Dan's Reviews > The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America by Martin Amis
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Aug 21, 2010

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Read from August 13 to 16, 2010 — I own a copy , read count: 1

Although all the essays here are on American subjects, they were initially written for readers of newspapers like The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph , and thus for a British audience. In that context, one would expect the essays to reflect some cultural bias; indeed, insofar as Amis, a British writer, was writing for a British reader, a certain amount of cultural bias would be appropriate. However, as most of the subjects Amis writes about depict some of the less flattering aspects of American culture, it is difficult to determine how much cultural bias these essays actually reflect: while such topics as Elvis Presley’s final years, Brian Depalma’s gore-spattered films, the “televangelist” industry and a representation of the aging Hugh Hefner certainly function to call attention to differences between American and British culture, and even to reflect something of the way that the former is viewed within the latter, it is difficult not to feel in addition that the celebrity excesses Amis describes in fact emblematize for him something essential about the American experience. Honi soit qui mal y pense .

While one might accuse him of snobbery and leave it at that, I think it may be more accurate to say that Amis is lacking awe with regard to those aspects of American culture about which he writes. It is because of this that Amis is able to write about American celebrity culture with such understanding (the distinction I am making here is that a “snob” would not make the effort to understand that which he or she is criticizing). Thus, although there were instances in which Amis was finding negative things to say about other writers whose work I enjoy, I often found myself nodding in agreement with his representations.

Nor is all of it negative. Amis has some positive things to say about the work of writers like John Updike and Saul Bellow. Indeed, in his essay about Gloria Steinem, Amis seems to be making extra efforts to defend her, for instance from stereotypes about feminists.

One thing that might keep one from reading it is that the book is rather dated. In the thirty years since Amis wrote the essays, Ronald Reagan has served two terms as president of the United States, Philip Roth has written many more novels and Steven Spielberg has made many more films. Indeed, some of the essays may have seemed dated at the time Amis originally wrote them: I doubt that the things he said about about Elvis’s death or about Norman Mailer’s or Truman Capote’s public personae were still new even in 1980. On the other hand, it can be interesting to see how little things have changed in the last thirty years: Hugh Hefner seems now, in his eighties, to be living the same kind of life he was in his fifties.

However, if you’re not looking for a book about current events and like Amis’s writing style and are interested in his opinions with regard to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, this is a good one to pick up. He has some interesting ideas about how Roth’s work is organized, as well as a penetrating analysis of Joan Didion’s rhetorical structures in her book of essays, WHITE ALBUM. In its simultaneous employment of the styles and approaches both of the gossipy tabloid and the serious literary analysis, the book is both intellectual exercise and guilty pleasure.
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