Dark Continent

In November 2016, just after Trump’s election, librarians in Evanston, Illinois, discovered that a number of books in their library had been defaced with swastikas. The defaced books were about Islam. This week, a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalised – around 100 headstones were knocked over. Earlier this month, the same thing happened in Missouri.

I am reminded of a short story by Martin Amis, published in The New Yorker in December 2015. The story is called “Oktober” and it deals with the refugee crisis. At the end of the story, the narrator – who is a version of Martin Amis himself – is unable to sleep. He sits up, reading “a short, stylish study by the historian Mark Mazower.” The book is called Dark Continent. As he reads, the narrator thinks about the refugees, queuing at Europe’s borders:

And even now it was as if a tectonic force had taken hold of Europe and, using its fingernails, had lifted it up and tilted it, politically, causing a heavy mudslide in the direction of old illusions, old dreams of purity and cruelty.

[…]

And what they might be bringing, the refugees, was insignificant when set against what was already there, in the host nations, the spores and middens of what was already there. . . . “Dark Continent” is not a book about Africa; the rest of Mazower’s title is “Europe’s Twentieth Century.”

The story ends there.

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God is Not

When Christopher Hitchens published God is Not Great in 2007, Salman Rushdie told him that his title was one word too long – because God, of course, isn’t anything; God is not. A few years ago I read most of the recent(ish) “New Atheism” books – Hitchens; Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006); Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (2004) – as well as stuff like Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian (1927). These books all marshal clear, logical arguments against religious belief – like Russell’s Teapot. But no logical argument will ever convince anyone to abandon their faith. The New Atheists seem to think that if everyone abandoned religion, the world would be improved. But a world without religious faith would just fill up with other faiths – with people who believed in Marxism, homeopathy, Tarot. As Don DeLillo wrote in Underworld (1997), “When the Old God goes, they pray to flies and bottletops.” As a utopian crusade, the New Atheism is doomed.

Because faith is illogical, it is not amenable to logical argument. This is one possible objection to faith – that it is irrational and therefore to be scorned. But human beings are not really rational creatures – or rather, they are only rational in certain narrow utilitarian ways. My own objection to religious belief isn’t actually, I think, a rational one. I think that fundamentally, religious belief is stupid and cowardly. It is stupid to believe in magic. It is cowardly to ignore the meaninglessness of the world in favour of a consoling fantasy. My objection to religious belief is therefore moral. We must not be stupid. We must not be cowardly. But to hope for a world that is neither stupid nor cowardly is to ignore human nature – precisely the trap into which the New Atheists have fallen.

Austerity

My review of Paul Auster’s new novel, 4 3 2 1 (Faber & Faber) appears in today’s Sunday Business Post. It’s behind the Iron Paywall but here’s a wee excerpt:

Even in the novel’s early pages, elephantiasis looms. Two obese paragraphs are devoted to listing Rose’s reasons for marrying Stanley – there are eighteen, in case you’re wondering. This prologue also clues us in to the scale of Auster’s ambitions. We open on Ellis Island, with Stanley’s father, a Russian Jew from Minsk, receiving his new American name (Ichabod Ferguson). Any book that opens with an Ellis Island baptism is plainly shooting for Great American Novel status. Twenty pages later, Rose reads Tolstoy. “It was Tolstoy who […] understood all of life, it seemed to her, everything there was to know about the human heart and the human mind.” Stand back! Tolstoyan epic coming through! […] 4 3 2 1 just keeps on rolling. It is mediocrity turned, Spinal Tappishly, up to eleven.

I didn’t love it.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Irish Times on 16th October 2010.

*

Like Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal, Philip Roth has been squaring up to Death for a long time now, and neither contestant has shown any sign of blinking. It was, I suppose, inevitable that Roth – that great and agonised celebrant of the body’s raptures and ruptures – should refuse to greet the prospect of his own extinction with anything like equanimity. His five late novellas – The Dying Animal (2001), Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and now Nemesis  – address with unwavering clarity a single theme, and they address it with Roth’s customary furious eloquence. Along with the final volume of the Zuckerman series, Exit Ghost (2007), these are books about death – specifically, they are about the endless ways in which death and its harbinger, illness, can pitilessly warp the trajectories of individual human lives.

