Review: Einstein's Monsters by Martin Amis

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Einstein's Monsters by Martin Amis book cover
Einstein’s Monsters (1987) is a collection of five short stories about living in a nuclear world, the paranoia and sickening reality of nuclear armament and its destructive potential. The unprecedented scale and ferocity of this reality is almost impossible to conceptualise in fiction but Amis’s strange and halting stories grope for some form of expression which begins to ‘deal’ with the nuclear question. From monstrous dogs to schizophrenic teens, a philosophical strong man to an omniscient spectator that pays witness to our destruction, this is a violent, unusual response to the overwhelming anxiety of Amis’s time.

‘Einstein’s Monsters’ refers, of course, to both nuclear weapons and us, human beings. In our age of irony, the greatest irony is that of Einsteinian knowledge: both the twentieth century's biggest leap forward in the understanding of the cosmos and the biggest threat to our continuing existence. As one of the characters would have it: ''All peculiarly modern ills, all fresh distortions and distempers, Bujak attributed to one thing: Einsteinian knowledge, knowledge of the strong force. It was his central paradox that the greatest - the purest, the most magical - genius of our time should have introduced the earth to such squalor, profanity, and panic.'' Amis understands the potential threat of scientific discovery, wonderful and progressive though it can be. When combined with human nature all knowledge is corruptible and inevitably dangerous.

Martin Amis is a man of the nuclear generation, and his own anxiety and unease hangs heavy on Einstein’s Monsters. The opening essay, which introduces the collection, powerfully conveys the complexities of nuclear weaponry. In truth, this essay if rather ham-fisted, and reading it can feel rather like being bludgeoned over the head until one agrees that one agrees about something which one quite possibly agreed with in the first place. Heavy-handed then. That said it does put forward the case forcefully: its politics are fine, even if its literary value is seriously dubious.

Amis’s description of the sickness he feels at the thought of nuclear weaponry is perhaps the strongest part of the essay, and this section sets the tone for the collection well. Even in the stories, however, Amis’s writing never quite hits its stride - there are glimpses of his best, but the whole tone of the collection appears to repress his usual linguistic flourishes.

The stories are stylistically so different - some a form of realism, others faintly fantastical or dystopic, one is even a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromedia - that it can be hard to judge them as a whole. Some lose their way a little, other feel more fully realised, stronger ideas backed up by solid writing. The desolation that hangs over the varied collection is evident and the references to atrocities like rape, child abuse, and murder, in combination, evoke a sense of the heaviest and deadliest depression, and yet none come close to realising the reality of Amis’s nuclear anxiety.

Different though the stories may seem on a superficial level, their themes run beyond even this collection and into Amis’s fiction. There are ideas here (nuclear fears, time, cosmology) that dovetail neatly with themes explored in Amis’s novels of the period: London Fields, Time’s Arrow, and The Information.

The concluding story in the collection – an omniscient narrator who pays witness to humanity’s downfall, from inception to final destruction - is perhaps the bleakest; a plea that comes too late, to a world beyond salvation. Any hope that burst out resiliently from the overwhelming weariness of the earlier pieces is crushed almost wholly, but it’s the almost to which we must all cling.

As Amis states in his introduction to the collection, writing about nuclear weapons was important at the time these stories came to him and, he felt, there was a dearth of successful attempts at that point. Whether Einstein’s Monsters is the response Amis felt was necessary is debatable but its texture begins to grapple with an untameable, irreversible problem which we, as the children of a nuclear world, all face indefinitely. At a time when the nuclear paranoia, rightly or wrongly, is a less forceful part of day-to-day life for most, Amis's writing captures the full horror of existing in a world in which nuclear weapons exist, in which one is at all times on the verge of a global holocaust.

A peculiar collection, which bursts, intermittantly, into poignant brilliance, but is weak in places too. An unusual response to the Nuclear Age, and worth reading but not wholly satisfying.


Useful Links
Reviews of Einstein's Monsters on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Einstein's Monsters on Amazon (US)

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4 comments:

sonia said...

Thanks for the review. I've always had trouble getting into his work though I do like his father's writing. The subject matter of this one sounds too interesting to pass up, though.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I'd be interested to hear how you get on if you do give it a try. In honesty, I suspect if you haven't like Amis up to this point, then this might not be the book to convert you. It's an interesting take on the Nuclear question though.

Renz Sacon said...

Dear Matthew,

I read your review of Martin Amis book Einstein's Monsters and feel that you did a great job. In my judgment, your review was balanced, fair and well-thought out. You have demonstrated a justified objectivity, giving a reader a clear impression of what to expect from the novel. I will be following your other reviews with interest.


Thanks!

Matthew Selwyn said...

Hi Renz - thanks for taking a look at the blog, and glad you found the review fair. I can't promise complete objectivity, but I do my best not to be too biased (even if I love Martin Amis a little bit ;) ).