Such a reputation is a little hard to explain. He is usually considered to have written a maximum of three great books; his plots are makeshift, founded on melodramatic devises such as lost letters, misassigned parentage, coincidicne and motiveless malice, overlain by post-modern tricksiness; his characterisations are vague, arbitary and slapdash, his interest in psychology limited; his vocubulary wilfully obscure. But what he dos have is a voice. It is distinctive - ranging from high to low registers, from slang to literariness, with a complete assurance, almost an arrogance - a poet of the modern world, alive to the existential anxieties of urban living, and the helplessness of facing impending armageddon, nuclear, terrorist or natural.
What follows is an attempt to capture for new readers the merits and faults of his works, without becoming too embroiled in plot summaries. I have tried to avoid spoilers.
Where to start: Money, The Information, London Fields
The Rachel Papers
Attitudes to The Rachel Papers depend critically on the reader's opinion of Charles Highway, the upper middle class prig whose uneasy transition from schoolboy to student it follows. Many find his naivety, faux sophistitication and self-centredness repellent. But there are two aspects of the book that rescue it from being solely of biographical or period interest: the accurate depiction of how the adult world, with its baffling motives and petty crimes, appears monstrous to those in the process of joining it, and a running theme contrasting experience with expectations derived from literature, an implicit critique of the Great Tradition as a guide to life.
On returning home after three months:
"It seemed I'd been away for years. No, not years. Days? No, not days. It seemed I had been away for three months."
MA rebukes Literature for failing to reflect the reality of life, and implies a manifesto for greater honesty in fiction.
Dead Babies (aka Dark Secrets)
Dead Babies is an attempt at a rounded novel with multiple characters with names and back stories and motivations, and all that stuff, and real, however improbable, plot. The action follows housemates in the Oxfordshire countryside as, over the course of a sex- and drugs-filled weekend, their personal anxieties and conflicts reach a terrible climax, in a pattern familiar to any viewer of Big Brother. The characterisation is thin, especially of the women, who remain stubbornly lifeless; the show is stolen by the horrible Keith Whitehead, short, fat, horny and common, a fictional precursor to both Keith Talent in London Fields and Clint Smoker in Yellow Dog. MA's distinctive language shows through, in such coinings as street sadness and cancelled sex, and there are moments of profound emotion, such as the discovery of park bench graffiti where, partly erased by the latest 'K fucks J', the earlier 'W loves M' survives. The fictional universe has moved on from The Rachel Papers: this is expliclitly set in the near-future, and there is a magic realist acceptance of the fantastical as normal.
Success explores the role of nature and nurture in the development of character by contrasting the fortunes in adulthood of common Terry Service and his adopted brother Gregory in the social, sex and work lives. MA uses unreliable narrators to distort a narrative of the illusion and reality of success. Terry's deadening environment of office politics is well invoked, as is the paranoia of the late 70s hanuted by change and unemployment.
Other People: A mystery story follows an amnesiac, Mary Lamb, through a nightamre landscape in which she has to re-learn the function and import of everyday objects while dealing with sinister and oblique human contacts. Even after all this time and trouble, the book is considered by many to be MA's worst. As a technical exercise in Martian poetical imagination it has some merit, but it fails as an attempt to dramatise a moral tale.
Money: A Suicide Note is MA's best novel. John Self's exploration of fleshly delights is unsullied by culture or civilisation until his attempt to become a film director provides an expensive education.
(longer account in prep)
London Fields is a sprawling Dickensian description of modern London in the shadow of nuclear apocalypse, drawings its cast from the criminal underclass to the wealthy Clinches. The plot, like Dickens', tends to the programmatic, the absurd, and the coincidental, relying, at a critical point, on an educated and intelligent person's igorance of the significance of the name Enola Gay. A writer returns to London, his childhood home, to die, and intends to fulfil his destiny by observing a murder involving a willing murderee, a murderer and a foil. throughout the novel there are hints of an inevitable fatal confrontation in international politics. Keith Talent is a would-be darts champion, his desire to be 'onna TV' leading him to neglect his moe uual activities of petty theft, violence and indiscriminate sex. Nicola Six is, perhasp, the archetypical Amis woman, an unbelievable male fantasy of eroticism, dispassionate pragmatism, and the elaborate manipulation of her swains. Cultured, unsqueamish and determined, she plans to destroy Guy Clinch for the sake of it. Guy, meanwhile, rattles round his large house, and spends much of his time coping with his hideously demanding son whose destructive powers are beyond any defence. His beautiful wife, Hope, is helpless; her elegance and efficiency is completely unappealing to Guy, who prefers the prospect of sordor. The book is enjoyable as a series of vignettes although it lacks coherence and credibility as a whole; the style is crisp and lively urban poetry.
Time's Arrow is a technical tour de force, while also being something of a trial to read. Its narrative conceit is to tell the strory in reverse order, paragraph by paragraph, applaying a mirror reflection to morality, so that the Nazi doctor whose life it recounts starts in comfortable obscurity in an American hospital, making the well sick, before leading back to the Holocaust and the resurrection of the dead on an industrial scale. The weakest part is the early life- we are left little the wiser about what makes a monster.
See my account here.
In Night Train , Mike Hoolihan is a police (she's also female, and a recovering alcoholic), investigating the murder of the astrophysicist daughter of the retired police chief. MA writing a pllice procedural set in America - if that sounds a bizarre prsopect, well, yes, you're right. MA seeks to submerge his distinctive style beneath an adopted narrative voice, but neither the mystery nor the treatment justify the attempt. Night Train is usually held to run Other People close for the title of worst MA novel.
Yellow Dog received a pasting from reviewers on publication, almost as if jealous rivals had been waiting for a chance to finally put the boot in. MA confess that the novel represent a jittery attempt to respond to the fallout of 9/11 and what it ahd told us about violence. There are five strands to the story, varying in interest, complexity, and craftmanship.
The most perfunctory follows a widow and her husband's coffin on final flight home against the increasing malevolence of chance and weather. Others cover: a fictional version of the Royal family, capturing the surreal tedium of anachronistic feudal duty and deference; Xan Meo, successful actor, whose head injury forces him to re-learn how to be a man, commenting on sex and social roles, to end preaching the feminist messge that men should 'give the girls a go', sufficiently patronising to annoy those who might agree with the sentiment; gangster Joseph Andrews, from retirement in las Vegas, hoping to return to the old country to die; and Clint Smoker- a journalist working at a tabloid newspaper completely cynical about its readers and the stories it invents to amuse them- sex-obsessed, impotent, ugly, endowed with miniscule genitalia, who develops a text message relationship with the mysterious k8.
Of these, the royals and Clint work; the others are let down by failures in tone and credibility.
House of Meetings
See my review here.