The Dying Animal conjured an obsessive affair between an elderly professor, David Kepesh, and a young female student. Everyman, borrowing its title from the medieval morality play, relentlessly scrutinised an average man’s life through the vector of his various illnesses and eventual death. Indignation goes one step farther into the undiscovered country, and is actually narrated from beyond the grave by one Marcus Messner, a righteous-minded sophomore whose death is entrained by fate in the form of a kindly-meant blowjob administered by a troubled, promiscuous co-ed. The Humbling problematically rendered yet another late-in-life sexual obsession – alone among the late novellas, it seems genuinely derailed by its unyielding preoccupation with the transience of the flesh, and reviewers rightly chided Roth for the book’s ludicrous threesome scene, as well as for the rather spectral, disengaged timbre of its prose.

Exit Ghost, Roth’s farewell to his habitual surrogate Nathan Zuckerman, drags the aging writer out of his Berkshires retreat and down to post-9/11 Manhattan for an operation on his prostate. In the now-familiar pattern, he becomes sexually obsessed with a younger woman, which – in late Roth – is always also a way of coming to terms, badly or well, with the prospect of one’s own death.

These books also return to a key theme of Roth’s great trilogy, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), a theme that might be summed up in the question, “What is the right thing to do?” Like every Roth protagonist since the narrator of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), the heroes of the late novellas are transfixed by the impossibility of reconciling their stricken high-mindedness with the ignoble promptings of the body. In the disparity between idealistic rectitude and the humiliations of fear and desire, Roth locates his protagonists’ tragic flaw.

There is something Sophoclean in the grandeur of late Roth. In many ways, Roth’s remarkable intensity as an artist – his ability to concentrate with manic fixity on a single theme – has always threatened to destabilise his fictions, to render them too specific, too eccentrically personal. But in these late works, Roth has corralled his energies with astonishing skill. These books are wintry, skeletal, winnowed to a piercing point. They cast a cold eye. It should go without saying that they are all – with the forgivable exception of The Humbling – small masterpieces, the parting gifts of a man who has devoted his life to the scrupulous perfecting of his art.

Nemesis, Roth’s lean and haunting new work, completes the thematic pentangle formed by the five late novellas. Narrated by a minor character, Arnie Mesnikoff, it tells the story of a polio epidemic in Roth’s old stamping-ground of Newark, New Jersey. During the baking summer of 1944, in the suburb of Weequahic, the disease arrives, and children begin to die. Our protagonist is Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a twenty-three-year old Phys Ed teacher and summer playground supervisor, a man of extraordinary physical strength and moral character: “His was the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could rely on.”

Like Indignation’s Marcus Messner, Bucky is humourlessly driven by the highest of ideals. But the polio epidemic, with its threat of realising “the body’s most dreadful fears,” will take Bucky’s life apart, piece by piece. As the children in his care begin to fall sick, Bucky begins to wonder where his obligations lie. And, sure enough, a classic Rothian dilemma soon presents itself: should Bucky stand by his dwindling gang of frightened children, who look to him for moral reassurance, or should he take off to a Poconos summer camp, fleeing the creeping contagion of polio and spending the summer with his fiancée Marcia?

The answer to this question is the novel’s dramatic crux. And it would be unfair to reveal much more than this in a review. Suffice it to say that the plot of Nemesis unfolds with the inevitability – with the bleak, discomfiting shapeliness – of classical tragedy.

Nemesis is a slender book, but its reach is formidable. It has a kind of ghost-theme, too, never directly alluded to but present in every line: Roth depends on the reader to remember that the summer of 1944, when Bucky Cantor’s life unravels, was also the blackest period of the Holocaust. While the Jews of Weequahic are dying of polio, the Jews of Europe are being marched to the gas chambers in greater and greater numbers. It is a mark of Roth’s subtlety that Nemesis never insists on reminding us of this. But the fate of the Jews, never far from the surface of Roth’s fiction, is here rendered in a mother’s wail of anguish: “Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?”

Death, duty, the Jews: for fifty-one years and thirty-one books Philip Roth has told us everything he knows about these subjects. Long may he continue.

