'The Information' -- an Unpleasant, Familiar-Sounding Book

THE INFORMATION

By Martin Amis

Harmony Books

374 pp., $24

THE publication of Martin Amis's eighth novel, ''The Information,'' stirred up considerable controversy in London literary circles, not only over the size of the advance its author demanded, but also over what some deemed his mistreatment of his literary friends and associates. (Amis replaced his former agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of his longtime crony and fellow novelist Julian Barns, with the far more aggressive agent Andrew Wylie, while allegedly using his soon-to-be-former friends as fodder for his fiction.)

Ironically, ''The Information'' happens to be a scathing satire of London literary life as epitomized in the covertly rivalrous relationship between two writers: successful, respected novelist Gwyn Barry and his increasingly envious and embittered friend Richard Tull, who obsessively schemes to damage Barry, both professionally and personally, in any way that he can.

Tull and Barry both started out as promising young writers, with Tull slightly in the lead. Better spoken, coming from a superior social class, more skilled at tennis, chess, and billiards, and -- most importantly -- far more of an artist than his less sophisticated friend, Tull is driven to distraction by the spectacle of his former inferior's runaway success.

Barry's breakthrough book, the one that brought him bestsellerdom and critical esteem, was a novel called ''Amelior,'' which dealt with the seemingly unpromising subject of a Utopian society: ''... twelve youngish human beings forgathered in an unnamed ... hinterland.... No holocaust or meteorite ... brought them there. They just showed up. To find a better way.... In the place called Amelior, where they had come to dwell, there was no beauty, no humor ... no hate ... no love. And that was all.''

Tull simply cannot fathom why the world should have taken ''Amelior'' to heart. His own career, meanwhile, has been a disheartening chronicle of ever-diminishing returns, which, perhaps, is less surprising when one learns that his most recent manuscript, titled ''Untitled,'' has induced various ailments in those who have tried to read it, and contains scenes of the sort in which ''...five unreliable narrators converse on crossed mobile-phone lines while stuck in the same revolving door.''

THE fortune-favored Barry is married to an earl's daughter, and the happy couple has been featured on a television program illustrating the joys of uxorious-ness. The Barrys have not, however, publicized one of the rifts in their picture-perfect marriage: She wants children, and he does not.

The father of twin boys, Tull has become impotent with the decline of his literary hopes. He ekes out his paltry earnings as a book reviewer with a job editing trash for vanity press. His pretty wife, Gina, who contributes more to the family income, has been urging him to give up his fruitless career as a novelist. Tull's response to his deep depression is to try to destroy his rival.

Much of ''The Information'' is taken up with various schemes Tull employs to damage Barry. Many of these schemes involve paying low-life criminals to harass and intimidate him. Others involve Tull himself in spreading vicious rumors (some false, some true) about his ''friend.'' Tull's most ingenious scheme is a plan to frame Barry for the literary ''crime'' of plagiarism. Most of these schemes tend to backfire.

''The Information'' is -- and is meant to be -- an unpleasant book: acrid, well-written, nastily clever.

It may also strike many readers as perhaps a little too familiar-sounding if they've read Mr. Amis's earlier books. The parts pertaining to the literary life are the liveliest. The lengthy excursions into the criminal world are even more of a bore than the play-by-play accounts of tennis, chess, and snooker games between the two rivalrous writers.

For the reader, there may be little to choose between the smug Barry and the rancorous Tull.

Once Amis has succeeded in delineating the tricky contours of their characters, the ugly details of plot -- what does or doesn't happen to either or both of them -- seem rather superfluous. Barry and Tull are like opposite halves of a single, narcissistic, self-hating person, a pair of bleak responses to the open-ended question: What do writers want?

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