London is appalling, but at least it’s not America.
I had to stop reading The Information because it was too much like my habits of thought and emotion back in the days when I was an angry young man who loved his depression, who cherished and defended it and chain-smoked it. So the eye-rolling, italicised sarcasm of Amis was seductive and frightening. It took me a long time to deal with my own crankiness and see it on its way, and Amis’ crankiness is better written and therefore more dangerous. The book really was sending my mood dangerously low, worse than anything else I’ve ever read, even Cioran.
I took it up again, and finished it, but I don’t quite trust it. This is not an objective, literary judgement. For me, “rage and disgust” (to quote from one of the blurbs on my copy) are wrapped up with a mental illness which it took me years to recognise and deal with. Amis is only depicting it, not living it, perhaps, and he does depict it well, but my admiration can’t be wholehearted. (The blurb seemed to approve of Amis’ “rage and disgust” – why? It’s the writer’s skill, not the emotional tone of the material, which is worthy of approbation.)
Amis periodically dumps chunks of pop astrophysics into the book, all of which is about the smallness and fragility of human life when compared to the big, bad universe. I’m told that the character Gwyn Barry, a talentless yet successful novelist, is a caricature of Julian Barnes, so perhaps these factoids are a parody of Barnes’ style, but the clef of a roman shouldn’t be used as an excuse for failure: they come across like a replay of Douglas Adams’ “Space is big. Really big…” monologue, with worse jokes. Amis tells us about the awful immensity of the universe as if it’s a new idea, as if Adams wasn’t already parodying it in the 70s. The scale of the universe, like all physical facts, is morally neutral: Kurt Vonnegut drew exactly the opposite conclusion from it with his imaginary Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in The Sirens of Titan and Bloom consoled himself with “the apathy of the stars” in Ulysses. The conclusion we draw from the night sky, or from the New Scientist, depends on our temperament, which is why I wouldn’t object to this material if it were presented as belonging to one of the novel’s characters. There is something oddly sentimental in this continual harping on our smallness: as Borges pointed out about existentialism, it appeals to our sense of pathos.
I can’t review Amis without mentioning his style, but I’ve been putting this off, because it’s a bit embarrassing. In his mic-hogging Londonness and continual elbowing of the reader so that we get the point, his generalisations and little riffs about men, he reminded me strongly of Ben Elton. (Amis is no misogynist: he hates men far more than he hates, or even notices, women.) Perhaps standup comedy has taken the place of the novelistic aperçu.