*

Postscript – After this review appeared, a friend emailed me to ask, “Do you know something we don’t?” Apparently I did: two years later, Roth announced his retirement from writing. All I can say is that Nemesis gives off the glow of elegy – it felt, and feels, like Roth’s last word. Roth is still, of course, very much with us. Earlier this year, he popped up in The New Yorker, to say of Donald Trump: “what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

Whigging Out; Or, Why People Think Trump and Brexit Mean the End of the World

Many people seem to think that Donald Trump’s Presidency and the Brexit vote together mean “the end of the world.” This strain of thought is particularly common on the left (vide the rather alarmist New Statesman cover above). Why is this so? Well, one answer might be found in a little book first published in 1931 called The Whig Interpretation of History. This book was written by a Cambridge don named Herbert Butterfield. Butterfield was a Methodist and a political conservative. He was interested less in history itself than in the ways in which history is told. His book about the Whigs has had a lasting influence on later thinkers – especially those who are skeptical of the idea of progress.

The Whigs were a force in British politics for three centuries. (In the early 20th century, they became the Liberal Party, and eventually disappeared altogether.) In the 17th century, the Whigs were anti-monarchist, anti-Catholic, and protectionist. But by the end of the 18th century they had evolved into something resembling contemporary liberals: they advocated free trade, the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation, and the expansion of suffrage. By the 19th century, the Whigs were firmly established as the party of middle class self-interest.

According to Butterfield, the key idea espoused by the Whigs was progress. History, the Whigs thought, was a process of gradual improvement, leading to a better world for all. The Whigs – and their partisan historians – believed that human reason would triumph, leading to liberal democracy, free trade, and scientific advancement. Whig historians, Butterfield argued, “studie[d] the past with reference to the present” – in other words, they saw the illiberal past as leading inevitably to the liberal present. In his preface, Butterfield criticised “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

The great science fiction critic John Clute, in his brilliant collection of essays Stay (2014), summarises the Whig interpretation of history thus: “Reality is told by winners.”

For the last six decades of Western history – since the Allied victory in World War II – the “winners” have been contemporary Whigs: firm believers in liberalism, democracy, free trade, and human rights. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, The Economist – the house organ of Western liberal capitalism – confidently declared that “there is no serious alternative to free-market capitalism as the way to organise economic life.” This is the Whig interpretation of history writ large.

The vast majority of liberals in the West subscribe to the Whig interpretation of history. They believe that history is a gradual process of improvement leading to the triumph of scientific enlightenment and liberal democracy. For much of the last six decades, it has been possible to see this as a not unreasonable interpretation of history. The postwar decades in the West did indeed seem to tell a story of increasing enlightenment, prosperity, and peace.

This story has now been revealed as an illusion. The election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote, have disclosed the existence of a large class of people who feel that their lives have been destroyed by the very forces of progress that were supposed to be improving the world for everyone. According to the Whig interpretation of history – that is, according to the Western liberal consensus – events like Trump’s Presidency and Britain leaving the European Union were not supposed to happen. They feel like huge steps backward, into confusion, barbarism, and chaos. They feel, in other words, like the end of the world.

As John Gray points out in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013), the Whiggish belief in progress “casts a glimmer of meaning into the lives of those who accept it.” When this idea is exposed as an illusion, the glimmer of meaning disappears. Seeking to describe a world no longer anchored by a firm story, people reach naturally for apocalyptic imagery. (It is in any case true that the popular culture of the West has been dreaming of the end of the world since Hiroshima. This is the dark side of the myth of progress: because if you believe that history is heading towards a particular destination, then you also suspect that it may one day come to a stop.)

It is, of course, possible that Donald Trump’s Presidency will bring about the literal end of the world – as envisioned by that New Statesman cover above. But until that happens, the rhetorical use of the phrase “the end of the world” will have, I think, another meaning: it will remind us that the Whig interpretation of history has been exploded, for now.

Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Irish Times on 26th November 2011.

*

In his memoir, Experience (2000), Martin Amis observes that “the fit reader, the ideal reader, regards a writer’s life as just an interesting extra.” Biographers, of course, are under no obligation to agree. To the biographer, the life is where it’s at. Thus: Richard Bradford, an academic who has written studies of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Him, 2001) and Philip Larkin (First Boredom, Then Fear, 2005), has produced a biography of the greatest living prose stylist in English – the first scholarly account of Martin Amis’s “interesting extra.” The results are, I’m afraid, pretty disastrous.

For one thing – and it’s best to get this out of the way up front – Bradford’s prose is full of stubbed toes and gashed shins. He uses “et. al.” when he means “et cetera.” His distribution of commas borders on the impressionistic: “I was on a plane somewhere above continental Europe and a man, a seat away…” There are rhymes – “joined annoyingly,” “select recollection” – and tautologies: “consensually agreed.” There are repetitions: “Popular culture had arrived in all its popular, tasteless, and profitable manifestations.” There is first-year lit-crit banality: “The novel is a mechanism quite different from the poem”; “We should wonder: what should a novel do for us?” There are sentences that pine for revision: “The performer’s mask has slipped and Kingsley cannot help but disguise a genuine sense of fear.” And there are sentences that are just plain bad: “Intemperate reality would trample across this reverie of nuances.”

