Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to AmericaThe Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America by Martin Amis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] the time has come for serious (i.e. talented) writers to be serious, without losing lyricism or laughter. 'No more novels about adolescence, career problems, sexual adventure, wounded ethnicity.' Why not address 'the mysterious circumstance of being', and say what it's like to be alive at this time, on this planet?"

The quoted passage comes from the short essay Saul Bellow in Chicago, one of the many great pieces in Martin Amis' fabulous collection The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), in which his short writings from 1970s and the early 1980s are assembled. The author offers the set as "a book about America", and indeed, although the majority of the pieces are book reviews and literary criticism essays, the attentive reader will soon see the outline of a portrait of a country. The author presents a sharp, critical yet accurate and honest portrait of the United States of America - that unique country on Earth, which despite its many detestable "-isms" (rabid anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, unfettered commercialism), despite its deep and pervasive social injustice and inequity, remains the country of unprecedented freedom and affinity to change.

While providing captivating literary analyses of top-ranked American prose Mr. Amis does not refrain from entertaining the reader: he uses his sharp language and wit to make a little fun of famous American writers. About Philip Roth we read "Completing the self- beleaguerment, he has now written two autobiographical novels about the consequences of writing autobiographical novels." Truman Capote is chided for helping start - with his In Cold Blood - the trend of "permissiveness about turning tragedy into entertainment." Of another great American author Mr. Amis writes "in the United States, provided you are Norman Mailer, it seems that you can act like a maniac for forty years - and survive, prosper and multiply, and write the books." We have a few sarcastic remarks about William Burroughs and Joseph Heller. The sharpest treatment is reserved for yet another major literary figure: "If there is a key to Gore Vidal's public character, it has something to do with his towering immodesty, the enjoyable superbity of his self-love." Even Kurt Vonnegut, the author with "only the mildest prickle of amour propre", is given a barbed and wonderfully witty treatment: "When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life" (and wife, as Mr. Amis explains). Only one author largely escapes Mr. Amis' satire - Saul Bellow, a truly serious writer, according to the words quoted in the epigraph.

Several pieces in the collection are Mr. Amis' reports from some uniquely American places, events, or phenomena. He writes about Palm Beach, a town that reeks of money, leisure, and "women, still going strong, prinked, snipped, tucked, capped, patched, pinched, rinsed, lopped, pruned, pared, but still going strong [...]" Another piece provides sharp observations from Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign trail. Mr. Amis also paints a totally scary portrayal of fundamentalist TV preachers and the New Evangelical Right, and equally scary report about artificial life in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion West. One can just imagine Jerry Falwell and Hugh Hefner in a huge bed, cavorting with Playmates of the Month, and a few angels.

The best piece in the entire collection is the short essay, written in 1985, Double Jeopardy: Making Sense of AIDS. Despite the global hysteria about the public health crisis raging at the time, Mr. Amis gives the topic a cool and level-headed treatment, well balanced between concern, sympathy, and worry about the future. From the perspective of 30 years later it is clear how right the author was at those dramatic times.

The AIDS essay also contains a most memorable passage, concerning one of my "hot button" issues: people's attempts to ameliorate reality by changing the language that describes it. While at the time of writing that tendency was just in larval stage, these days using the politically correct euphemisms is the dominant paradigm. Mr. Amis writes "It is a very American dishonesty - antiseptic spray from the verbal-sanitation department. Having named a painful reality (the belief seems to be), you also dispatch it, you get it off your desk."

Hard to believe but the topics in this thirty-year-old collection are as relevant now as they were in the 1980s. The Moronic Inferno is very highly recommended!

Four and a half stars.

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