During a BBC interview in 1984, Martin Amis (son of Kingsley) casually mentioned that he wished he could believe in God. “Do you really mean that?” his chat host asked, tossing his well-coifed locks in a show of secular amazement. With a sigh. Amis explained himself Without belief, what was there after all? One day’s pretty much the same as the last, isn’t it? You work, you drink, you talk with friends, and, sooner or later, it ends badly.
As an evocation of life without faith, this was admirably spare. No angst. No pining for Godot. Just a testament to the flat boredom that can overtake us without faith in a purpose larger than our own puny aspirations. In spite of their well-known disagreements on other matters (Kingsley turned rightward after making his pile, while Martin remains a good deal left of center), the younger Amis seems to stand forlornly shoulder to shoulder with his father in matters theological. In 1990, he told Rolling Stone he felt a “God-size hole” in his life. He wished it could be filled, but he concluded, God is “not available anymore.”
You would not expect someone as seemingly au courant as Amis to admit to such nostalgia for absolutes. That he does makes him, I think, far more interesting than many other novelists of his generation. Like his father, his struggle with nihilism has made him a devotee of the cankered muse of satire. He is only too happy to find the world a sty of unremitting hustling and selfishness, buffoonery and delusion. Like Swift and Waugh, he takes ferocious delight in displaying people at their ugliest, their most swinish, their most feckless. Amis likes to take us inside his narratives and show us how he works his tricks. It’s the postmodern thing, but with none of the solemn self-importance American practitioners flaunt.
Amis sacrifices verisimilitude for a legitimate purpose: Doing so enables him to keep his distance from his disturbing subject matter. This leaves him room for the poise and wit necessary to delineate a metaphysically repellent world without succumbing to its cynicism. Things may be bloody awful, but that’s no excuse for losing your sense of humor. Or your hope, which, in the final analysis, may be the same thing.
This strategy is on exhibit once again in Heavy Water, a collection of stories which includes seven previously published works and two new ones. These narratives frequently resemble tightrope walks over an abyss. Like a seasoned showman. Amis rises superbly to the technical challenges of each feat, all the while making sure we do not lose sight of the awful emptiness that lurks beneath his performance.
In “Straight Fiction,” he turns human relations inside out. We find ourselves in a world in which homosexuality is the norm. People shrink from the spectacle of pregnancy as if it were a disease worse than AIDS. They are alarmed to learn that San Francisco has become “the straight capital of the world,” where “breeders” have the audacity to hold Straight Freedom Day parades. Against this background, Cleve, the gentle and tolerant gay protagonist, undergoes an identity crisis. He meets a pregnant woman in a Greenwich Village coffee shop and finds her unaccountably fascinating. His friends begin to worry about him. Whenever they can take a break from their relentless bed-swapping and anonymous alleyway assignations, they warn him against his perverted interest in a breeder. At first, the story seems to be a lesson in tolerance, a what-if-the-tables-were-turned sketch. But the politically correct will not be reassured by its depiction of gay culture regnant. Certainly not in this scene: Postcoital homosexuals watch television to relax after their exertions, only to be deeply offended and thoroughly sickened by film footage run in “queasy propaganda slo-mo” showing “women and young children at play” on “a green hillside.”
But Amis is an equal-opportunity basher, and the hetero male gets his in “Let Me Count the Times.” Here, Amis ridicules the contemporary obsession with rating, measuring, and quantifying sex. Vernon, an otherwise conventional and happily married businessman, decides one day to keep score. He finds that, on average, he makes love to his wife “three and a half times a week.” Then, refining his study, he tallies what might be delicately designated their Clinton variations. For him, it is “every fourth coupling, on average, or 45.625 times a year, or .8774038 times a week.” Her average turns out to be “60.8333 times a year, or 1.1698717 times a week.” Then, on a rare business trip away from home, he decides he cannot compromise his averages. Although there are women in the hotel bar, he does not want to cheat. Instead, he repairs to his room and resorts to something he has not done in years. In no time at all, he becomes a champion of what used to be called self-abuse. Soon he is “averaging 3.4 times a day, or 23.8 times a week, or an insane 1241 times a year.” But, as his orgasms multiply, he is puzzled that his relations with his wife are declining drastically. He is forced to turn to images. Too refined for real pornography, he at first finds sufficient provocation among the photos in his wife’s fashion magazines. Later, with quality his watchword, he progresses to the great heroines of literature. “After quick flings with Emily, Griselda, and Criseyde,” he goes on to have a “strapping weekend with the Good Wife of Bath.” Then, in a fit of erotic delirium, he very nearly takes the next logical step. “Confusedly and very briefly he consider[s] running away with himself” The end of obsessive sex, it seems, is what we see so much of today: a loony, loveless narcissism.
In “The State of England,” Amis visits one of his favorite milieus: the environs of the semi-criminal, partially employed, and remarkably well-heeled underclass. We meet Big Mai, an aging part-time bouncer and full-time thug, dutifully attending parents’ day at his son’s school, “a smart one, or at least an expensive one.” Mai is nothing if not upwardly mobile. He has been told that all the old barriers have been knocked flat:
Class and race and gender were supposedly gone. Right thinkers everywhere were claiming that they were clean of prejudice, that in them the inherited formulations had at last been purged.
But he has doubts, and why wouldn’t he? He is a man marked by class, as the story makes literally and painfully clear. It is visible in the wound he received the night before. Although he keeps a cell phone clapped to his ear, his technologically certified affluence cannot disguise the hideous, underclass gash throbbing along his jaw—a souvenir from a scuffle with some opera-goers who caught him tampering with their luxury cars and beat him silly with a pipe wrench. Long live class warfare!
In the collection’s most playful story, “The Janitor on Mars,” Amis puts his cards on the table. In this extravagant science fiction parody, a foul-mouthed robot janitor left behind by a long extinct Martian civilization cleans up some cosmic loose ends for the benighted denizens of the third planet. He first makes it clear how contemptibly low our species ranks in the fiercely monitored hierarchy that prevails among the numerous civilizations inhabiting the “Ultraverse.” While Martians were “up and running” 3.4 billion years ago, life on earth was “still a bubble of fart gas. Coop. Macrobiotic yoghurt left out in the sun.” Finally, however, he concedes that humans have one distinction, and a charming one at that. All other life forms in the Ultraverse are driven to achieve the same goal: “the superimposition of the will.” On this front, humans are at least somewhat different. “Your science and politics were . . . brutally depressed in order to foreground your art.” However retrograde, the janitor finds this almost touching. We have the ability to surrender our will to dominate in order to contemplate disinterestedly the design of existence.
For Amis, art is clearly the avenue to redemption. It is the one pursuit in which we can step aside from personal and ideological interest. It encourages a selfless contemplation of reality as mediated through aesthetic design. Could it be that it might also fill that God-size hole that troubles him? If art can unearth design in the rancid clay of existence, can intimations of a Designer be far behind?
[Heavy Water and Other Stories, by Martin Amis (New York: Harmony Books) 208 pp., $21.00]