There are also some bizarre omissions. “[Amis’s] early books,” Bradford writes, “were the subject of fierce critical debate.” But from the rest of Bradford’s account, you’d never know it. He doesn’t bother to scrutinise the contemporary critical reception of any of Amis’s novels, except when he rehashes the contention that London Fields (1989) was kept off the Booker shortlist by accusations of misogyny (he also nods towards the specious allegation that Amis, in Time’s Arrow [1992], exploited Auschwitz “for profit”). Also absent is any serious engagement with the deeper aspects of Amis’s friendships: Christopher Hitchens is quoted liberally throughout, but Bradford seems to have zero interest in the nature of the Hitch’s relationship with his pal Mart – surely one of the most mythologized double-acts in contemporary letters.

More disturbingly, Bradford keeps ignoring what Martin Amis says. “It would be ridiculous to say that I was in a trance,” Amis remarks, of the composition of Money (1984). “It was not automatic writing, every sentence had to be battered into shape, polished.” A page later, Bradford is insisting that Money was composed “in a “trance-like” bout of “automatic writing.” Two chapters further in, Bradford has decided that a passage in The Information (1995) parodies the opening of William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach (1990). Has Amis read Brazzaville Beach? “I haven’t.” Bradford outlines his thesis anyway – and, unsurprisingly, he is wrong.

Clinchingly, for Amis obsessives, Bradford doesn’t seem to have read the fiction closely enough. There are a number of pretty basic errors: Gwyn Barry, in The Information, does not “succeed magnificently” with his first novel, as Bradford insists; in fact, Amis’s narrator remarks of Gwyn’s debut that “a small paperback edition limped along for a month or two.” Worse, Bradford thinks that “the information of the title is never properly disclosed… We never learn precisely what it is.” But the novel tells us what “the information” is over and over again – “the information” is “nothing,” “the answer to so many of our questions,” including what happens to us after we die. Similarly, it isn’t Nicola Six’s “memoirs” that Samson Young finds in London Fields – it’s her diaries.

All of this aside – what about the “interesting extra” itself – Martin Amis’s life? Well, anyone who’s read Experience already knows the basics. Martin’s childhood and adolescence were shaped, and to some extent deformed, by the bourgeois-bohemian antics of his parents (“Ah, breakfast in the wine shop,” Martin’s brother Philip would remark, upon finding the kitchen table cluttered with empty bottles every morning). Kingsley’s “limitless taste for adultery” broke up the family when Martin was in his early teens. At Oxford Martin subjected himself to a stringent crash-course in English literature; within a year of graduating, he was drafting The Rachel Papers (1973) and working for the TLS.

During the 70s Amis was a lodestar of London literary life. He became friends with Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. He slept with, and parted from, a large number of attractive women, none of whom could ever bring themselves to hate him. (Another Bradford clunker: “The parallels between Martin the lover and Martin the novelist are so outstanding as to render comment almost superfluous.” Are they really?) Martin’s first marriage, to the American academic Antonia Phillips, ended. His second marriage, to Isabel Fonseca, is still going strong. He became friends with Saul Bellow and fell out with Julian Barnes. He is at his desk every morning at 8:30 and he doesn’t take lunch on days when he works.

The impression of Amis the man – as opposed to Amis the writer – left behind by Bradford’s biography is of a thoroughly decent chap, alternately extroverted and soulful, doing his level best to cope with the average messiness of an average life. But that could describe almost anyone. Adumbrating Saul Bellow’s string of failed marriages in Experience, Amis writes: “But that’s life. We all have lives. It was the writing that excited me.” Richard Bradford, sad to say, is insufficiently excited by the one thing that makes Martin Amis worth writing about: his books.

Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis

 

This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Sunday Business Post in 2012.

