Saturday, January 21, 2006

Book learning #2

Experience by Martin Amis.

The background: I was given this by my mother for Christmas 2002. It sat on the shelf for three years, Martin Amis? didn't he write The Rachel Papers, wasn't that the movie with Dexter Fletcher? Isnt his dad Kingsley Amis?
Have I ever had any thought towards reading anything he has ever written? There's a very short answer coming up.

Thus, in a fit of mild Janus-inspired ennui I pick it up, flick through (it has two photo sections) and I get the vague sense that it's a biography, or an autobiography, a work about someone who has long been on the periphary of my experience, friends would read Martin Amis in high school, Nick Hornby drops his name in 'Fever Pitch' ("What are you thinking about?" she asks. At this point I lie. I wasn't thinking about Martin Amis or Gerard Depardieu or the Labour Party at all.) as the epitome of modern urbanity.

And so I picked it up, and so for the next two weeks I kept picking it up, it moved at a nice pace, not quite unputdownable but certainly something you would need nearby when watching TV or contemplating a trip on the subway.
The book itself is a collection of essay style pieces, some reprinted old letters (these became quite tiresome as the vast majority of them were written when the author was either at school or university, mostly directed to his father or stepmother and filled with the minutae of money and academic progress). As well as the letters we are witness to Amis's prose style, his ability to make the most macabre themes actually rather readable.

Three themes, two of them quite deadly and disturbing, dominate the rest of the book. The murder of his cousin in December 1973. Paedophilia and abuse in a variety of contexts and (rather lighter) his relationship with his dad, The Author Kingsley Amis. He also covers his friendships and relationships. The first two themes tend to overshadow the rest of the book, especially Lucy Partington's fate at the hands of the serial killer Frederick West. Like a bad horror movie, you keep replaying ideas inside your head about the events. It's really disturbing stuff.

Likewise the paedophile stuff which is linked to Lucy's fate. Amis discusses incidents in his own experience as a small child, incidents of touching and molestation although, like so many other victims he dismisses much of this and the nature of the acts only occurs to him as an adult, as a parent.
I found it hard to concentrate on his Hamptons weekends with Saul Bellow or his friendly arguments with Christopher Hitchens whilst wondering if the next page would return me to the events of December 1973 or some misjudged fumble in a locker room at school.

Amis seems to have had as complicated a relationship with his father as any of us, by turns advisory, confrontational, drunk, but, it seems, rarely competitve (perhaps unusual for two writers).
Dealing with loss is another aspect of the book, the loss of a loved one in mystyfying circumstances (Lucy's remains were undiscovered for 21 years), the loss of a father (through divorce and then, inevitably, death) and a host of other characters, his daughter's mother commits suicide, his brother in law succumbs to AIDS.

And so I mention Lucy again and again in this review, Amis does the same in the book, the horror so vivid that one cannot quite shake it out of one's mind, the wondering, for 21 years, about where the hell she went and what the hell happened to her. Then the awful truth.

It should be remembered that much of this book is witty and engaging and it's tempted me towards some of his other works, but it should also be remembered that a tremendous and powerful shadow lingers over the text. Ironically, it's the darkness that keeps you turning the pages. Reading this book forces you to think about some of your worst nightmares, not as easy a read as you might at first think.

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