Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dead BabiesDead Babies by Martin Amis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Everything is out of whack at Appleseed Rectory; its rooms are without bearing and without certainty. The inhabitants suffer, too, from curious mental complaints brought on by prolonged use of drugs, complaints that can be alleviated only by drugs of different kinds."

Martin Amis is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. I loved his Night Train and quite liked Time's Arrow despite the time-reversal gimmick. I am currently working on two of his more serious books: Koba the Dread, about the greatest mass murderer in the history of mankind, and The War Against Cliché, a collection of literary essays. Yet even great writers have their bad days, and Mr. Amis' Dead Babies (1974) is not a very good book: it is "A miss for Amis," and the quality of my pun matches the level of the novel.

The book's main theme reminds me of a fairly popular math joke from some time ago. To enhance the enrollment in a calculus course it was titled "Sex, Drugs, and Calculus. Part I: Calculus." Unfortunately Mr. Amis does only the second part of the course and there is virtually nothing in the novel other than sex, drug use and heavy alcohol consumption. The events occur in the future, the early 1990s, when a group of young people living in Appleseed Rectory located in far suburbs of London are preparing for and then enjoying a weekend of boozing, sex and drugs. The colorful menagerie of characters includes not only the residents of the rectory but also a trio of American guests. We learn in excruciating detail about everybody's sexual proclivities and alcohol and drug preferences. All of this is extremely immature and reeks of boy adolescence: obsession with intercourse, breasts, farting, masturbation, and practical jokes that involve placing enriched human excrement in beds or defecating down the chimney.

Some of the colorful characters are portrayed as physically repulsive or come across as totally loathsome individuals. For instance Keith, a sickly obese, dwarf-sized man, whose main yearning is to have sex with a woman, is said to look so disgusting in his swimming trunks that girls vomit when they see him. The obnoxiousness of the male American guests is virtually unlimited: one is an author, sort of a learned fellow, spewing fashionable pseudo-scientific claptrap, while the other is a crude specimen ready to mate with anything that moves. All this is really inane, and if Mr. Amis' intention was to satirize the excesses of the permissive society and extrapolate the early 1970s trends to the future, he was not successful.

So why am I not foaming at the mouth decrying the novel as worthless as I did with the utterly horrid Fight Club ? Because - unlike Mr. Palahniuk - Martin Amis is an excellent writer. His prose, even when it contains nothing but descriptions of boozing, drugging, and fucking, is a pleasure to read. This is an author with a major writing talent who - among all the inanity of his plot - can produce unforgettable passages of prose, such as, for example, the spellbinding fragment about "lagging time", which "came abruptly, flopped down like an immense and invisible jelly from the ceiling, swamping the air with marine languor and insect speeds [...]" Drugs can do this to people...

To sum up: an infantile, silly, rather pointless, but oh-so-funny and a very well written novel.

Two stars.

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