I know it’s passé to like Martin Amis but I do. The first Amis I read was Money (1984), and if you’ve read that novel you’ll know that, for better or worse, that’s not an encounter you’re likely to forget. For me, it was all positive: a junk-fuelled wonder of voice and vocabulary that had me laughing throughout. I’ve been less dazzled by his other novels, but who wouldn’t be after such an introduction? What has never failed to delight me, though, is the non-fiction. Amis is a terrific essayist and reviewer – forthright yet unpretentious – and his collections The Moronic Inferno (1986) and The War Against Cliché (2001) are essential reading for any budding scribbler. In my eagerness for more short-form Amis, then, I turn now to this, his second book of short fiction, Heavy Water and Other Stories.
It’s more a collection than a book. Published in 1998, Heavy Water draws together nine stories dating back as early as 1976 – and it shows. Like the pre-Money novels, the pre-Money stories find Amis still fishing for his style, still very much under the influence. So with ‘Denton’s Death,’ the oldest story here, we get Amis trying Kafka out for size:
Suddenly Denton realized that there would be three of them, that they would come after dark, that their leader would have his own key, and that they would be calm and deliberate, confident that they had all the time they needed to do what had to be done.
Another apprentice work is the title track, ‘Heavy Water,’ about an elderly woman caring for her intellectually disabled son during a cruise. A tragicomic chamber piece, the story makes its confined setting a microcosm of society at large, in this case England circa 1977:
This year […] the cruise operators had finally abandoned the distinction between first and second class. A deck and B deck still cost the same amount more than C deck or D deck. But the actual distinction had finally been abandoned.
The result is oddly old-fashioned, the sort of story Angus Wilson might have written in the ’50s. But I can’t deny it moved me: the mother’s forbearance, the son’s sadness. Not what you expect when you open a book by Martin Amis.
What you expect is a story like ‘State of England.’ Its protagonist, Big Mal, is a classic Amis grotesque. A bouncer-turned-petty criminal, Mal “is built like a brick khazi: five feet nine in all directions” and is currently nursing “a shocking laceration on the side of his face.” This he got, hilariously, while attempting a clamping scam on some operagoers’ cars and getting caught in the act: “it must have been decades since he had been with a rougher crew,” he explains to his estranged wife Sheilagh. The occasion of this marital meeting is their son Jet’s school sports day, where the real competition is happening on the sidelines: “The dads: half of them weren’t even English – thus falling at the first hurdle, socially.” An outed philanderer, Mal is even lower on the pecking order and finds himself cold-shouldered by the other parents. In response, Mal does something we all recognise – turn to his mobile phone: “With a mobile riding on your jaw you could enter the arena enclosed in your own concerns, your own preoccupation, your own business.” Well, we recognise this now; but it seems a very percipient observation to have made back in 1996.
Amis proves himself an acute observer of other aspects of society: of LGBT issues in ‘Straight Fiction’; of algorithmic living in ‘Let Me Count the Times.’ In the later ones, though, Amis’ greatest inspiration is unfortunately himself. Too often he slips into self-parody. I return to ‘State of England’: “Bouncing wasn’t really about bouncing – about chucking people about. Bouncing was about not letting people in. That was pretty much all there was to it – to bouncing.” Amis is famous for this kind of wordplay, and gets away with it in the novels, I think, because novels are elastic and capacious and can take it. In a short story, however, every word needs to count, and so when Amis starts to riff like this, the work suffers.
It is no coincidence, then, that the best story here is also the most rigorously structured. Inverting the worlds of poetry and film, so that poetry is a big bucks industry and “screenplay writing” an earnest, solitary endeavour, ‘Career Move’ flicks back and forth between the life of a poet and that of a screenwriter. It’s a brilliant inversion that sends up the absurdity of Hollywood better than any realist telling could:
They talked about other Christmas flops and bombs, delaying for as long as they could any mention of TCTs ‘’Tis he whose yester-evening’s high disdain’, which had cost practically nothing to make and had already done a hundred and twenty million in its first three weeks.
It also permits Amis to show off his talent for nomenclature. Among our screenwriter’s works, for instance, are such gems as Offensive from Quasar 13, Valley of the Stratocasters and, my personal favourite, Medusa Takes Manhattan. And as for the names of the prequel and sequel to the hit poem ‘’Tis’ – well, they are too good to spoil here. In fact, the whole story is too good: the first in the collection, it sets an unattainable standard for the others, meaning a sequential reading of Heavy Water will inevitably disappoint. So if you do happen upon a copy of this book, my advice is this: save ‘Career Move’ for last.
Heavy Water and Other Stories is published by Vintage and is available here.