Same Again from Martin Amis
House of Meetings
Jonathan Cape, 2006
Martin Amis has always enjoyed playing with names. In Money (1984), widely considered to be his best novel, characters go by such names as Self, God, Fucker, and Shakespeare. Night Train (1997) is narrated by an overweight American female cop called Mike. In Yellow Dog (2003) the protagonist, Xan Meo, is married to a woman called Russia. This enables Amis to deploy pun after political pun. (When Xan rapes his wife, for instance, ‘he invaded Russia’.) Russia has been much on Amis’s mind over the last few years. In 2002, he published Koba The Dread, a documentary non-fiction work that describes the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. Amis’s latest novel, House of Meetings, features a character nicknamed The Americas (other characters answer to Venus, Phoenix, Uglik, and Arbachuk), but its main concern, again, is Russia. The book is about the country’s relentlessly murderous twentieth-century: its wars, its camps, its pogroms, its terrorism, and its corruption. It is also about America and the clash of East and West—and their irreconcilable ideologies.
The narrative takes the form of an email. An 86-year-old Russian man prepares to send his memoirs to Venus, his twenty-four-year-old American stepdaughter. His last lines are written from a hospital bed in Russia, where he has arranged to receive a lethal injection. Like many of Amis’s previous novels, House of Meetings is a protracted suicide note, in this case a last-minute attempt to make sense of a life shattered by war and the systematic violence of a Soviet labour camp. Before the final moment comes (‘Any moment now I will click SEND’), Amis’s nameless narrator has a lifetime of crimes to confess: ‘When at first I assembled the facts before me, black words on a white page, I found myself staring at a shapeless little heap of degradation and horror.’
Born in 1919 to a Cossack father (‘duly deCossackised in 1920’), the narrator fought on the German front during the Second World War. He freely admits that ‘in the first three months of 1945, I raped my way across what would soon become East Germany.’ This, he explains, was nothing unusual: ‘I marched with the rapist army’, and ‘the peer group can make people do anything, and do it day in day out.’ In 1948, he was sent to a Soviet labour camp: ‘I was a “socially hostile element”, a political, a fascist.’ Conditions in the Gulag were horrific, with camp life organised like a human version of Orwell’s animal farm: the pigs (guards), the ‘urkas’ (common criminals), the snakes (informers), the leeches (fraudsters), the fascists (dissidents), the locusts (juveniles), and the shiteaters (who have sunk too low to belong to any group). By the time his younger brother Lev arrives at the same camp, our narrator is in a position to extend some savvy survival tips: ‘I told him that the acceptance of murder was the thing that was being asked of him.’
The brothers’ relationship is fraught from the first, locked as it is in the most immovable of love triangles. Its third point is Zoya (or The Americas)—a beautiful Jewess whom both brothers love, and whom Lev weds before his arrest. News of the marriage casts a momentous shadow over the brothers’ reunion, and their poisonous rivalry dominates the narrative until its final pages.
Lev is his brother’s opposite, as is typical in Amis’s novels. He is ugly. He is small. He is an ‘intelligent’. He has an atrocious stutter. But through gentleness and perseverance, Lev has succeeded where his brother failed: he has found a way to Zoya’s philandering heart. Love has transformed him. Behind the barbed wires of the camp, he alone among the prisoners refuses to resort to violence, suffering the worst hardships to protect his love. To his uncomprehending brother, Lev explains his status as a non-combatant: ‘That’s for her. That’s for us.’
By 1956, conditions at the camp have improved slightly. Conjugal visits are allowed. Wives travel across the country to spend a single night with their husbands on the ‘northern Eurasian plain, with its extreme temperatures.’ Reunions take place in a rudimentary little chalet—the ‘house of meetings.’ Zoya comes to meet Lev, but what happens between them on 31 July 1956 (‘the night of crunch and crux’) is only divulged at the very end of the novel. What we do know is that the meeting leaves Lev unaccountably destroyed.