*

The first page of Martin Amis’s new novel goes like this: “Who let the dogs in? …This, we fear, is going to be the question. Who let the dogs in? Who let the dogs in? Who? Who?” And if you are, like me, a genuine Amis fan – the sort of obsessive who’s read the whole corpus twice, with unwavering admiration – your response to these lines will be physiological. There will be a flinch, a cringe, a shudder. There will be the raised eyebrows of outright disbelief. No, you think. He hasn’t done that. He hasn’t opened his new novel with an allusion to the Baha Men’s soul-eroding monstrosity of a novelty single, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Not Mart. Not the author of Money, that glittering cascade of finely-worked perceptions. He wouldn’t.

Well, he has. Here it is, on page one. “Who let the dogs in?” And here it is again, on page 65. And again, on page 139. It is, therefore, something of a relief to find that Lionel Asbo is actually pretty entertaining, if you look past the sexual weirdness and the slightly embarrassing sentimentalism. There are even a few funny jokes, here and there. The book’s subtitle is State of England, which begins, very quickly, to look like a mistake: the England of Lionel Asbo bears only the most glancing of similarities to the real thing, and the novel feels much more like a comic jeu d’esprit than like the caustic satire conjured by the blurb.

In any case, it isn’t the State of England that true devotees will care about: it’s the State of Amis. How’s he looking, these days? What’s the condition of his talent? Well, Amis’s prose gift, that mighty instrument, is starting to seem a bit scuffed and worn by now. His last novel, The Pregnant Widow (2010), was a spectral performance, straitened and warped by grief – it memorialised, among others, Amis’s sister Sally, and the then-terminally ill Christopher Hitchens. Yellow Dog (2003) mashed up the story of a man who suffers a head injury and begins to find himself sexually attracted to his three-year old daughter with a caricature of London gangsters and a mock-up of the Royal Family; the result is so tonally wayward as to seem like a poor parody of – yes – Martin Amis.

Lionel Asbo is better than both of these books, but not by much. The novel’s setting is the fictional London borough of Diston (the name suggesting dystopia, disaffection, dismay, etc; and Dis is Dante’s name for the city that occupies the lower levels of his Inferno). Diston, where “everything hated everything else,” is home to Desmond Pepperdine, the mixed-race nephew of Lionel Pepperdine, a career criminal so proud of his police record that he has changed his surname (by deed poll) to Asbo. As the novel opens, Desmond is fifteen years old and in the midst of a sexual relationship with his own grandmother. In an early Amis novel like Dead Babies (1975), this situation would be played strictly for squirm-inducing laughs. Here, the incest theme is treated in a tone of off-kilter sentimentality – it is the weirdest thing about this very weird book.

Lionel himself is a grotesque lampoon of British working class culture, “brutally generic” – “the slablike body, the full lump of the face.” Lionel’s roots go deep into the Amis canon. He is a direct descendent of John Self and Keith Talent, the “modern, modern” monsters who star in Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) respectively. Some of the old Amis power returns whenever Lionel is in action: he attains a Quilp-like memorability, with his cans of Cobra and his Tabasco-maddened pitbulls. But the novel really gets going when Lionel wins £139,999,999.50 in the Lottery, and becomes a tabloid darling, the “Lotto Lout,” ensconced in a Tudor mansion called “Wormwood Scrubs,” and engaged in an affair of convenience with a poetry-writing glamour model named “Threnody.”

The book’s best gags derive from Lionel’s sudden elevation to planet-conquering wealth. There is a hilarious scene in which Lionel enters London’s oldest fish restaurant and tries, with many a setback, to eat a lobster. But “Keith Talent wins the Lottery” is a slender comic conceit, and the rest of the book – the pages dealing with Des Pepperdine’s attempts to educate himself and to raise his baby girl – are too often swamped in a peculiarly Amisian mulch of familial sentimentality. (There is also a bewildering over-reliance on exclamation points, as in: “And guess who they ran into. Jon and Joel!” This is troubling, because it suggests that Amis’s command of tone – the most formidable weapon in his arsenal – is starting to slip.)

Lionel Asbo is a deeply strange book, full of trapped or thwarted energy. But there are still occasional flashes of the old Amis brilliance: “That afternoon the lake was minutely runnelled by the wind, like corduroy.” This is the sort of thing you read Amis for. So perhaps we shouldn’t write him off just yet.

 

 

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in the Sunday Business Post in 2014.

