On the first occasion I met Martin Amis I was impelled to thrust a single upturned finger in his direction. He was out, leg before, victim of a googly delivered by a coke-crazed Australian clad in luminescent jeans. It was a dubious decision, and the author of Money gave me a disdainful leer.
More recently, I went to visit him in the flat off Notting Hill where he goes to write. It seemed that all was forgiven, and there was no need to fear a sticky wicket despite his unjustified reputation among certain journalists as being a difficult person to interview. For some reason (his precocious success, perhaps) some profiles have made him out to be nasty, British and short – Karl Miller’s description of The Rachel Papers – but during the hour that I spent with him nothing could have been further from the truth.
As a student, Amis by his own admission was ‘a relative late-comer to literature’, but since his Oxford days he has made up for lost time, establishing himself as a leading novelist and critic. The Rachel Papers appeared some fourteen years ago, followed by a further four novels distinguished by his brand of scabrous excess, corrosive wit, and a comic grotesquerie composed of bodily eructations, mangled language, and rig-busting copulation. He has not, however, been a prolific writer of short stories, and with the appearance of Einstein’s Monsters there is something of a new departure.
These five stories emerged over the course of two years and gradually he realised that they shared a common theme; an indignant concern about nuclear weapons. As he explains in his polemical essay ‘Thinkability’, this was prompted by impending fatherhood and by a reading of the works of Jonathan Schell. The resulting stories are powerfully chilling illustrations of the ways in which the fearful threat of nuclear destruction has already poisoned the human spirit.
The first one he wrote remains his favourite. ‘The Time Disease’ is a sci-fi parody of a mildly futuristic American city where normal values about health and interpersonal communications have become inverted. ‘The real inspiration was a revenge on Los Angeles,’ he explained. ‘I’d hated it so much, I’d felt so ill while I’d been there – the smog – I felt really lousy. And the ‘live-for-ever’ culture; the city of narcissists. I thought it would be funny if there was a disease around that encouraged you to live a very unhealthy life. On top of that it’s a story about the stupefaction of television. It posits a really outrageous idea that this will eventually fuck up reality, and the rule will be that if people believe things, then it will eventually come to pass.’
Sexual inversion is another theme of the story. ‘I find, glancing through the book, there are quite a few AIDS themes, and do you know this charming idea that AIDS may be – and this is a good word – radiogenic?’ I had to confess that was a new one on me. Amis speculated about the cause of such an unprecedented epidemic, and he came down on atmospheric testing. ‘We’ve all had our DNA slightly changed by that: you have got Strontium 90 in your bones now. We all have. That’s new. This was just a hunch I had, and then in Washington I heard about some guy whose theory was that in the northern hemisphere the winds move from west to east, but it’s the other way around in the south, so you get hotspots around the equator. And Zaire is just under there – it would have gone Zaire, Haiti, New York. It’s too good to be true, too bad to be true. And if that’s the case, AIDS is just the first of several lulus coming our way.’
Amis is horribly fascinated by the body-language and mumbo-jumbo that attaches to the deadly game of nuclear deterrence, in particular the sense of apocalyptic mission that motivates the Reagan administration. The nuclear experience is already happening to us, distorting our attitudes as we live in its shadow. Science is making monsters of us right here and now. To combat this and to translate back into human terms the unthinkable vocabulary of nuclear swagger is one of the book’s intentions.
In the author’s preface to Dead Babies (1975) Amis noted that most of the technical details were fictitious: ‘I may not know much about science but I know what I like.’ In Einstein’s Monsters we not only discover what he does not like (‘If you think about nuclear weapons, you feel sick’) but it becomes clear he has gone into the subject in considerable depth. He reeled off to me statistics about half-lives and TNT tonnage and the almost unimaginable scale of the problem. But imaginative writing about the subject seems to be notoriously unstable in itself, and I wondered how much he had been influenced by mainstream science fiction, the genre to which the bulk of the literature seems to belong.
Martin Amis describes sci-fi as ‘a kind of family hobby; also I reviewed it for a good many years in The Observer under the pseudonym of Henry Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey!’ He believes there is a prejudice against it as a genre, and that there are some great practitioners in the field. He agrees with his father that the strength of the genre is that it is completely realistic within its own terms of reference, and offers, especially in the dystopian mode, many serious possibilities. The novel on which he is currently working – London Fields – is itself set twelve years in the future, and has a nuclear background.
