“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: I Hate Martin Amis et al.

I Hate Martin Amis Et Al.
By Peter Barry
Transit Lounge

Peter Barry’s I Hate Martin Amis et al., is an unusual debut novel that combines irreverent humour with brutal depictions of war and musings on literary history. The protagonist of the novel, Milan Zorec, is an Englishman born to Serbian parents. Although Zorec had trained to become a teacher, he has spent most of his life working as a school janitor and writing four novels in his spare time—all of which have been rejected by every publisher and literary agent he’s sent them to. Zorec’s life falls apart in England when his girlfriend leaves him and, after a brief stint in prison, he decides to head to Bosnia and join Serbian forces as a sniper (at the height of the Bosnian conflict in 1998)—but Zorec’s enlistment is instigated less by nationalist pride or filial piety than by the thought that his wartime experiences will provide the unique experiences needed to enable him to write a successful novel.
            Much of the novel derives its interest from this disjuncture: while Zorec encounters untold horrors in Bosnia, he always considers these events with the detachment of someone who sees them as the raw materials for his future novel. And as the plot unfurls it becomes clear that Zorec—despite being in many regards a pathetic figure—is a deeply unlikeable figure who in most regards is completely responsible for his own fate. This fact becomes even clearer as Zorec slowly discovers that he’s actually a more than competent soldier who experiences little difficulty killing unarmed civilians in the service of a cause that he doesn’t even believe in.
            Despite its dark subject matter, however, I Hate Martin Amis et al. is also a comic novel, and Barry shows a particular facility for absurd similes, such as when he writes, ‘The moon was looming over the horizon, huge, like one of those cheap paper lams with which students like to furnish their digs,’ or ‘Like a leaf in autumn, like a sunbaker on the beach, like a Rottweiler, like a worm, she turned.’ And Barry also successfully handles the transition of Zorec from a mildly unlikable schlub into a remorseless killer.
            But I Hate Martin Amis et al. is also about the frustrations of a rejected author and finds considerable humour at the expense of publishers and literary agents. It also reflects on literary history, and contains many references to Martin Amis’s novel, The Information, which is a book about a literary feud (and a book that is also highly in the debt of another, much better book—Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire); by and large these references to Amis work well (although I must note in passing that The Information is, without a doubt, the worst book by an author—Amis—who consistently writes terrible books (presumably in the spare time he finds in between making comments that many have deemed racist)). All in all, I Hate Martin Amis et al. is an enjoyable, unusual and generally successful first novel.            


Anonymous said...

Just two factual corrections: only Zorec's father is of Serb origin, his mother is English. Also, the height of the Bosnian war was not in 1998, by that time the war was long over. Zorec goes to Sarajevo in late 1994 or early 1995 (he clearly writes about being there on 11 July -- the day of the fall of Srebrenica).

Emmett Stinson said...

Yeah, fair enough, though this is also a book with a few weird errors of its own (at one point a reference to what is clearly the character Levin from Tolstoy's Anna Kareninina is oddly rendered as 'Lenin')...to be honest, this wasn't a work that particularly engaged me--so perhaps my attention flagged at points... It's gotten some rave reviews from folks I very much respect (like Wayne Macauley), but I can't say that--aside from enjoying the wry humour and the approach from an unlikable character--it did a whole lot for me. I will definitely read Barry's next book, though...

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