It’s safe to say that Martin Amis has never shied away from controversial subjects. Over a three-decade career, the eminent novelist and essayist has consistently delved into prickly subjects like nuclear war (Einstein’s Monsters), Thatcherite greed (Money), terrorism (Yellow Dog) and Stalinist horror (The House of Meetings). After the breakthrough success of The Rachel Papers, his second book bore the title Dead Babies. One critic called Amis a harbinger of what he called “the new unpleasantness.” Amis’s fiction, bleak though it often is, paradoxically remains compelling and pleasurable to read because of how well he writes about dreadful things.
It’s unfortunate that The Zone of Interest, his latest novel, has far more dread in it than beauty. In his best work, Amis can write beautifully about grotesquerie, relying on his technical excellence and caustic humor to carry the reader along. Granted, it would be very difficult for any writer, no matter how talented, to pull off a combination love story and office comedy set within the higher bureaucracy of a concentration camp.
Amis shows some admirable ambition in setting a literary challenge for himself and the reader, attempting to summon emotion and humor out of the least likely of scenarios. Unfortunately, The Zone of Interest isn’t even close to his best work. Most of the rather feeble attempts the novel makes at either romance or comedy crumble under the ominous load of its premise.
The novel’s anti-hero protagonist is Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, nephew to Nazi Party Chancellery Martin Bormann, who has an authoritative but undefined position (“I liase”, he explains) at a concentration camp named Buna- Werke where prisoners produce synthetic rubber for IG Farben as cheap labor. He longs for Hannah, the wife of his particularly boorish camp commander Paul Doll. Golo plans to seduce Hannah away from the dullard Doll, partly because Hannah’s beauty and physical robustness makes her desirable and partly for the perennial appeal of shagging the boss’s wife. Sadly, this is essentially the sum total of the love story plot.
Amis’s decision to write about the Holocaust doesn’t categorically put him in bad taste, or even because he wants to portray highly improbable emotions with a concentration camp as a backdrop. Novelists should be free to write about whatever subject they choose, but the question is not in what one writes about as much as in how well they write about it. If you’re going to try and make a concentration camp funny, or (god help us) romantic, you really must make it work on the page in order to make it worth the reader’s time and imaginative effort. Amis has written a novel dealing with the Holocaust before, the Vonnegut-esque Time’s Arrow, which at least had the saving grace of being innovatively structured and briskly paced.
Characterization has never really been Amis’s strong suit, and the motivation behind Golo’s desire for Hannah is scant at best. Golo falls for Hannah at first sight, but doesn’t seem to give the reader any finer point to his emotions beyond acknowledging her beauty and the surreptitious thrill of insubordinate adultery. One wouldn’t necessarily expect a Nazi to have much of a romantic side, but Golo doesn’t seem to have much else to him aside from the sinister punctiliousness of a bureaucrat in a death camp. Sizing up the sturdily built Hannah, Golo bluntly remarks to himself that she would be “a big fuck”, telling us nothing other than that the real zone of interest, for Golo at least, is found below his belt.
If the reader is expected to believe love- even a truncated understanding of it in nightmarish times- is really at stake for these characters, the fact that Golo himself is barely able to articulate what he feels either to Hannah or the reader is a major narrative weakness. The reader doesn’t get a sense of what Hannah means to Golo at all. Hannah, for her part, despises her psychotic husband but seems to feel nebulous at best towards Golo, adding little to the dramatic tension. Their story eventually leads to a denouement as underwhelming for the reader as it is for Golo.
The rest of The Zone of Interest is a black-as-pitch parody of the desk-chair brutalities of shuffling around the paperwork for the death trains. Different characters calculate the amount of labor that can be extracted from the prisoners in relation to calorie intake, others prefer numbers to words, attend ballet recitals and hold office meetings under a cloud of “cigarette smoke and existential unhappiness.” Doll obliviously gloats over the immanent German victory at Stalingrad. A grisly humor makes an appearance from time to time. As one camp commando says to Golo, cracking a joke to cover up their mutual unease: “well, we’re not savages. At least we’re not eating them.”
Another glaring issue is the style, or lack thereof, which is tantamount to an aesthetic disaster for a stylist like Amis. Amis’s prose is often justly celebrated for its caustic exuberance; his wicked satiric eye is matched only by the Nabokovian zest of his language. Very few contemporary novelists can be as engaging and fun to read while delivering rather devastating indictments on the absurdities of modern life. Unfortunately, none of his literary strengths are on display here. Sentences pass by as if being recorded as blips on a dim radar screen. The prose in Zone is eerily compressed, flattened, and eventually rather numbing in its sense of omnipotent dread.