Other influences that he happily acknowledges in this book range from J G Ballard to Salman Rushdie. In one of the more flamboyant stories, ‘The Little Puppy That Could’ he records a debt to Nabokov and Kafka. The story concerns a post-holocaust community menaced by a monstrous hell-hound to which regular sacrifices have to be offered. Lurid mutants abound in this world-turned-upside-down, but the future is redeemed by an apparently normal puppy who lures the monster to destruction, and is then transformed into a shining youth. Amis describes it as ‘a mad literary exercise’, and it conjures entertainingly a number of literary stereotypes, from the heroic pet saga to the sunset optimism of brave new worlds.
The most unnerving and tautly written story here is ‘Insight at Flame Lake’, the fourth to be written. Dan is a disturbed twelve-year-old American who is trying to recover from the death of his father, one of the Fathers of nuclear research; he stays with his Uncle Ned and his young wife and baby daughter in their lakeside summer cabin, but his schizophrenia induces terrible delusions. The lake itself takes on explosive symptoms, the skyscapes are deranged, the baby is evil. It’s a very unpleasant story, and I asked its author to expand on the background to its composition, and to explain something further about his linking of childhood with the whole business of the nuclear threat.
‘Well, he’s a kind of nuked schizophrenic, and it takes the form of guilt on his father’s behalf. And being able to see wickedness in a baby is more or less the crux of how deformed his mind is. Babies are very much at the forefront of all of this.’ He went on to discuss the philosopher’s chestnut about deterrence which uses the analogy of driving a car: if you strapped a baby to the bonnet of every vehicle, people would surely drive more carefully. Again, it’s a question of translating the danger back into accessible human terms. Amis also recalls an early disgust with the idea of nuclear weapons. When he was a child at school he used to leave the room whenever the target maps of the London area were discussed, and he was looked after by a Welsh lady who ascribed her ‘heroic migraines’ to the atom.
He is now fearful on behalf of his children, but apathy towards the issue evidently persists. ‘I think some of the apathy is nuke-induced. As a planet we have been behaving for a long time as if there is no future, but it seems to get more and more intense. The whole story of nuclear power is a denial of there being a future, a refusal to face up to the power of the thing you’re dealing with. When Chernobyl happened, everyone was saying that nuclear accidents don’t respect national boundaries, but that’s a footling consideration. It’s only planetary; it’s the size of weather.’
To illustrate his point he talks about the sheer length of time that would need to elapse before areas affected by certain isotopes would be safe enough to approach again. ‘Plutonium buried by the Pharoahs would not have lost any of its virulence. That’s what you’re dealing with, and that sort of belittles man. You see yourself in context, that’s the cosmic aspect of it.’ Clearly it will take more than a few short stories to force a general awareness of such matters upon the masses, but every little bit might help.
The collection is rounded off with a story entitled ‘The Immortals’, which looks on a first reading to be a more light-hearted piece. The narrator is indestructible, a permanent observer of the cycle of human history who witnesses its final achievements of autodestruction. Cynical, sophisticated and blasé, he seems to enjoy the god’s-eye view of the Wandering Jew, Orlando, or a stuldbrugg, but it transpires this is all a hallucination suffered by a ‘second-rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now painfully and noisily dying of solar radiation along with everybody else.’ To the bitter end, the sphere of nuclear experience is seen as a round of successive delusions.
This is gloomy stuff indeed. Martin Amis’s version of the world into which his sons have been born is grim, and the apathy level is dangerous. ‘All the things we’re doing to the planet, like the erosion of the topsoil, all that Green stuff, is very true. But no-one will stop anyone from doing it. And we’re hurtling towards an entropy watershed when all the fossil-fuels and the oil run out, and no-one’s thinking about change. They won’t, until the last drop of oil is used up, and it will be smash-and-grab time when that starts to happen. Because the nuclear weapons, by possibly embodying an end to the human story, seem to have fucked up everyone’s idea of where the future is supposed to be.’