*

Fervent admirers of Martin Amis’s fiction – we do exist, and we shall yet prevail – have had a worrying few years. In 2006, Mart published House of Meetings, a brilliant, prismatic short novel about the Soviet slave labour camps. The elements of a late style seemed to be coming together: the gross-out pyrotechnics of the early work – and the infernal energies of the great middle-period trilogy Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995) – had given way to prose of a fierce and sombre burnish. There was an added moral weight, too, as if Amis – frequently chided for basking in the borrowed cachet of Big Subjects (nuclear weapons, terrorism) – had at last found a way to write about the heavy stuff without disproportion. It was all very exciting.

Then, in 2010, came The Pregnant Widow – and something appeared to have gone wrong. Despite occasional resurgences of the old virtuosity, this semi-autobiographical account of a summer spent in an Italian castle at the height of the sexual revolution felt, for most of its length, fatally thin and contrived. Almost uniquely in Amis’s corpus up to that point, The Pregnant Widow neither invited nor withstood rereading. Even worse was to come. Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012) seemed like the work of a writer at the end of his tether. Lionel himself – the loutish lottery-winning protagonist – showed glimmers of the old rude life. But the novel through which he tottered was simply too weird to sustain him. What do you do if your plot revolves around a teenage boy who is sleeping with his own grandmother? You do everything in your power not to make the rest of the book as queasily provoking as that donnée. But Amis seemed unaware of how off-target his satire had become. The engine of his best books – his deep and jaundiced feel for the moral and linguistic deformations of the contemporary world – seemed to have sputtered and died. Could he get it going again? Did anyone want him to?

The Zone of Interest offers no straight answers to these questions. But it very quickly becomes clear how little that matters. Amis’s fourteenth novel is a return to the moral territory, and to the burnished perceptive richness, of House of Meetings. The setting of the novel is Auschwitz, never named as such (“the Zone of Interest” was the Nazi’s name for the camp and its hinterland, including the “Old Town” of Auschwitz itself). There are three narrators. The first is Angelus “Golo” Thomsen: a serial seducer dispatched to Auschwitz to oversee construction of the Buna Werke – the rubber factory built by the slave labour of the inmates. The second is Paul Doll: the camp commandant, a pill-popping alcoholic soused in self-pity. And the third is Szmul: leader of the Sonderkommando, the pressganged squad of Jewish prisoners forced to help the Nazis with the extermination process – with the “selections” on the ramp, with the marches to the gas chamber, with the disposal of the bodies (and with the postmortem removal of gold fillings, hidden jewellery, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs). Between them, these three narrators recount a story almost without precedent – a story of daily life in the largest death camp of the Nazi genocide.

In some ways we might think of The Zone of Interest as the Holocaust novel Vladimir Nabokov never got around to writing (though of course the camps, and their victims, haunt the backgrounds of Bend Sinister [1947] and Pnin [1957]). Both Thomsen and Doll are Nabokovian narrators – each in his own way linguistically scrupulous, each in his own way a monster of self-betrayal. As with House of Meetings, the novel gets its energy from a love triangle. One summer afternoon on the edges of the Zone, Thomsen spots Doll’s wife Hannah, parading with her children. He is immediately stricken: “I was no stranger to the flash of lightning.” He sets out to lure her into his bed. Moving through the mockery of civilised life that the Nazis conducted in the camp (the formal dinners, the thés dansants), Thomsen pursues Hannah right under her husband’s bibulous, paranoid nose. And then, gradually, he falls in love with her: the real thing. And Amis asks: can love mean anything at all, in such a place, at such a time?

Meanwhile Doll goes about his work of slaughter, which he relates in the language of the harried bureaucrat – why can’t Berlin just let him get on with his job? Such is Doll’s devotion to painting the (literally) sulfurous soil of the camp in bright colours that his euphemisms soon become the stuff of the grimmest comedy. To murder, in Doll’s inverted world, becomes “to utilise the concordant modality.” In The Zone of Interest, Amis’s staggering linguistic gifts return in full force. The jokes are real jokes – the book will make you laugh – but set against the background of the camp, they become something more than jokes. They become occasions for tears, and for the silence that can seem like  the only possible response to “that which happened” (the phrase is Paul Celan’s; Amis quotes it in a thrillingly perceptive Afterword). More poignantly still, the book takes us right up against the limits of language. Let Szmul, “the saddest man in the world,” have the final say. Scribbling his testament on stolen paper, he writes: “I am choking, I am drowning. This pencil and these scraps of paper aren’t enough. I need colours, sounds – oils and orchestras. I need something more than words.”

