Martin Amis wrote the “at pains to be offensive” “Lionel Asbo”. So why on earth would I read “The Information”? My excuses are, to be honest, slim. I originally read this novel when it was first published, in 1995. I had been impressed by the griminess of “London Fields”, and thought Amis was a writer worth persisting with. Amis was paid an astonishing £500,000 advance for this novel, which may also have had a part to play in my original purchase decision. Coming across it on my bookshelves two decades later, I could remember nothing about it, even when prompted by the blurb. So I restarted, and once going refused to give up, even though the whole exercise was in some respects a long, drawn out insult.
The premise of the novel is simple. An unsuccessful contemporary writer, Richard Tull, has a friend, Gwyn Barry, who has by some inexplicable stroke of fortune become a highly successful novelist. Both men are intensely unpleasant individuals, two sides of the same coin, with only book sales differentiating them. While Tull’s books are unreadably, painfully bad, Barry’s are bland and inoffensive, yet sell by the million. Readers, it is implied, are all idiots, writing books is pointless, all modern books are rubbish, and the publishing industry is full of crooks, thieves and scoundrels.
In response to the failure of his literary career, Tull plans a complex and rambling scheme to punish Barry for his success. This scheme never quite comes to fruition, and fizzles out when at each turn Barry has yet another outrageous stroke of luck to avert the threat of the day. As this happens so often, there is little or no interest in whether the next threat will pan out – we know it won’t.
This is another deeply misogynistic book. There are no even partly convincing female characters – they are simply wives and girlfriends, defined by their relationships with the male protagonists. They are sexually used by the men without having any visible or presented say in the matter – for example at one point Barry has sex with his research assistant, does her the gracious favour of coming quickly so as not to inconvenience her overly, and then moves to his wife’s bed to brag about it. Amis is not celebrating this behaviour of course – my point is that the women are passive in their acceptance of this abuse. Real women wouldn’t stand for this behaviour for a second.
I am not going to go on at any more length about the failures of this book – I have spent too long on this already. If you enjoy Amis you might like this, but there are many less incestuous, less disappearing up its own self referential fundament, less simply unpleasant books about the London literary scene out there.
But. The thing is, despite all this, Amis can write. At its best his writing is something to savour. Take this:
“He awoke at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed.”
“Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that…Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and sob probes, and you would mark them. Women–and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses–will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, “What is it?” And the men will say, “Nothing. No it isn’t anything really. Just sad dreams.”
“there in the night their bed had the towelly smell of marriage.”
There is something on every page that is interesting, not just in the use of language, imagery, etc., but in the author’s ear for how people speak and think. One example of this is his fascination with idiom. One character consistently makes mistakes with her idiom, and a whole section of what passes for a plot revolves around her confusion between the phrase “Gwyn can’t write for toffee” with what she meant to say, which was that he wouldn’t write for peanuts – different foodstuff, utterly different meaning.
“Demi’s linguistic quirk is essentially and definingly female. It just is. Drawing in breath to denounce this proposition, women will often come out with something like “Up you” or “Ballshit”. For I am referring to Demi’s use of the conflated or mangled catchphrase – Demi’s speech bargains: she wanted two for the price of one. The result was expressive, and you usually knew what she meant given the context… So Demi said “vicious snowball” and “quicksand wit” and up gum street”; she said “worried stiff” and “beyond contempt” (though not beneath belief”); she said “on its death legs” and “hubbub of activity” and “what’s with it with her” (257)….” And so on at length.
Another example is the way he captures a character’s fractured internal monologue, in this case thinking about an article being written about him:
“Although Barry was no. A keen. While no jock or gym rat, Barry responded to the heightened life of fierce competition. He loved games and sports….with his old sparring. …As a novelist Tull was no. Unfavoured by the muses, Tull was nevertheless.” (404)
Finally, is it just me or is it hard to forget that Martin is his father’s son? Sometimes you can hear the grumpy old man being channelled, especially here where the reference to the waking up still drunk scene in “Lucky Jim” must surely be deliberate:
“Looking the mirror now, on the morning of his fortieth birthday, Richard felt that no one deserved the face he had. No one in the history of the planet. There was nothing on the planet it was that bad to do. What happened? What have you done, man? His hair, scattered over his crown in assorted folds and clumps, looked as though it had just concluded a course of prolonged (and futile) chemotherapy. Then the eyes, each of them perched on its little blood-rimmed beergut…..His teeth were all chipped pottery and pre-war jet-glue.” (46)
Kingsley pretty much gave up bothering to try to write convincing female characters, or indeed anyone other than grumpy old men – is Martin heading that way?