“The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return.”
—Ian McEwan, Atonement
Martin Amis spoke at Town Hall in Seattle on January 26 about his new book, House of Meetings. The talk itself was much smoother than the novel, as the book’s structure confused rather than enlightened. Where and when was the action taking place? How did it link together with each event? If House of Meetings becomes a classic—an unlikely but possible scenario—someone will no doubt rearrange it chronologically in an attempt to see more of it.
Despite the book’s faults, Amis was an excellent reader: a strong voice that didn’t overwhelm and a cadence that seemed appropriate to the work and questions. He had an odd habit of sometimes skipping words or sentences, and I’m not sure why he did, unless it was to amuse himself or slightly confuse the audience. Several times he also replaced words in ways that substantially changed meaning—for example, he once used “black” in place of “slave,” when the latter referred to a character in the Gulag.
Two people asked ridiculous questions: one whether Amis would ever write about the United States, the other about Amis’ “creative process.” The first has the sense to be embarrassed when Amis answered that he had lived in the U.S., set part of at least two novels in it and all of at least two more.
The best line came when he described life: “You’re starring in a very crude, irresponsible, and, above all, low budget, horror film.”
It’s very funny but also serious and apt, like many of his novels. At this point and at several others I had the sense of deep waters churning, but that I could not perceive their depths. Another perceptive comment was on the modern novel, when he suggested that when a writer finds a difficulty, the writer name the difficulty itself. Seems like an unfortunate trick if you leave the dilemma in the text.
After the reading when Amis signed my books, he mentioned that he has a 20-year-old son named Jacob; I should have asked if his son was going to take over the family pub—a reference to Money, in which Martin Amis the character comments on whether he inherited the writing business—but wasn’t quick enough on my feet. Whether he would’ve laughed or wanted to garrote me I don’t know.
I did arrive having read only half the novel, and as I continued I felt somehow let down. There are sentences and even paragraphs of beauty amid the wasteland. What is this slight novel trying to say? Perhaps that the world itself is fragmentary, and all the moreso when the state turns against its people and intentionally tries to rip all social connections apart. Amis is appropriate hard on the Russia of Stalin’s era while simultaneously realizing that today’s Russia under Putin is merely following the rhythm that even Stalin did not start.Clearly Amis also saw much of Dostoevsky, and some of the humor in House of Meeting he sees going back to that author—whose only virtue, according to Amis, is that he’s a genius, and not precisely as a writer. It was a point I would have liked to follow up, but couldn’t, and in Amis’ novel I can see those perfect few sentences that are imperfectly developed into a larger idea that would help round out the characters: “‘Closure’: ech, if I so much as whisper it or mouth it I feel myself transformed into a white-coated, fat-necked peanut in a mall-style consulting room. Closure is a greasy little word which, moreover, describes a nonexistent condition.” (Italics in original.) It’s an appropriate rebuke to the unfortunate confessional aspects of Western culture, which embraces the possibility of something that isn’t always there.Given all this, the lavish praise in blurbs for House of Meetings somewhat puzzles me: the characters, save for the protagonist, are absent, and they seem victims of history. All of my comments may be violating one of John Updike’s rules about book reviewing: do not criticize the author for what he has not attempted to do. Is difficulty in reading a requirement for literary praise? It rings hollow. There is House of Meetings, the text itself, which I finished and for which I feel nothing, like a woman who I know, intellectually, that I should find attractive and yet don’t. Money was disgusting and amazing; House of Meetings leaves the faint taste of a life twisted by the state and, sadly, a reader twisted by the author. I wish it were otherwise.
“This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”
—Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man
“No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other’s. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations. I remember Anna, our daughter Claire will remember Anna and remember me, then Claire will be gone and there will be those who remember her but not us, and that will be our final dissolution. True, there will be something of us that remain […] yet none of this will be us, what we are and were, but only the dust of the dead. ”
—John Banville, The Sea
“I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth, when reality didn’t match the romantic ideas he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set.”
—Graham Greene, The Quiet American
“…we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is nowhere else.”
—Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (part of the His Dark Materials trilogy)
“‘You are free to give to the story what application you will,’ Foe replied. ‘To me the moral of the story is that there comes a time when we must give reckoning of ourselves to the world, and then forever after be content to hold our peace.’
‘To me the moral is that he has the last word who disposes over the greatest force,’ [I said].”
—J.M. Coetzee, Foe
“But [Chloe] should not have spoken. The next day, she discovered her words had spread all over camp, her foolishly honest declaration played back to her in a mockery of her vulnerability. She had experienced a betrayal at the hands of language, seen intimate words converted to a common currency, and therefore had come to trust the body instead, the movement rather than the phrase.”
—Alain de Botton, On Love
“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior?… Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”
—Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon