Friday, June 20, 2008

Martin Amis' "House of Meetings" Book Review

Starting this after I read "Koba the Dread" a few years back and recently "London Fields" and "Time's Arrow," I plunged into it with pleasure, if a novel about a pair of gulag survivors can be classified as such. It's far more earthbound than the other two novels of Amis I finished, and expands the insights of life under "Koba" into an initially compelling fictional tale. It also, as had "London Fields," strongly reminded me of Nabokov, but in a different fashion. The earlier novel played with the narrative conventions; this one takes the detached mood, more like "Ada" in its rather off-handed evocations of otherwise shattering events. For instance, a son's death happens in the Soviet-Afghan war in Salang Tunnel as do the deaths of rebelling slave laborers at Norlag as if off-stage, and this begins to diminish the power of the more brutal, immediately visceral scenes of camp life or the narrator's earlier relationships.

After a while, I began to notice that I did not care about the key figures in the book much. The love triangle, if you can call it that, allows us to root for none of the sorry participants. We understand why Stalinist life has beaten them down into an attenuated going through the motions, but Amis rarely concentrates this difficult, entropic, state into words that move us. For example, the narrator falls for an English woman, Jocelyn, with her beloved four big Georgian poetry anthologies: here's a lost chance to inject wit and edge into the plot, but their simpering potential fizzles. Especially after the storyteller's release, the women he takes up prove remarkably uninteresting, and only Ananias manages for a few pages to leap out of the gloom as a garish caricature that reminds you of Amis' skill to satirize when he sets his mind to it.

Here's one passage that summed up best the book's attempt at a commentary on Russia.
"Between 1946 and 1957 I ate two apples, one in 1949 and one in 1955. Now I went to however much trouble it took to eat an apple every day." He buys these rare delicacies from usually the same seller. "In the queue there were currents of recognition and mistrust. If the line was fifty Russians long, there would be seven or eight who had been away [at the gulags]. There would be another seven or eight who had helped put them away. I would meet the eyes of men and women who agreed what an apple was. I ate everything, the core, the seeds, the stalk." (150)

A great scene, but too few of these make the suffering vivid, rather than existential, in these pages. The narrator tells us he feels like a lab rat let out of a cage, "still rattling around the abandoned lab, long after the experiment is over. And now expected to just live out their lives." (185) A few pages earlier, after shocking news: "I looked into the mirror and I felt I could just remove it, my face. There would be clasps, behind the ears, and it would come away..."(174) The precision of a hesitant voice sharpens such sentences, in Nabokovian fashion. Amis can write well, but too many passages elsewhere rumble on with less memorable descriptions, and it's hard to become interested for long in such a tediously told tale of numbing events far from mundane.

Amis appears to have deadened his own sensibilities in equating his authorial voice with that of his beaten-down protagonist, and the result may work better as a fictionalization of parts of such texts as he credits, such as Anne Applebaum's magisterial history of the Gulags, rather than as a novel on its own terms. When you get a sentence about the titular House of Meetings and its rendered like this, you do despair a bit that such a promising topic turns into an ambitious but rather dispiriting attempt to dramatize the burned-out spirit of a beaten man: "liquid tentacles of injustice and culpability flowing out from the head of the octopus, and you as its beak." (127) Perhaps this is a second-language emigré trying to express himself in English, but it's not the best phrase ever conjured up by Amis. Nabokov could have corrected this, maybe from his exact knowledge of appendages and orifices of many fauna!

(All titles mentioned here reviewed by me on Amazon. In May, 2008, I blogged on the two Amis novels, and "Ada.")

No comments: