The Acid Tongue
Open Season on Martin Amis
Selected By Cyril Wong
Open Letters Monthly, a source of online arts and literature reviews that believes "no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised", has a monthly feature that is often a delightfully sprawling, Acid Tongue-esque inventory of Acid Tongue-ish reviews. In my chosen Open Letters feature, the book in the eye of the hurricane is Martin Amis' House of Meetings, a novel about an unnamed narrator's time in a Stalin-era gulag. As the inventory's curator, John Cotter, puts it, "[N]o one is calling it a masterpiece. The reasons for the novel's failings—and all of the reviewers agree it has failings—occupy at least as much space as the same reviewers expend on plot summary…" Then come the quotations from reviews dripping with acidic wit, with the occasional reluctant praise, that Cotter collects to capture a general critical attitude towards the novel:
M. John Harrison, in The Guardian, calls it "nasty glitter"…Brendan Bernhard, in The Village Voice, describes the Amis voice as "…spiky jewelry…Amis's almost sadistically polished prose feels glaringly inappropriate, like a virtuoso pianist preening before an audience of starving prisoners. It also feels all wrong"… According to Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun, it's as pure as narcissism: "like the world-class pianist who wants to be admired for his amateur poetry"… Kirsh ends by pronouncing the whole adventure morally obscene…Daniel Soar, in The London Review of Books, also smells obscenity…condemning not just the new novel but its author…he dissects Amis's recent interest in Islamic fundamentalism and his public pronouncements about the Muslim world…[and] decides that Amis is failing as a novelist because he does not care to probe the souls of his subjects.
But Cotter also wants to impress upon us that there are better critics of the novel who should be considered more seriously:
A far better written review, by novelist M. John Harrison, appears in The Guardian, and it is easily the best thing to have happened to House of Meetings in its short life…Harrison decides that House of Meetings isn't strictly a novel of the Gulag or of Russia so much as it is a novel of decline: "The narrator is less terrorized than terrified. In his desperation he folds one kind of fear into a disguise for another, and in doing so produces only an origami of a pun—the idea of "state terror" stands in for his state of terror."
For Cotter, the winner must be John Banville's rather transcendental take on Amis:
QLRS Vol. 10 No. 4 Oct 2011
The most generously thoughtful of the reviews so far has been John Banville's long essay in The New York Review of Books. Like Swift, Banville takes us on a museum tour of Amis's prior career. Kingsley Amis is discussed at length. His son's skill with language is praised…Nabokov steps, briefly, on stage…The early influence of Nabokov is compared with a new, American sprawlingness of style Amis has inherited from Saul Bellow…Martin Amis's comic novels may reach for more pathos, Banville speculates, exactly because his father's did not…Banville assumes that Amis is in control of his materials, and Banville has the sympathetic understanding to interpret those oddities of style, which other writers might condemn as carelessness…his praise is blurbworthy: "a remarkable achievement, a version of the great Russian novel done in miniature with echoes throughout of its mighty predecessors…It is as if in all of his books he has been preparing for this one…The spectacle of which, if it had been but glimpsed by the great figures of the Enlightenment on whose reasonings and hopes the modern world is founded, would have struck them silent with horror."