It’s a shame that Amis decided to handicap himself by rejecting his usual stylistic brio in favor of a prose that explores the banality of evil by being oppressively banal itself. Whenever the novel takes up a particular theme, it drops it without having delved deeply enough into it to have anything to say. Peculiar effort that it is, The Zone of Interest ironically fails as a novel because it breaks the cardinal rule Henry James once made for all fiction, which is that whatever it says or does, it at must at least be interesting. ...more
Punchy, taut, brisk, abrupt, grotesque, surprisingly subtle and rather laconic. To have ridden in the Red Calvary alone, as an Odessan Jew, was defini Punchy, taut, brisk, abrupt, grotesque, surprisingly subtle and rather laconic. To have ridden in the Red Calvary alone, as an Odessan Jew, was definitely an act of tremendous guts- to write about it effectively afterward is even more impressive, of course.
His short story "Guy De Maupassant" is perfect.
He was snuffed out far too early and was tragically intended to be forgotten by the Stalinist state but his prose sears and burns off the page as if even his sentences themselves are fighting to stay alive.
Perfect description of a writer: "with eyeglasses on my nose and autumn in my heart..."...more
Wow, I can totally remember hearing about this in those big-people magazines (Newsweek! Time!) when I was but a pup and seeing it on my living room t Wow, I can totally remember hearing about this in those big-people magazines (Newsweek! Time!) when I was but a pup and seeing it on my living room table and devouring the sucker. Oooh la la! is this what it was like to be on a political campaign? Is this what real political people in the know are all about? Is this what Bill Clinton's like in person?
W-O-A-H. I'd really like to give this a re-read, and soon. It'll be well-nigh Proustian, I wager....more
Better than The Handmaid's Tale, in my humble opinion. As good as THT was, there was a sort of self-conscious Orwellian allegory kind of thing going
Better than The Handmaid's Tale, in my humble opinion. As good as THT was, there was a sort of self-conscious Orwellian allegory kind of thing going on that sort of blunted the edges of the very real and very pointed social criticism.
This one's more of a barn burner...plot moves fast, it's really engaging and kind of dark. I remember reading this and completely ignoring the bustling room all around me.
Don't you love it when that happens? It's like a textual cocoon......more
OK, deep breath here...I haven't read, or better to say understood, Homer as much as I ought to. I've picked up and put down The Odyssey a few times aOK, deep breath here...I haven't read, or better to say understood, Homer as much as I ought to. I've picked up and put down The Odyssey a few times and I just hate to admit that it's not clicking for my modern mind as much as it ought to. It's not the deep brow'd blind sage, it's me. Did not read it in high school, was unfortunately lacking in my ancient Greek history and mythos (getting better, hopefully) and therefore the gods, and gods upon gods, and the drama between them all plays out so intricately that my eyes start to wobble and my head it spins. Man, do I hate admitting it, and in the sparkling company of Goodreads at that, but it's just the damn truth. I like to quietly judge people who don't dig the classics because their "boring" or "weird" or "long-winded" or "old fashioned" as much as anybody, but in this case I have met the enemy and he is me.
Homer's one of those writers who hover over...well...everything, of course. My beloved Joyce puts him to some obvious use in the obvious place. Philosophy professors are always referencing it, Nietzsche and Bernard Williams like to use him, Keats, Pound, Milton, etc etc...it's the kind of thing that a voracious reader will sort of get an inkling of even if they've never actually cracked the pages themselves. Isn't it strange how that happens?
So I am now no longer burdened by master's thesis woes (PASSED! On my birthday, no less! Whut whut!) and thus am free to tackle a big dog guilt-free. I just cannot call myself an educated reader without having the Homer in my brain-shelf, I just can't. It really is a kind of shame that it's not as central a part of the curriculum as it used to be...I'm embarrassed by how little I really know about these characters, or rather how much I thought I knew and really hadn't retained.
So I'm going straight to the source- the battle of Troy, 2700 years of accumulated rage and blood and wisdom...and luckily I found the translator who can make it happen (for me, at least). Fagles. Fagles! His "Orestia" rocked my world and now he's the go-to guy for all things classical. I wish I were smart and worldly enough to get a comparison of translations under way but I'm doing all I can to take on the challenge The Iliad is throwing down.
Glad to say that at around book 5 the confusion is a presence, but not a hinderance. It's fucking death metal. Compulsively readable, incredibly gutsy and frank and vivid. There's a humanity here which really does shine through all the blood grudges and slaughter and dick-waving and general bellicosity, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out. People start fights, rend flesh, and either cry to their mamas materializing out of the sea (!?) or are whisked away in the nick of time by generous goddesses. Men die for their comerades, beg favor from the gods who are in the midst of a Honeymooners row the likes of which are no man's buisness. The gods feel pain, but they do not die...
Finished! Stayed up (almost) all night to cap it off at last!
No sense in trying to communicate the breadth and density and power of the text, so I'll just post some of my favorite quotes in due time (i.e. when and if I get around to it)....more
Starting on this one for a Modern Irish Novel course. Funnily enough, a good friend of mine lent it to me out of the blue just before the semester sta Starting on this one for a Modern Irish Novel course. Funnily enough, a good friend of mine lent it to me out of the blue just before the semester started, saying merely that it read quickly and well. Next thing I know it's the lead off book for the course! Irish kismet, there it is.
