Review: The Information by Martin Amis

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The Information by Martin Amis book cover
The Information (1995) is a darkly comic look at the publishing world as seen through the eyes of ageing and unsuccessful novelist, Richard Tull. For Richard his latest novel “Untitled” - a lofty experimental novel - is his last venture into the form before he accepts his lot and commits himself to the banal and yet more lucrative trade of reviewing the biographies of little known literary figures. To exacerbate Richard's disillusionment, his old Oxford friend, the talentless Gwyn Barry, has just made it big with his new-age dystopian novel “Amelior”. Full of jealousy and bile towards his supposed friend, Richard sets about to destroy Gwyn, enlisting the help of violent criminal, Steve, also known as Scozzy – one of the few people to have actually read any of Richard's books – and some of Steve's shady friends. As Richard privately seethes at the injustice of the world he is sent off on a promotional tour of America accompanied by, and charged with writing a piece on, Gwyn. What follows is a terrifically funny romp around the States as the world of small publishing is satirised and Richard descends deeper into his wallowing self-pity, failing miserably at his attempts to knock Gwyn off his perch.

Through Richard, Amis tackles the mid-life crisis and, whilst this is an unflinching look at male insecurity, there is just a hint of self-indulgence in creating a writer character weeping over his past self. However, Amis’s brutal honesty, and the fact that he regularly asserts the individual's place in a cosmic context, largely counter-balances the more indulgent scenes. Clearly Amis enjoys writing about his craft, and has said that Richard and Gwyn represent two aspect of his writerly life. Here it seems that authors secretly seethe at each other's successes, feeling that the acclaim received by others is acclaim stolen from themselves. It's not a pretty picture. Amis draws distinctions between different types of writing too: Tull aims to write novels of genius, but has to supplement this by writing mechanical, rudimentary reviews of literary biographies. Barry writes for the public and for profit, foregoing artistic integrity for money. Interestingly though, there is no evidence that Barry is actually an appalling writer or that Richard is a good one. As all is seen through Richard's eyes one can never be sure how far his opinion is biased and this only goes to emphasise the subjectivity of critical opinion.

As well as exploring the minutiae of authorial rivalry and insecurity Amis acknowledges the Author’s decline in status and The Information is in many ways a meditation on the Author’s spiralling place in society and the commodification of their work. The Author’s fall from grace is only exacerbated by trends in modern publishing and Amis looks at the way in which large media corporations have taken over the publishing industry, paying large advances and marketing a small number of superstar authors; all but ignoring the rest (most clearly shown by the authors’ contrasting tours of America). The game has changed; authors are media personalities first if they want to sell a book. Gwyn Barry understands and accepts this; he is a ‘personality’, completely in tune with the process, unlike Richard who cannot marry his private writing self and the public persona required to sell his books. The reader never sees Gwyn writing, but rather sees him at a string of media obligations: this is the new role of an author; the author as a creative entity is all but dead.

Amis looks also at the way in which the American model, the huge machine, swallows up smaller, more culturally-disposed parts of the industry and churns them out as homogenised products. But The Information is not solely a lament on the downward progression of modern publishing, Amis also targets the old-hat literary institution and its inwardness and absurdity, not to mention satirising the small publishing industry, with which Richard is involved in his small way, a place where doomed literature receives costly, but ineffective, resuscitation. On their tour of America, Richard's and Gwyn's experiences polarize even further. When Richard attempts to expose “Amelior” as a plagiarism he is doomed to failure – quite simply Richard is playing by the old rules. It no longer matters who writes a book, but merely who its listed author is.

The various discussions about the life of a writer are the strongest part of the book and hang on the relationship between Tull and Barry, with Richard’s narrative providing the real meat of the novel. Outside of the two central characters, the remainder are largely shallow caricatures. As with London Fields, Amis juxtaposes the wealthy in society with those of the underclass, but with less success. Here the criminal characters often feel superfluous, and intrude on the central satirical narrative. Darko and Belladonna, two such characters, represent the anti-intellectual, those who are spoon-fed by the media and are divorced from reality and intellectual rigour, but one could easily live without these asides. Scozzy too, provides some interesting scenes, but isn’t given the room to develop into a great Amisian character, and his presence is altogether incongruous to much of the plot. As for the central narrative, and without wishing to pre-empt the reader's reaction to the novel, one suspects that men who are themselves chuntering away from their youth will find Richard's viewpoint most palatable; others will be more likely to find him too self-involved and spiteful to enjoy his company. It's an honest portrayal, but not always an easy one.

