Tuesday 5 December 2023

Other People: A Mystery Story - Martin Amis (1981)


Rating: Excellent

Other People is the fourth novel published by Martin Amis and was the first after he had quit journalism to become a full time writer. It certainly shows, as the novel is a significant step up from the prior three, as good as they were. This is serious literary fiction, featuring particuarly dark themes, a unique narrative structure and surreal perspective that tests the readers' abilities. J.G.Ballard described the novel as a metaphysical thriller, which is an apt description. The narrative's main protagonist is Mary Lamb, an amnesiac whose memory is so far gone that she doesn't even know what people, clouds, cars and other such ordinary phenomena are. We are given the impression that she's received some sort of medical treatment and has been released back into the community without much thought of the consequences. Mary's subsequent adventures involve becoming mixed up some with dubious individuals, such as alcoholics and criminals. The quality of character building is such that you feel genuinely concerned about what might happen to Mary, a concern that becomes wrapped up in the mystery of what has happened to her and why. There is also a second narrator who seems to know the answers to these questions, but is not letting on. This narrator interjects every so often to comment on what's happening to Mary, who as the novel progresses manages to attract misogynistic trouble wherever she goes, including being sexually harassed and obsessed over by various men. Mary is very attractive, and she slowly realises the power of this fact as she finds out more about who she really is, encouraged by the mysterious character of a policeman named Prince, who turns out to be an important character with nebulous motivations.

I say, old chap, what the fuck is Other People about?

Other People reads like a David Lynch narrative, with a disturbing dark mystery at its heart and a plot that seems to twist in on itself with little regard for the reader. I had to think long and hard about just what was going on and ended up looking online for answers; if you really want to know, here's a great cogent synopsis. The writing is absolutely superb, featuring a narrative voice that could only be that of Amis. His turn of phrase is uniquely suffused with irony and dark amusement. Within a plot that is like a möbius strip, Mary's amnesia becomes a great device for Amis to render the world as bizarre and alien. Via this device the world is revealed be a darkly surreal realm inhabited by deeply flawed, dysfunctional and, on the whole, dangerous humans. Mary, like Little Red Riding Hood, ventures forth into danger with apparent innocence, until she discovers the power of who she really is. The ending is mysterious, intense and ultimately satisfying, even though it is difficult to fully understand. A deep think about what has gone on in the novel and the nature of Mary's predicament is called for, but even then, like David Lynch's best films, it is a slippery thing to contend with. Other People is a strange little beast of a novel, it's both realism in terms of its social satire, but also surreal in its metaphysical themes and overall structure. It's an easy novel to admire and as various critics have duly noted over the years, it is undoubtably where Amis really hit his straps. Now, onto Money (1984), eventually, that is... 

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