Amis and madness redux
November 18, 2011
Don DeLillo, one of the world’s greatest living writers, has a new short-story collection out. I reviewed it here; and Martin Amis reviewed it here, gaily wasting the first 500 of his allotted words on a tedious and dubious theory about why when we “love” a writer’s work, that really means that “we love about half of it”.
In obedience to his own ridiculous stricture, Amis proceeds to love about half the stories. What is revealing is what he says about the ones he doesn’t love. He complains that DeLillo “enters the void of the motiveless”, which can give us only “a rendering of the functionally insane — insanity being the sworn foe of the coherent”.
The idiosyncratic views about “insanity” held by Martin Amis will be familiar to some unspeak.net old-timers, since this strange invocation of “the functionally insane” echoes what Amis, as a quondam expert on world-troubling horroristicality, proffered as his expert diagnosis of Mohammad Atta et al — that they were “possessed by just the right kind of functioning insanity”.1
More importantly, though, Amis’s latest glib reference to (some kind of) “insanity” in DeLillo’s writing seems to me crassly to misunderstand what DeLillo is doing in literary terms. DeLillo is very deliberately writing about (among many other things) the ways in which people’s motivations can be opaque and mysterious, even to themselves. Particularly in the first story, “Creation”, about which Amis whines that “the reader’s naïve and no doubt vulgar curiosity […] goes ungratified”, the fact that the outbreak of the adulterous affair happens utterly without warning — even though the first-person narrator, describing events in the past tense, knows it was coming — is a brilliantly subtle formal way of representing the narrator’s present bafflement by his own past actions, and maybe in a way also his shame. But Amis dully insists that a motive must always be found in literature, even if it cannot be found in life: “Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things that cohere.” Maybe, if you are writing cartoons or Franzenesque soap operas.
For Amis, it seems that people in literature are just to be dismissed as “insane” if their motivations are not spelled out in uppercase crayon so that he, the great Martin Amis, is able to understand them. I hope it doesn’t work like that for him in real life, or it would be terribly hard being Martin Amis, always surrounded by so many mad people.