La La Land is Donald Trump: The Musical

Wandering around New York in early January, I came across a copy of The Village Voice containing this article by Michael Musto. Quotey-quote:

Brace yourselves for a deplorable avalanche of schlock culture, folks. My personal theory is that whenever a loathed-by-the-left Republican hits the top spot, the culture suffers: The artsy bunch feel crushed, defeated, and in need of some quick, mindless escapism — not the legitimate cultural rapture that would elevate them in the long haul. President Richard M. Nixon brought the schlock with him in droves — remember jean shorts, spandex, Hee Haw, and Beware! The Blob? — and Ronnie Reagan did the same thing in the 1980s, with an unhealthy heaping of A Flock of Seagulls, track lighting, Small Wonder, and Endless Love. So did you honestly expect that the Trump administration — which rose to power on moth-eaten razzle-dazzle — would arrive with an assortment of Masterpiece Theatre links? Consider my forecast of the year-to-be a “coming distractions” heads-up of misguided entertainment that we can blame on Trump, even if he’s not directly responsible for it. After all, it’s what he would do!

It turns out that a lot of the crap culture is already in motion, as sometimes happens when the wheels start turning even before the crackpot mans the dilapidated stagecoach. And it ain’t pretty. On Broadway, we are bracing for a SpongeBob musical, a version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a Harry Potter show — all family-style entertainment that might be better on ice. Nostalgia for more comforting, less scary times becomes an easy fix, and the tendency is toward large, noisy productions that might drown out current editions of Meet the Press.

I thought of this when I saw Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Everybody seems to think La La Land is a great movie. It isn’t. It’s arch, vacant, posturing, saccharine, tuneless, heartless, self-regarding, bloated, clichéd, fake-ritzy, brainless, cheaply sentimental, and desperate to convince you that its tacky pretentiousness is actually an expression of authentic good taste. It’s a corpse in full makeup. It’s the head of a shot buffalo, mounted on a McMansion wall.

It is, in other words, The Age of Donald Trump: The Musical. The avalanche of schlock culture starts here.

Why Fianna Fail Will Probably Be Back

There are no ideas in Irish politics. Sean O’Faolain recognised this in 1945, when he wrote:

Irish politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and the race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.

Seven decades later, this observation holds. Our two main political parties, Fianna Fail (the “warriors of destiny”) and Fine Gael (the “race of the Gaels”) are still distinguished by the positions they took over the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. When Bertie Ahern and, later, Brian Cowen occupied the Taoiseach’s office in Leinster House, a portrait of Eamon De Valera hung on the wall. When Enda Kenny took over in 2011, he replaced the portrait of Dev with a portrait of Michael Collins. This is as close to an ideological debate as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have ever gotten.

The economic boom that began in Ireland in the late 1990s and continued until 2008 created something that had never really existed in Ireland before: a large and prosperous middle class. As a result, Irish politics changed. The majority of Irish people will now vote for what they perceive to be the party of middle class self-interest. This is now the only “idea” in Irish politics. From 1997 to 2008, therefore, the Irish people voted for Fianna Fail – the party that presided over the Celtic Tiger. When the banking crisis struck in late 2008, it became clear to the Irish electorate that Fianna Fail were no longer competent to serve as the guardians of middle class self-interest. Fine Gael became the largest party in the 2011 general election with the tacit understanding that they would put things back the way they were – that they would make Ireland’s new middle class feel rich and safe again. The reason they were not booted out of power in 2016 is that, to a significant portion of the Irish electorate, they seemed to have done this.

During Fine Gael’s term in power, Fianna Fail has been attempting once again to position itself as the party of middle class self-interest. (And so has Sinn Fein: this is what Martin McGuinness’s presidential campaign was all about.) Separately, many Irish voters have been secretly waiting for the day when it is once again safe to vote for Fianna Fail, who, the last time they were in power, enabled these voters to get rich without having to worry too much about irritating rules and regulations.

With the current crisis in the Fine Gael-led coalition – and with no clearly electable successor in line to replace Enda Kenny – the return of Fianna Fail to power, as the party of middle class self-interest, seems increasingly likely.

In the event of another global financial crisis, of course, Fianna Fail will fare no better than Fine Gael, since both parties share the same outdated neoliberal view of economic policy. The problem is that the fate of the Irish middle class is not really in the hands of any particular Irish government. It is in the hands of a complex global system that no one really understands or knows how to control. Enda Kenny’s tenure as Taoiseach was predicated on ignoring this fact. His successor may not be able to do the same.