Really potent and deeply felt illustrated examination of amnesia, collective and personal, about an event which is hidden in the unconscious for what Really potent and deeply felt illustrated examination of amnesia, collective and personal, about an event which is hidden in the unconscious for what are pretty understandable, all-too-human type reasons. I have a lot of respect for anyone who is going to do some truth telling as an excersize in evidence against interest- if it feels good for you to talk about it, it probably isn't something which is as important as that which brings shame.
I think Folman has accomplished something profound and honest and relevant and generous here, about an event of which I know little...
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is something which interests me, something which I'd like to know more about and certainly seems like something which is so complex it could take a lifetime of reading to get straight. I don't have world enough and time, sadly.
But I'm glad I read WWB and I'm glad it was assigned to me for a class.
Disregarding favoritism for one side or the other I do think that self-criticism from a position of strength, confrontation with too-easy answers and too-comfortable complacency, amounts to an important step forward. Not merely for my reading habits, surely, but perhaps for the whole human race....more
Now THIS is more like it. Experimental, impressionistic prose in the wild subjective to convey the surging, elemental sensibility of one of the deeply Now THIS is more like it. Experimental, impressionistic prose in the wild subjective to convey the surging, elemental sensibility of one of the deeply mythological founders of jazz...love that kind of thing and it necessitates this kind of writing. very much enjoyed......more
I love Sontag the writer, provocateur, thinker, etc...and I love her essays and criticism. And her life. I always think twice about what she says and
I love Sontag the writer, provocateur, thinker, etc...and I love her essays and criticism. And her life. I always think twice about what she says and recommends and the attitudes she takes.
But this book didn't really live up to my expectations. I love some of it- the aphoristic writing and the quiet delineations of places and objects, especially. Her characterization is pretty strong and sometimes the evocative feel of time and place is really there.
Unfortunately the writing is a little too self-conscious, a little too jagged and angular. There's this rather irritating tic she seems to have where her sentences have to be like five or six words long and end abruptly. It's almost as if she's willfully capping herself off once the idea or sensation is just starting to breathe. I think it stems from the ever-present ultra-intellectual quality of her writing and (at least, it seems to me) her being. I understand this kind of thing, intimately, because when I try to write creatively I often start hacking up my sentences or spiking the rhythm because it seems too...derivative? Felicitous? Easy? "Stream of consciousness-y"? Simple? Cliched?
So I sympathize but for extended reading it's a little bludgeoning. One can feel (or at least I could) the massive intelligence and critical rigor of the mind that wrote this, but that same brain sort of weighs the whole thing down too often, nearly reaching the point, on many occasions, of being pedantic or turgid. I hate to say it because I have such deep respect for her but I can't ignore it.
Towards the end she starts to pick up speed- the free indirect discourse passing through the different characters starts to really pack an emotional and sensory punch. This happened throughout the novel when she cut loose a little bit and started to let the language do the talking (!). At times, things hum along pretty smoothly but there's always this leaden density (huge paragraphs, esoteric slightly interesting references, over-written psychological descriptions, chopped melody) just around the corner. I started to lose interest and do that page-flipping thing one does when a book starts to lose its pull.
It's not a bad book, it's just not a great one. Three stars is the perfect score.
I'll read her other fiction, certainly, and I'll definitely dig in to more of her essays and nonfiction, etc. But as for now I'll hold off on the former and get excited for the latter........more
One of those books which about 35% of the reading public loves and I've never gotten into. Slogged through it in highschool and never bothered to go b One of those books which about 35% of the reading public loves and I've never gotten into. Slogged through it in highschool and never bothered to go back. ...more
Overrated but still quality. Well intentioned. Appropriate, given the times and all that. Read it in high school, which is bound to take the luster of Overrated but still quality. Well intentioned. Appropriate, given the times and all that. Read it in high school, which is bound to take the luster off of anything, but still......more
As good as it's cracked up to be...I couldn't let either of my parents borrow it, because of personal ironic tragic reasons which I daresay are still As good as it's cracked up to be...I couldn't let either of my parents borrow it, because of personal ironic tragic reasons which I daresay are still stickin' with me now.......more
I just absolutely hooked into this book. I literally was carrying it everywhere and not looking up when I walked or sat in a car. I made people late b I just absolutely hooked into this book. I literally was carrying it everywhere and not looking up when I walked or sat in a car. I made people late because I had to finish a chapter or a sentence.
I just clicked with it. Amazing!
I've poked around it in years hence and not quite seen anything to shout about, but it's still written beautifully and is very potent stuff.
I'll always remember how this book became literally the most important thing I could even think of doing for about a week or two.
You know how that happens? You never forget it, either....more