As ever with Amis the prose is frequently polished and incisive, but here is perhaps left too much to do by a mediocre plot. The caricatures are good, and the running jokes, whilst inward-looking, are consistently amusing. The portrayal of London is less successful than in London Fields but, as with much of Amis’s fiction, there is a familiar millennial fatigue present, a sense that the world is grinding to a halt and that culture has been unalterably retarded.

At various points in the novel Amis drops himself in as a transcendent narrator, who discusses the cosmos in the main, and man's relation to it, seeming to draw out the mundanity and insignificance of humanity. Amis’s authorial presence is, like his version of London, true in essence but not in detail. Amis also draws character pairs well here – another of his authorial tropes – creating a sense of contrast and oneness simultaneously, and a sense of balance in the world. Gwyn and Richard exist for one another – providing each other with a frustration that cannot be vanquished and from this much of the comedy springs. The polarization and reflection runs right through the text: Richard’s twins, Marius and Marcus, despite being presented as a unified pair, couldn’t be more different. Marius is intelligent, active, and enquiring; Marco has learning disabilities, is unhealthy, and is innocent to the intricacies of life. They inhabit the same space, but experience it on entirely different levels; as in the cosmological meta-theme, which makes clear that we all inhabit the same world but experience it differently.

The titular information is hard to dissect. The construction of the title itself satirises those of popular fiction, but its meaning is a trickier thing to tie down. Information is a modern affliction; it comes at us from all sides, from a variety of appliances - we can't escape it, can't avoid assimilating it into our consciousness, but it is never really defined here. In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Amis said, "It refers to about half a dozen things: the information on someone, the dirt on someone; the information revolution; one character informing another, like a succubus; and the certainty or knowledge that you're going to die, and how this affects the male ego". The Information is as slippery and evasive a read as this response. Amis’s brilliance is evident sporadically, and there is much to enjoy here, but as a novel The Information is weighed down by the dead wood that threatens to crush the bursts of nimble prose and the intimate machinations of a fading writer protagonist.

A hard book to love, but certainly fans of Amis's style will find plenty to enjoy. For me, the novel could do with some brutal editing / re-working, but I still got a lot out of it.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Information on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Information on Amazon (US)

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4 comments:

Irving Podolsky said...

Well, I just read another review of yours and it's so sophisticated, to me it doesn't match up with your picture, which in MY mind, should be a sixty year old professor with a monocle and handle bar mustache, smoking a pipe...within a castle library of ancient books stacked on floor to ceiling mahogany shelves.

Okay...I'm a romantic...but hey, keep reading and writing!

Irv

Matthew Selwyn said...

Haha, well I've been an ancient curmudgeon in my own head since the age of about 14, so you're probably on the right track. I might not have a castle, but I do spend my days in a Victorian library with said mahogany bookshelves, not to mention appropriate amounts of dust.

Thanks for the comments Irv - they made me smile, and it's always great to hear from fellow writers.

_kimguin said...

I finished the book this morning, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. For me, this really lost its way midway through the American tour section - which I didn't enjoy at all. Up until this point I'd quite enjoyed the musings on writing, publishing, and general explorations of success and image (although some of Richard's painful attempt to complete a novel struck a little too close to home!) - but I really felt that the book began to parody itself after this US trip, and not in a way that I enjoyed.

Scozzy and 13 were interesting (Belladonna less so), and I would definitely have liked to see more of them. They felt like the inclusion of lower class, comic relief characters in Shakespeare, that generally get overlooked in the reading, and I think they were underused.

More thinking on what 'the information' is, I think, but for now - not my favourite.

Matthew Selwyn said...

No, agreed, not my favourite Amis either. Or are we using that phrase in the American sense, as in 'I loathe it'?

The plot meanders a bit and, I think, like you, loses its way. Having said that, I enjoyed lots of the American trip stuff, but like the rest of it, it was still hit and miss.

Scozzy was my favourite of the minor characters, and I think I could have ditched 13 and Belladonna (I can't remember what function they served now, which probably doesn't say much).

Though you are an equally lethargic novelist, you're not nearly so grumpy as Richard. Work to do, I think :P