The novel does not end with the release of the prisoners later that same year; it continues to follow the two brothers’ lives for decades more. Amis meshes the narrator’s recollections of the past with a diary report of his return to the camp’s locale in September 2004. This ‘Gulag cruise’ (1 to 6 September 2004) enables Amis to include a reference to another of the bleakest episodes in Russia’s history—the siege of Beslan Middle School Number One by Chechen separatists. The depiction of the carnage is as close as Amis gets to hitting raw emotional nerves in this book. Whereas the scenes set in the brothers’ Soviet camp in the 1940s and ’50s are drawn in broadly exaggerated strokes (with the result that the characters involved come across as comic-strip grotesques), the descriptions of the children’s slaughter in Northern Ossetia recall recent horror without the application of any distorting prism: ‘the bomb falls from the basketball hoop and the roof of the gym comes down. And if you were a killer, then this was your time. It is not given to many—the chance to shoot children in the back as they swerve in their underwear past rotting corpses.’
The Beslan siege is but the most recent in a series of major world events to which the novel alludes. In its attempt to tease out the causes of Russia’s disastrous past and to set it in a global context, House of Meetings takes in huge swathes of space (‘Geography did it’) and time (‘History did it’). Amis makes mention of a number of twentieth-century disasters in his novel, including not only the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, but also recent events such as the Columbine School Massacre in 1999, September 11th, and the siege of the Moscow Dubrovka theatre in 2002. These references to such disparate events weaken the narrative structure too much for the book’s own good. In trying to include too much that is ‘real’, Amis risks dispelling his readers’ interest in the fictional plot centred on his main characters, rendering them even more remote than they already seem by virtue of their violent deeds and dangerous values (for the narrator, after all, violence is ‘a neutral instrument’).
The book’s unity is also threatened by Amis’s use of his unreliable narrator. Indeed, the opinions the narrator expresses—about Russia and about the world—are noticeably similar to those the author has recently vented in press interviews, and in a recent essay (‘The Age of Horrorism’, published in The Guardian in September 2006) about what Amis calls ‘Islamism’. Amis is a man with a message, and House of Meetings argues his point. The problem is that, occasionally, Amis’s own voice is too thinly disguised by his novelistic mouthpiece, which diminishes the character’s coherence and credibility. The narrator has two main sets of woes. The first is regarding Russia’s tormented past and the state’s continuing failure to atone: ‘Say sorry, someone. Someone tell me they’re sorry.’ The second set of grievances concerns the ideology of the West. The narrator connects ‘Westernism’ with the ‘numbness of advanced democracy’ and with a crippling political correctness: ‘You have a censor living in your head.’ What the narrator ultimately advocates, by way of unfortunately massive, if self-conscious, generalizations (‘I worship generalizations’), is freedom from any ideology. As the narrator explains to his stepdaughter, ‘all your life I’ve tried to interest you in my ideology: the ideology of no ideology.’
Martin Amis once stated that ‘If you read a good novel, things should look a little richer and more complicated.’ Amis has managed this brilliantly before. In Time’s Arrow (2003), he dealt innovatively and sensitively with the Holocaust from the point of view of a Nazi ‘doctor’. In Night Train, he compellingly interwove the dark stories of two female suicides. In both of these earlier novels, Amis experimented with new subjects (state violence, female distress) as well as new techniques (the most striking of these being the inverted timeline). House of Meetings would have benefited from a good dose of novelty. It reads too much like a compendium of all of Amis’s earlier novels, in spite of its new subject-matter. Amis’s characters are too caricatural to make the world look richer and more complicated. The author seems regrettably wary of arousing emotion, though he has shown—not least in his autobiography, Experience (2000) —that he can do so exceptionally well. The novel’s themes, structures, and jokes are all too familiar: there are the ridiculous names, the frequent and overt references to other authors, the fraternal doubles, the amorous triangles, the scatological imperative, the extreme comic-strip violence, the repressed homosexuality, the obsessive sexualisation of everything. Some things have changed, it is true: women, for instance, are portrayed in much more diverse, less misogynistic terms than in earlier novels. Such departures (and there are others in the book) make for some compelling moments, which the reader craves.
House of Meetings gives the impression of an author keen to give us everything we have ever liked about his works in a single book. But the result inevitably makes for a less, rather than more, engrossing read. The novel is less funny, less touching, and less technically dazzling than what readers have come to expect. Amis has a passionate following of readers who want nothing more than to love his novels. What he needs to do, perhaps, is to accept that it might be best not to use all of his dazzling creative skills at once. And he needs to surprise us, as he used to.
Scarlett Baron is a DPhil student in English literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is writing about the influence of Flaubert on James Joyce.