First, a very important message. Go here.
Now time for your regularly scheduled book review.
You know you’re psyching critics out when they make a massive error in their review of your latest book and are forced to apologize for it, and it’s a positive review.
The thing about being a big name in the current literary environment is that Amis is at least trying. He had a bad idea for a book, but he still gutted it out and wrote it.
This is Amis’ Vonnegut novel. It does what all old people do when they think about the past–roll over actual chaotic events in what I like to call ‘hindsight pancakes.’ The resulting excretion is blandishments and stupidity. At one point, the rapist Russian narrator of House of Meetings finds the exquisite time to comment on a salient difference between Americans and Russians.
Forgive me. And anyway, it’s not just the young. There is a Western phenomenon called the male midlife crisis. Very often it is heralded by divorce. What history might have done to you, you bring about on purpose: separation from woman and child. Don’t tell me that such men aren’t tasting the ancient flavors of death and defeat.
In America, with divorce achieved, the midlifer can expect to be more recreational, more discretionary. He can almost design the sort of crisis he is going to have: motor-bike, teenage girlfriend, vegetarianism, jogging, sports car, mature boyfriend, cocaine, crash diet, powerboat, new baby, religion, hair transplant.
Over here, now, there’s no angling around for your male midlife crisis. It is brought to you and it is always the same thing. It is death.
It feels like he is clunkily observing people through newspaper columns by his British friends and whiskey buddies. Amis tries to write a memoir here, a theme that itself had lost all the charm it had before the memoir got taken up by every white person with a mild tragedy to their credit.
Amis credits Anne Applebaum and her history of the Russian labor camps in Gulag, though he never seems quite obsessed with recording the truth of the labor camps, which sounds like Club Med with brief Pulp Fictiony interludes. Our narrator, by the way, is telling this jaunt to an American teenager named Venus. Unfortunately, due to a complicated and perhaps avoidable chain of events, this reminded of Peter O’Toole, a subject one never really wants to be reminded of.
Waiting to Die: The Peter O’Toole Story
Amis’ novelistic successes often have centered around sibling relationships, and House of Meetings has one. Lev and our rapacious narrator are half-brothers. The foster brothers of Success, Amis’ hilarious take on sexual modernity, serve as a decent template. And once the book starts detailing a weird Odd Couple type post-labor camp siblinghood it gets going a little bit. Amis can’t help it. Even if he’s mailing it in, even if he hasn’t interacted with anybody but his drinking buddies in awhile–well, he’ll get some of it right.
Superior technique aside, this book will never be filed with Money or Time’s Arrow, but it’s a decent enough diversion if you don’t have the mental energy to read Gulag, and want the Cliff’s Notes.\
Shout out to Jeff Goldberg for loaning me House of Meetings. You’re a gentleman and a scholar mine Hebrew friend.
“We Gathered in Spring” — Midlake
Foxymoron entertains me sometimes.