dowdy London pubs he so lovingly details elsewhere, it is a self-contained world of deeply entrenched power structures, local argot and the constant threat of carnivalesque violence.

Amis is tantalizingly close, here, to a great novel. On the level of the sentence, this book is gold, but taken as a whole it’s incoherent. A series of digressions describing the Beslan school massacre of September 2004 serve only the atmosphere, and not the plot. Characters do not develop: Their crises are stage-managed and portentous, their motives obscure. They tend to speak of one another, and think of themselves, as metaphors. We never learn the narrator’s name, and he is so puzzled by his own motivation that he gestures constantly at abstract historical forces as a rationale or interpretation. “You can’t see yourself in history, but that’s where you are, in history,” he tells us. “Like many millions of others, I and my brother are characters in a work of social history from below.”

History is indeed an implacable force in House of Meetings, and it surfaces in a series of awkward footnotes that supply the nicknames by which Russia’s leaders are known: “Joseph Vissarionovich is Stalin, leader of Russia, 1928?-53,” and “Vladimir Ilich is Lenin.” Footnotes imply specialized knowledge. We do not trust unfootnoted historical or scholarly works precisely because we demand expertise: Why read the work of a scholar who knows the same amount as we do? A novel, however, should build a complete world, so the converse is true. A novelist who needs footnotes either has failed to build this fictional zone or doesn’t quite trust his reader enough to get it.

Perhaps Amis hopes, but is not sure, that the reader of House of Meetings has also read his earlier book about Russian history. Koba the Dread (2002) is an unruly, circular and virtually unreadable book, a mix of memoir, literary criticism and half-digested history. As in “The Age of Horrorism,” the full extent of his research involves quoting works by serious scholars and historians; and as in the essay, he imagines political history as a story of representative characters. The heart of Koba is an obsessive pop psychoanalysis of Stalin’s character and individual guilt, rendered novelistically.

Amis quotes a comment made by Stalin at the funeral of his wife–“She is dead and with her have died my last warm feelings for all human beings”–and continues, “If, in a work of fiction, I were to put those words into the mouth of a character…” before writing an inner monologue for our behalf, using the tools of fiction to detail Stalin’s psyche. His urge is always to speculate, even when faced with reliable historical testimony. These bland imaginings, focused exclusively on simple character motives, ignore the compelling complexities available to the historian, or even the historically minded novelist.

The world of House of Meetings is neither fully imagined nor archivally researched. The psychic terrors, as well as the day-to-day details, of life in the gulag have already been given in Koba the Dread, in quotations from the novels and memoirs of those who spent time there. On the exhaustion of camp labor, Amis quoted Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: “At reveille,” wrote the great Russian novelist and gulag survivor, “you yearned with every atom for another half-second of rest.” The same trope surfaces in House of Meetings, where Amis writes, “It was always: I would give my eyesight for just ten more seconds.” The borrowing is oddly tentative–where Solzhenitsyn would trade his entire being for a half-second, Amis’s narrator offers only one of his faculties for ten seconds–but it begins to suggest how deeply patterned House of Meetings is, and how deeply its imagination relies on the previous experience of others.

The abstraction of House of Meetings is in marked contrast to the ferocious materialism of Amis’s earlier, better novels. “Call me a literalist, but I’m only doing what Russia is doing,” offers the narrator as a rationale for his journey back to the camp and as explanation for his fixation on the violence of history. The weakness of House of Meetings, its strange mix of abstraction and literalism, is a double tragedy, for not only does Amis at times write better fiction than anyone else, he also writes better about fiction than most. His reviews and essays on literature–collected in The War Against Cliché–are proof of a deep passion for the possibilities of literature, for what it can and cannot give. But when Amis imagines history, his creativity is hampered by the weight of existing facts and writings, as well as by his own prejudices.

Samson Young knew the limits of his chosen genre. “In fiction (rightly so called), people become coherent and intelligible,” he observes, “and they aren’t like that. We all know they aren’t.” The joy of reading Amis is always the demented narrative urgency of his narrators, their restless need to tell all. Their internal collapse is the motor for great spasms of language and delusion. They deceive, they manipulate, they tell stories, they love language and they use it. They are, simply, great practitioners of the magic of fiction, and that is why they so often sound like their creator. In the places of his own history Amis is king, but those places are not the historical ideologies of Stalinism or Islamism. Tell us about London fields, Mr. Amis. Tell us about money.

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