Sunday 30 August 2020

The Man Who Saw Everything - Deborah Levy (2019)


Rating: Mediocre

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel in two parts. I quite enjoyed the first part, but unfortunately my level of interest completely fell away during the second half. The novel concerns Saul Adler, a very good looking young man who is hit by a car having his photo taken by his artistic girlfriend at the famous Abbey Rd crossing in 1988. His girlfriend then breaks up with him just before he embarks on a trip to East Berlin to undertake research, where he becomes romantically entangled in the lives of a brother and sister who are compromised by life in the Eastern Block. The first section is told from Adler's point of view, however during the second half of the novel you come to understand that his self perception and his perception of those around him is significantly lacking. Adler is again hit by a car at Abbey Rd (or is it the first and only time? I have my suspicions...) in 2016 at age 56. He is badly hurt and spends the second half of the novel in a hospital bed being visited by people from his past, while ruminating over his life in an opiated haze.

The Man Who Saw Everything is an ironic title, as Adler does not see himself as others see him and Levy uses this as a means to explore the notion that life, perception, and history itself is fragmented and unreliable. An argument could be made that the the novel is quite clever in its exploration of such themes (it's a divisive novel, with a portion of my book club members loving it - the others were totally dismissive), however both Adler and the narrative failed to hold my interest and I became totally indifferent to its (actually limited) charms. Adler is not a particularly likeable character, he is obviously both damaged and narcissistic, which is fine, as I often enjoy antiheroes, but coupled with the fact that the narrative becomes so diffuse and opaque, there is very little motivation to spend the time to work out what is actually going on. While I was still writing this review I began reading the Christos Tsiolkas novel Damascus (2019) and the difference between the two novels made me realise that post-modernism is totally dead. Tsiolkas' brutally straight-forward writing style was incredibly refreshing and dynamic compared to the oblique exploration of the subjectivity of reality in The Man Who Saw Everything

Monday 10 August 2020

Dead Babies - Martin Amis (1975)


Rating: Admirable

Way back in 2014 I decided to read all of the Martin Amis novels in sequence, having just read his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973). Now finally, six years later, I've read another! Dead Babies is, firstly, not quite as good as The Rachel Papers, although Amis's prose style is consistently excellent, the themes and subject matter are more dated in comparison. It comes across as a primary influence on the English TV show The Young Ones (circa 1980s). The novel is a satirical skewering of empty hedonism, class snobbery, the faded hippy dream and pretty much everything else that was happening in culture at the time. It's also full of nasty solipsistic characters whose decadence and desperation knows no bounds. The narrative takes place over one weekend in a manor owned by the extremely rich neurotic Giles Coldtstream, called Appleseed Rectory, where the residents are joined by three Americans and a"golden hearted whore" called Lucy Littlejohn and also a "practical joker" called Johnny. The characters are too numerous to comment on with any depth, but Keith Whitehead warrants a particular mention due to his sympathetic status as a fat, short, disgusting "court dwarf", who bears the brunt of the others questionable behaviour, particularly from the Americans toward the end.

There's some humour in the novel, but mostly it's extremely dark, particularly once the Americans arrive and start doling out weird drugs that are meant to make the recipients experience whatever state of mind they desire. It sounds like fun, but it isn't, not for the characters and not for the reader; personally I don't mind these sorts of narratives, but Dead Babies made me react at times as if I could catch the scent of day-old vomit. There is a narrative thrust in the form of a plot based around the mystery of just who Johnny is and why he is, for example, leaving Diana nasty letters and tearing up treasured porn magazines (Keith's). Apparently the novel is a parody of the very English county house murder mystery narrative of the type popularised by Agatha Christie, but they were never as gruesomely perverse as this. The ending is entertaining enough, but I didn't really care what happened to the characters, which I suspect was Amis's aim all along.