UK paperback

Functionally insane

Amis and madness redux

Venus DeLilloDon 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 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”. ((Previously in “Martin Amis”: Any ethnicity; He’s got no talent; Chuckleheaded.))

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.

  1. 1  aboulian  November 18, 2011, 4:37 pm 

    Also revealing are the phrase ‘inherently inartistic’ and this moment:

    DeLillo said long ago that the mood of the future would be determined not by writers but by terrorists; and those who mocked him for his forecasts must have felt even worse than the rest of us did on September 12, 2001.

    Just think about what he’s saying there. What he’s -assuming-.

    You get the sense that Amis only ever thinks hard enough about anything to say it in his hysterically orderly ‘parliamentary drone’, so that almost -because- he has the prose of a literary celebrity, he has the mind of one, too.

  2. 2  Steven  November 18, 2011, 6:08 pm 

    his hysterically orderly ‘parliamentary drone’


  3. 3  sw  November 19, 2011, 8:58 pm 

    Ha! In my own last blog post, I almost had a passage about the first five hundred or so words of the Amis review. My post is about the comedy that does not declare itself as such, or refuses to allow us to understand it fully as comedy; I almost included Amis as an example to accompany The Darkness, a band that one thinks is going to be parodic and Spinal Tapesque, and yet, despite being parodic, are also entirely and devotedly sincere to alien hair metal; I had been wondering whether, in fact, the first 500 words of the review are a sort of parody of the blathering reviewer trying to find a theoretical grounding for his subsequent review, making grotesquely unfounded but simultaneously bizarrely pedestrian claims, which are, in fact, very funny. But then I decided that I really had a good example with The Darkness for a type of undetermined comedy, but with Amis, I was really stretching it; sometimes a feeble review is just a feeble review.

    If we were to take “functional insanity” seriously, perhaps as a madness that can speak, a madness that is not silenced, a madness that can respond, then one might begin to wonder if Amis is speaking from Experience, for there is a “functional insanity” in lines like “Motive tends to provide coherence, and fiction needs things to cohere”: after all, the words are cogent, they have a grammar, they can be reproduced and we think we know what they mean; they are functional. But there is a madness in them, too. What is more incoherent, after all, than motive? And has there not been a century-long War on the Cliche that there is a psychological coherence of motive? If anything tends to incoherence, it is “motive”. And what a delightfully incoherent word, “things”, is used to define what needs to “cohere”! It is an unhinged statement of passion: things must cohere. It is functional in that it can have a perlocutory force, insane because it is a repudiation of sense. (I’m being a bit cheeky; in the context of his piece, the sentence makes slightly more sense).

    Are we only going to get new Unspeak posts when you and a literary celebrity review the same book? Your audience has been starving. Literally starving. And my unspeak-spotting skills are getting very shabby indeed.

  4. 4  Steven  November 20, 2011, 11:41 am 

    Ah, Dr Wheelock, with this analysis you are really spoiling us.

    It is an unhinged statement of passion: things must cohere.


hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts