Weekend reads to tickle your intellectual palate: From Nazis to Invisibility
Is the Martin Amis magic back or still resting?
Page File El Reg's avid bookworm Mark Diston chews his way through some of the latest releases from the publishing world.
The Zone of Interest
Martin Amis is now 66 years old and has a literary career stretching back more than four decades, yet somehow the reputation of enfant terrible still clings to him.
There must be many like myself, who, impressed by the style and wit of such works as Money, London Fields and Time’s Arrow, wished that Amis would attempt something with a little more substance than the deft farces of modern England which seem to slip with uncanny ease from his pen.
The Zone of Interest is a brave attempt at just that. The zone in question is Auschwitz in 1942. The novel is narrated by three characters: Angelus Thomsen, a German officer and nephew of Martin Bormann; Paul Doll, the camp commandant; and Szmul, a Jewish Sonderkommando.
The main storyline is based around a vague ménage à trois between the commandant, his wife and Thomsen, which dithers around, seemingly unable to deliver a satisfying conclusion for the characters or the reader.
The novel has a strange, understated style. The German officers talk to each other like Sergeant Wilson to Captain Mainwaring: “That was a very silly idea... invading Russia.” While gazing towards the crematoria chimneys: “An unsympathetic observer... might find all this rather reprehensible”.
Amis still has a few memorable one-liners up his sleeve, such as describing the commandant’s eyes as “gruesome whelks beneath his brows.”
Yet overall the novel is underwhelming on many levels. The multiple narrators add nothing but confusion to the story. While the novel is full of German phraseology, the characters can’t help giving the impression of English ham actors playing a part. Some of the Anglicisms ring fairly true, such as the Waffen SS officer who says: “The Jew needed taking down a peg or two... but this is fucking ridiculous.”
One can even grant Amis some poetic license when he describes Der Stürmer as “a wank mag”. But when German officers start quoting W.H. Auden, credibility is stretched beyond breaking point – and the commandant referring to himself as “muggins” just sounds plain wrong.
There is a curious continuity error at one point when the commandant is prescribed chlorpromazine, which wasn’t even tested until five years after the war ended. But these are small points: the main problem with this book is that nothing of great consequence happens to the main protagonists until we reach the “aftermath” section and discover their respective fates as footnotes.
It would seem that Martin Amis has chosen this grim wartime scenario to give the novel added gravitas. His strength is a broad and sweeping style, which deals adequately with the protagonists' histories and eventual destinies, but struggles with the here and now of characters and a plot, who do little and go nowhere. Amis, like most other writers, doesn’t have that rare ability of a Beckett, Proust or Murakami to dissect minutiae and wring some interest from them. The end result is a story that is flat and unappealing.
Alas, The Zone of Interest is a misnomer – this is a dull soap opera set in a cartoon Reich, a kind of 'Allo 'Allo meets Salon Kitty without even the low wit of the former or the camp eroticism of the latter. It is probably the worst of Amis’ novels that I have read and alongside his bizarre Stalin biog Koba The Dread; I can only recommend it to the completist.
If you haven’t read any Amis, try the titles I mentioned in the first paragraph, particularly Time’s Arrow, where Amis – borrowing a plot line from Philip K. Dick's Counter-Clock World – does the Holocaust in reverse, in a much more successful manner.
His autobiography is a good read too, recalling his father and murdered cousin, giving palpable proof that he can deliver more than the quaint English comedies of class and manners of which he is a consummate master. Still, if he is capable of more substantial work, The Zone Of Interest certainly isn’t it.
I am reminded of a passage from his 2010 novel The Pregnant Widow where he says: “The world has bad taste... it goes for the obvious... the superficial”. Martin Amis has made a successful career pandering to those characteristics and it is to his credit that he hasn’t given us another Money or Lionel Asbo. Yet despite the conspicuous shortcomings of The Zone Of Interest, I still can’t help thinking he has a classic novel in him.
Title The Zone of Interest
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Price £18.99 (Hardback)
More info Publication web site
Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, The Early Years
Alex Ogg is the editor of the academic journal Punk and Post-Punk and definitely has his work cut out mediating the last of the great punk rock feuds since Malcolm McLaren went to visit the Great Situationist in The Sky.
For over two decades, Jello Biafra – the lead singer of Dead Kennedys – has been at daggers drawn with his former bandmates East Bay Ray and Klaus Fluoride, and their spat shows no sign of abating.
It seems that they are unable to agree on anything. Even their memories diverge on just about every key issue. It is to Ogg’s credit that he has been able to construct such a fascinating and even-handed biography of the early days of the band, though it seems his patience has been sorely tried. The last line in the book reads, alluding to the remainder of the story: “Some other poor bastard can tackle that”.
The spirit of the age: Dead Kennedys live
The book benefits from the collaboration of Winston Smith, who was responsible for most of the Dead Kennedys' artwork and which is spread liberally throughout the book, along with Ruby Ray’s captivating photos of the early San Francisco punk scene.
Alex Ogg’s book is likely to appeal not just to misty-eyed old punks but also to young musicians who will find many words of inspiration within, such as this description of the nascent SF scene: “The pressure was not on every band to sound the same and please the audience”. A better blueprint for musical creativity is hard to find.
Early underground music compilation album released on Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label
There are some unexpected collaborations revealed, such as how old beats Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg financed the SF punk fanzine Search and Destroy, and a great anecdote about the Dead Kennedys supporting Sun Ra, who reputedly enjoyed them. However their respective audiences were less enamoured of each other.
Alex Ogg has really gone the extra mile in his research and the result is a labour of love. We get insights from teenage punks who hitch-hiked after the band during their first UK tour and reminiscences from support acts.
There’s the occasional celebrity namedrop too, such as Bob Mould of Husker Du introducing Biafra to Lydon (aka. Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols), before making a quick exit “because I’d never get a word in edgeways!”
This book encapsulates perfectly the time when punk was a movement and not an scholastic subject. Moreover, it reminded me of how relatively late on the scene the Dead Kennedys were, especially in the context of other bands emerging the UK at the same time.
Their first UK single, California Über Alles, came out after the debuts of Gang Of Four and The Human League. Biafra claims to have listened to Joy Division’s Closer (released June 1980) while designing the artwork for the band’s debut albumFresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
California Über Alles satirised state governor Jerry Brown
The last section of the book consists of quotes from a pantheon of latter-day musicians attesting to the lasting influence of the wit and provocation of the Dead Kennedys. I can certainly concur with the latter, having narrowly escaped a serious battering in the 1980s for wearing a homemade I Kill Children badge, a song title from the first album.
Advertisement from the pages of Winston Smith's Fallout magazine
Dead Kennedys is a riveting read, concise without being academic. It captures the era and the spirit of the times perfectly. Alex Ogg maintains a stoic patience until the appendix, where he shows a slight bias in favour of Ray and Klaus’ claims for writing credits on the album. I’m sure Jello’s lawyers will be in touch shortly after publication.
Title Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables,
The Early Years
Publisher PM Press
Price £12.99 (Paperback)
More info Publication web site
Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen
Former physicist-turned-science writer Philip Ball has set himself a nearly impossible task with his choice of title, and to cover such a massive and nebulous subject in just 282 pages. He begins by asking the rhetorical question: “What would you do if you were invisible?”
He assumes our answer to be a mixture of power, sex or money, before whisking us off into distant antiquity to introduce us to the myth of Gyges, who indulges in all three.
We are thrust headlong through the mythical centuries via Perseus, Zeus, the Mabinogion, Platonic morals and Wagnerian cycles before Mr Ball expresses a preference for Tolkien’s ring over Harry Potter’s cloak.
The medieval centuries are represented by the usual disreputable crew of alchemists and witchfinders before the modern age dawns on such secular saints as Shakespeare and Newton. There is an interesting point made about religious sectarianism of the 17th century and how Latin incantations became synonymous with the dark arts.
We eventually arrive in the 19th century where the main action of this book takes place. The age of Marconi, Lumiere, Edison, Kelvin, Crookes and Maxwell, the era of theosophists, table tapping, miasmas and the luminiferous ether.
It is only here that Philip Ball really approaches his subject in any great detail and where his cultural references match his scientific ones. Both fade rapidly after the discovery of X-rays. W.S. Gilbert is mentioned more often than Planck, Kipling quoted more often than Einstein. Ball’s scientific references are Nobel international; his cultural ones, however, are a little Anglocentric.
We are then dragged back a couple of centuries to the microscopic investigations of Luuewenhoek and Hooke, before being shunted forward into the nineteenth century and their relevance to the scientific work of Pasteur, Lister and Semmelweiss. There is no mention of Galileo, Kepler et al gazing in the opposite direction through similar lenses and making the unseen, seen.
Ball's treatment of the time between Marie Curie's heyday up until the present day is a very sporadic affair. Various adaptations of H.G. Wells are discussed. There is an interesting section regarding Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and its equation of black = invisible, but the author just throws in Michael Jackson’s whiteness as a cheap contrast.
Strangely, there is no reference anywhere to the perceived invisibility of the aged or poor, though the invisibility of women in the 19th century is briefly mentioned. Wartime camouflage is adequately discussed, before we get to the present day, where we are offered Stealth fighters, optical illusions and total invisibility solutions, none of which seem to work very well. It would have been interesting if the parallels between 21st century dark matter and 19th century luminiferous ether had been made.
If you want to know how William Crookes’ spirit mediums deceived him, or which is the best screen adaptation of The Invisible Man, then look no further, for this is science writing with a decidedly retro feel. Mythology, occultism and 20th century science are done better elsewhere.
Moreover, there is no mention of modern pseudoscientists such as Wilhelm Reich and his orgones, or William Burroughs' “El Hombre Invisible” who offered practical advice on how to be invisible. Even in Ball’s favoured era of the late nineteenth century, there are no maverick voices such as that of Alfred Jarry, who lampooned the works of Kelvin, Crookes and Maxwell in his bizarre Dr. Faustroll which ends with his calculation of the surface area of god – the midpoint between zero and infinity!
This is not a bad book. That said, it is a book which promises too much and consequently fails to deliver. It is hard to know who to recommend it to. Perhaps it would make the perfect gift for a crusty old relative with a penchant for science, who likes his history painted with the broadest of brushes – or, perhaps, a studious teenager who needs weaning off Brian Cox.
As a historian of science Ball has his charms, but as a cultural commentator he is seriously lacking. I leave you with a quote from the author regarding magic, but which could apply equally to this book:
“One is constantly wondering if it is a serious intellectual enterprise, a smokescreen for charlatans or the credulous superstition of folk belief”. ®
Title Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen
Publisher Bodley Head
Price £25 (Hardback)
More info Publication web site