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The Information by Martin Amis
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's review
Mar 19, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Recommended for: dark clever hipsters with well-trimmed facial hair
Read in March, 2010

This is one of the darkest, most consistently funny novels that I've read for a long time, but there's something about it that just doesn't ultimately all add up for me. On the plus side, you've got Amis's exuberantly baroque writing style, bloated full of alarming and disarming wit that's always as entertaining as it is clever. There's also Amis's absolutely cutting satire of the cult of the celebrity writer, and an equally damning take on the self-important seriousness of co-protagonist Richard Tull's purist modern experimentalism.

The problem with the "new unpleasantness," however, is that ultimately the ends of the 'unpleasantness' on offer — narcissistic self-delusion, blind misogyny, tacit racism, the pleasures of random violence and dissociative sex — remain unclear. I had a boss once who, when asked whether or not he had seen a particular movie recently, replied, "No. I don't usually go to see movies about people with fucked up lives. I know enough of them already." I feel much the same about a lot of the "new unpleasantness" — I already see too much of this type of thing for the thing itself to be either informative or titillating. Unlike a book like The Jungle which functions as an anatomy of the social violence inherent in industrial food production as well as a novel about the working class, The Information seems to add nothing to the general pool of unpleasant knowledge except the idea that middle-age writers can be really fucked up people who function within a larger social formation that's equally as fucked up. Even a film as difficult to watch as Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark at least contains an implicit critique within its formal construction so that the scenes of violence and tragedy in the film are always more than merely scenes of violence and tragedy.

Of course, it can be argued that Amis deploys unpleasantness in the service of black comedy rather than in the service of social critique, and this would be a perfectly valid claim — there is, after all, nothing wrong with wit for the sake of wit. However, the novel becomes so dark at points that it undermines even the pleasures of its own satire; perhaps a bit like what watching a Sacha Cohen movie would be like if Cohen, every now and then, were to cut someone's face with a knife and force us to watch it bleed. In other words, there's a sense in this novel that what's going on, at least at one level, is the kind of hip one-upmanship that can happen when a group of friends is sitting around telling unpleasant stories. As the game progresses and the stories get more and more unpleasant, there's a kind of pleasurable frisson that grows in intensity. The winner of the game is always the person who can tell the story that breaks the frisson of pleasure because the winning story has simply overstepped the bounds of nastiness. The game is over because no one feels like playing any more. There are points in this novel where the urge to outdo itself in unpleasantness destroys the very pleasure of unpleasantness that makes the novel worth reading in the first place.

However, that much said, it's almost impossible not to enjoy the quick intelligence of Amis's writing, the self-referential mise en abîme of his meta-commentaries on fiction, the deeply funny narration of his deeply unreliable narrators, and the occasional stab at profundity that stands out all the more because it feels so displaced within the high-cultural squalor of the literary world that he presents to us like a head on a platter.

In the end, a bit like cotton candy. You eat and eat and eat, feel a bit sick afterward, wonder why you bothered, and then next time you go to the fair you'll probably do it all over again.
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message 1: by Anne (new)

Anne Thanks. That's exactly why I stopped reading 80s minimalism: too much "lives of quiet desperation."
The new unpleasantness sounds pretty much like the old, with shorter fins and newer shoes.

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