Are We Happy Now, Boys and Girls?

Martin Amis’s novel, The Information, is about the malevolent affection that binds two Oxford chums, one a successful writer who doesn’t deserve success and the other an unsuccessful writer who deserves his failure. So Richard (failed) goes to great lengths to mess with Gwyn (successful) and does more to upset his own world than he does Gwyn’s.

Most of the novel takes place in London and features one of Amis’s favorite devices–the upstairs/downstairs narratives involving thugs Richard hires to give Gwyn a hard time: a really hard time. But there is an American book tour that avails Amis the opportunity to write with wild, often unbelievable, energy in ripping the former British colonies apart…as he rips London literary society apart…as he rips English country house society apart…as he rips the universe apart in quirky cosmic interludes that seem to be telling us that the human comedy is too trivial to be worth the expenditure of so many words…a lot of words…because once Amis gets going, he’s not economical, he’s fantastical, he’s bloody-minded…he’s a bit of a literary spendthrift.

Satire,the best way to describe The Information, is a tricky business. Its shelf-life can be rather short. This mid-90s novel still has bite, but there is a cranky joy here that might just become a toothless howl in a decade or two. Overshadowing the antics and rivalries and send-ups is a kind of nostalgia for the days of Dr. Johnson’s poets, the era when a well-wrought poem or tale meant more than it did toward the end of the 20th century. This, at least, preoccupies Richard, though Amis’s descriptions of his miserable literary productions suggests he has small claim on the verbal worlds he explored when he was a student at Oxford reading Andrew Marvell.

By its own explicit terms, The Information can’t be comedy or romance because it doesn’t end well for Richard. This a man whose physical and mental deterioration somehow outruns the simplicity of dying, plaguing him with the prospect that he will have to go on suffering Gwyn’s success for a good long while.

On Gwyn, a final word: I don’t know exactly whom Amis had in mind. Gwyn’s success rides on the back of everyone in his novels being diverse yet conflict-free, the happy happy few. We can think, I suspect, of Voltaire’s Dr.Pangloss, or more recently, the forgettable (I’ve forgotten his name) author of I’m Okay, You’re Okay. Feel-good writing works for some people. Amis clearly loathes it. But even if satire is not, strictly speaking, comedy, it can be, and is in this case, quite funny.

About Robert Earle

Robert Earle's new collection of short stories is called She Receives the Night (Vine Leaves Press). Over the years he has published more than 100 stories in print and online literary magazines. He also has published a nonfiction book about Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press) and a novel, The Way Home (DayBue). Earle was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania and has academic degrees from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. He spent 25 years in the Foreign Service and has lived in many parts of the US, Latin America, and Europe. Now he lives in Durham, North Carolina.
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