Copyright © 1999. All Rights Reserved
by Lachlan Mackintosh
HEAVY WATER AND OTHER STORIES
by Martin Amis
Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pp.
Martin Amis is the sort of writer who commands attention every time he publishes a new title. 1997's Night Train was an experiment in Elmore Leonard territory, and not wholly successful. But his slim novel from earlier in the 1990s, Time's Arrow, is a virtuoso display, a backward look at the life of a Nazi death camp murderer. Then there was The Information, released at a time when the press were more interested in Amis's new teeth than his new book. This is nothing new for Amis though, he has been courting controversy since publishing his first novel 25 years ago.
His new collection, Heavy Water and Other Stories, was written over almost as long a period. The early stories, "Denton's Death," "Let Me Count The Times" and "Heavy Water" seem to lack something when read next to the more recent stories in the collection two previously unpublished and four published earlier in the 1990s.
Amis flips things upside-down to hilarious result in "Career Move" and "Straight Fiction." The former finds Amis inverting the roles of poets and screenwriters, heightening the absurdity of both endeavors while at it. Screenplay writers toil in obscurity while verse is, well, listen to this: "Opening in four hundred and thirty-seven theaters, the Binary sonnet Composed at _ Castle did seventeen million in its first weekend." The result is so damn funny as to make me wish it were so.
"The Coincidence of the Arts" is told through the eyes and often the ears of Sir Rodney Peel, an Englishman living in New York. It's a beautiful blur of afternoons in bed with his muse and evenings on the town, cocaine hangovers and a massive manuscript called The Sound of the Words. "The State of England" is full of Mike Leigh characters rhyming slang over their mobile phones, while "What Happened To Me On My Holiday" is a fascinating read on the world of a transatlantic childhood.
But it's "The Janitor On Mars" which really impresses. It's a tour de force of imaginative short fiction, thrusting the reader forward to June 2049, and a most unlikely communiqué via direct CNN feed from the Red Planet. This story is part science fiction, part morality play and a good dose of vintage Amis caustic, sarcastic and right bloody on the mark.
As a whole, this collection might serve as either a great introduction to Amis's style and wit, or as a pleasant retrospective of his short fiction over the past couple of decades. Either way, it's memorable.
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