As he has descended from the lofty perch of the satirist, Martin Amis’s
fiction has become–dare I say it?–more soulful. The best stories in his
new collection Heavy Water and Other Stories–“The State of England,” “The Coincidence of the Arts,” “What Happened to Me on My Holiday”–attest to the increasing range and resonance of his fiction.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final story in Heavy Water, “What Happened to Me on My Holiday.” Ironically, the emotional resonance of this intensely autobiographical tale is deepened by means of a linguistic device that may initially alienate many readers. The story is narrated by an eleven-year old boy, a fictional version of Amis’s son Louis, whose summer holiday on Cape Cod is shattered by the death of his step-brother (Elias Fawcett, the son of Amis’s first wife Antonia Philips, who died at seventeen).
Amis represents Louis’s response to this loss by means of a highly stylized
phonetic speech (part American slang, part British phrasings) that is the
verbal equivalent of the estrangement and stupefaction death leaves in its
wake: “I dell id thiz way–in zargazdig Ameriganese–begaz I don’d wand id
do be glear: do be all grizb and glear. There is thiz zdrange resizdanze.
There is thiz zdrange resizdanze.” Reading the story aloud, as I did to my
10 and 14-year old children, the reader feels Louis’s grief as a physical
presence–thick, hard, unyielding.
Wordsworth’s “still, sad music of humanity” sounds throughout “What Happened
to Me on My Holiday,” preserved in a meticulously crafted fugue-like
structure in which the voices of other characters and nature itself
contribute to the theme of loss. Louis plays with his younger brother and
his four-year-old cousin, catching crabs and minnows, understanding all too
well (as his cousin does not) that a dead sprat will never return to life.
He sees in the natural world intimations of the mortality he is now
struggling to understand, observing the “gloud of grey” he sees rising from
a pond on the day he hears that his stepbrother has died back in London:
“nat mizd [mist], nat vag [fog], but the grey haze of ziddies and of zdreeds
[cities and streets] . . . and nothing was glear.” Elias now inhabits the
distant land of memory, where Louis imagines him hurrying about “with bags
and bundles . . . jaggeds and hads [jackets and hats], gayadig, vestive
Meanwhile, another of Louis’s cousins goes into the pool without his
arm-floats and must be rescued. At the end of his holiday, in the car on the
way to the airport, the word “grey” returns again, like a haunting
melody–the melody of mortality: “Greynezz is zeebing ubwards vram the band.
And nothing is glear. And then zuddenly the grey brighdens, giving you a
deeb thrab in the middle of your zgull.” Now all the notes of the story
converge, all the deaths come together, and Louis thinks of his brother:
“one vine day you gan loob ub vram your billow and zee no brother in the
dwin bed. You go around the houze, bud your brother is nowhere do be vound.”
For readers new to Martin Amis, Heavy Water will serve as a bracing
introduction to his arresting vision and his remarkable artistsry. It will
assure the rest of us that his artistic quest is nowhere near its end.
Reviewed by James Diedrick
James Diedrick is Howard L. McGregor Professor of the Humanities at Albion College and author of Understanding Martin Amis (1995). He maintains the
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