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
Magnificent. A joy to read. Filled with wit, erudition, pointed insights, worldly scope and earned wisdom.
John Leonard was one of those freelance bo Magnificent. A joy to read. Filled with wit, erudition, pointed insights, worldly scope and earned wisdom.
John Leonard was one of those freelance book and culture critics who we are always hearing laments about the passing of, the end-of-an-era type stuff, the senescent self-pity of people who either aren't interested or up to the task of keeping the idea of criticism as art alive at least for another generation, until the next wave of bookish brats comes in and starts redecorating the place...
This collection was sent to me unbidden by a dear friend who bought one for himself, too, because there just isn't anything quite like reading essays and reflections by someone who not only knows his stuff but also makes sure that you, the reader, are riding along with him.
I've said it before and I'll say it again- the only thing better than reading a book is reading about a book, preferably one which you have not read before.
Leonard did this in spades, and luckily he made a living doing it. I'd only seen him in a couple of interview fragments after he died and he came across on screen much like he comes across on the page- warm, amiable, confident, John Learned.
He exults in the things he justifiably loves (Toni Morrison, Mailer, Roth, The Ed Sullivan Show, Don DeLillo, Grace Paley, and many more) and he roasts the things he justifiably hates (Nixon, the Moral Majority, bad TV, Reagan, etc) which is part of what any good critic must do.
His prose is free-spirited but sure-footed and his sense of sentence structure and punctuation (yay for the semicolon!) as well as his wonderfully vivid and culturally playful sense of imagery and metaphor are not only extremely easy to read while being sneakily complex and pithy but also warmly accessible and helpfully precise. You may not always catch his references (I did, mostly, and call me sentimental or narcissistic but this little trick always wins me over every time) but you can pick them up in context and sense that they're put there for a reason.
His love of language, of acknowledging the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world' and his delight in the now-ancient and somewhat obscured worlds of the past that spelunking through culture brings you is a joyous intoxicant.
You can tell he was doing what he loved and that he'd found a place for his mind and heart to develop fully. His was not a wasted life. He was, after all, a guy who said that we live alone but with each other and that if you love a book, the book will love you back.
Read him if you love reading.
Read him if you love to read about reading.
Read him if you love to love reading and reading about reading.
Read him if you don't want to waste your life....more
I remember when baseball card collecting was a thing, back in the beforetimes, and all I had to go on was this compendium of data as to whether or not
I remember when baseball card collecting was a thing, back in the beforetimes, and all I had to go on was this compendium of data as to whether or not Alvaro Espinoza's rookie card went up 35 cents or not.
Even more vividly, I remember walking through the halls of my school discussing the various whys and wherefores of baseball card collecting with some friends of mine, talking about our baseball card price guides EXACTLY the way suburban dads talk about their lawnmowers. Trust me on this one....more
Good, solid, brief but quite readable account of the Civil War for people (like me) who are interested in the topic but are't well-versed or quite rea Good, solid, brief but quite readable account of the Civil War for people (like me) who are interested in the topic but are't well-versed or quite ready to handle a multi-volume epic like Shelby Foote's......more
His first, and not a bad debut. A little pangs-of-first-love here, a little erudite irritations there, always the masterly control of phrasing and ton His first, and not a bad debut. A little pangs-of-first-love here, a little erudite irritations there, always the masterly control of phrasing and tone. It's kind of book that takes you a day to read but that's actually a good thing.
The last few pages really made it all come together- the very last page made me all verkempt.
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