Dead Babies – Martin Amis

Sometimes books that come up as choices for the Riverside Readers book group will throw a small grenade in my general reading direction. The latest choice for our meeting last Tuesday ‘Dead Babies’ by Martin Amis was one such book that almost had me running for cover when I knew that it was what we would be reading next. You see at a previous book group I was in ‘London Fields’ was chosen and I went into it with open arms only to have to give up about a quarter of the way through simply because I hated it, absolutely loathed it (not a reaction you will hear on Savidge Reads very often, I tend to keep those negative thoughts to myself) and swore I would never read an Amis again. But when Dom chose this latest title I thought ‘second chances’ and so through myself into Amis’ second novel, to a strange and surprising outcome.

‘Dead Babies’ has to be one of the most off putting titles of a book that I can think of, though undoubtedly there are some other horrors out there. The image it instantly brings you isn’t pleasant; there are no dead babies actually in the book though I can report there are some decidedly unpleasant characters. The premise of Martin Amis’ second novel, originally published in 1975, is that a group of friends are in a house on the more rural outskirts of London for a weekend  of drug and sex filled chaos with some American friends arriving in tow. Somewhere in the midst of this a mysterious character ‘Johnny’ is causing an unsettling feeling through the group, already beyond paranoid from their concoctions, by leaving evil messages and gifts. That pretty much sums up the book without giving anything away.

In writing about the book like that it doesn’t sound like its really anything special and unfortunately in some ways it isn’t. However I think that is because having read books later published such as Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ and the horrifically brilliant ‘American Psycho’ by Brett Easton Ellis the book doesn’t read as being as original as it perhaps was at the time, though in the 70’s there was a wave of this sort of fiction. What separates it from those other books is a mixture of humour and character history. They are all vile but you find out why, even if on occasion the reasoning behind their mental states is slightly contrived. However, with characters like Giles Coldstream who is obsessed with teeth and the vile and appalling – yet strangely likeable – Keith Whitehead who when he takes his clothes off makes people vomit and their backgrounds you do find you want to read on.

“The Whiteheads have several claims to being the fattest family alive. At the time of writing you could go along to Parky St, Wimbledon, any Sunday, one o’clock in the afternoon – and you’d see them, taking their seats in the Morris for the weekly Whitehead jaunt to Brighton.
‘Get your huge fat arse out of the way’ – ‘Whose horrible great leg is this?’ – ‘Is that your bum Keith or Aggie’s?’- ‘I don’t care whose guts these are, they’ve got to be moved’ – ‘That’s not Dad’s arm, you stupid great bitch, it’s my leg!’
‘It’s no good,’ says Whitehead Sr eventually, slapping his trotters on the steering-wheel. ‘The Morris can’t be expected to cope with this. You can take it in turns staying behind from now on.
And indeed, as each toothpaste Whitehead squeezes into the Morris, the chassis drops two inches on its flattened tyres, and when Frank himself gets in behind the wheel, the whole car seems to sink imploringly to its knees.
‘Flora, close that sodding door,’ Frank tells his wife.
‘I can’t, Frank. Some of my legs still out there.’”

What really works in ‘Dead Babies’, and makes this an accessible Amis book to my mind, is the humour, because in laughing your head of you do get through some pretty horrific people and their goings on without ever hating the book. I find authors who can write a book with vile lead characters like this and yet make the book enjoyable a rare breed and ‘Dead Babies’ should be applauded for that. It is also the two nicest vile characters Keith and Giles that you want to follow, in fact the book would be incredibly readable if it was just about Keith’s life.

What stopped this book from rating higher with me, because I did actually weirdly enjoy reading most of it, was that I felt like this was a book set to shock and therefore sell rather than say anything (it does clearly state drugs are stupid) and despite my personal feelings on Amis (both the pro’s and the con’s) I did think he was maybe cleverer than that. I don’t think every book you read should change your life, but surely there needs to be some substance behind what is shocking, rather than simply to make shocking scenes with no value? Also, though I liked it and it creeped me out a lot at the end, I didn’t see the relevance of the ‘Johnny’ storyline other than purely a plot device to make the book longer and make the reader carry on. That being said I finished it, which was a feat in itself both due to my prior reading of Amis. Plus despite the fact it gets quite uncomfortable amid the tears of laughter in parts its left me open to reading more of his work in the future, especially knowing that Keith Whitehead features in his new book ‘The Pregnant Widow’. 6/10

Savidge suggests perfect prose partners;

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh (we discussed at Book Group that this may have been inspired/a homage from ‘Dead Babies’ only in the 90’s rather than the 70’s)
American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis (possibly one of the nastiest books I have ever read which is also a complete and utter masterpiece. Interestingly I would recommend this book and yet know I could never read it again, if weirdly felt I could read ‘Dead Babies’ again but am not sure I could recommend it – odd?)

Which Amis books have you read and what you recommend I read and avoid? What books have you read you would read again but might not recommend? Which books will you never read again and yet would tell anyone who hasn’t read it to rush out and get instantly? What other books have you read despite their horrid or off putting titles?


Filed under Book Group, Martin Amis, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

15 responses to “Dead Babies – Martin Amis

  1. Deb

    I have tried unsuccessfully to finish any of Martin Amis’s fiction. Oddly enough, I’ve enjoyed his non-fiction–especially the collection VISITING MRS. NABAKOV. I did try to finish THE INFORMATION, but less than a quarter of the way through there was an enormous, sloppy error regarding the local Los Angeles newspaper (I was living in L.A. then and read the L.A. TIMES every day). It was the kind of error that Amis could easily have avoided had he simply gone to a newspaper kiosk or, barring that, asked a contact in California to send him a copy of the paper. I know it sounds petty but that just put me off.

    • It is interesting what can put us off a book. I was reading one a while back, which shall go unnamed, that started off marvellously though someone said ‘I am so not’ and the book was meant to be from the 1920’s – 1930’s, that one word put me off for good.

      As someone who claimed they loathed Amis I was rather more impressed by this. I will read more (six out of ten isnt that bad after all!)

  2. Holy crap, does the guy even want to SELL a book? Obviously not with a title like that. He is almost daring people to buy it. I give you all credit for even giving this one a chance. You are a bigger person than I!

    • I think the title, which while there are no Dead Babies in the book is relevant, was possibly to do just as you say, sell books and see what the fuss was about. I wish I had read it at the time of publishing, I think it might have had a little more impact then.

      I loved Keith though would read him all over again.

  3. Off putting titles? Sons and Lovers is one that comes to mind – positively Oedipal!

    I read London Fields too and have never read anything further by Amis. Your review is excellent but does not really make me want to go and seek out the book. Have you read Hanif Kureshi? He has a similar effect on me.

    • Hmmm I dont know if I have ever thought that Sons and Lovers is a dodgy title but now that I have had it pointed out it is a bit.

      I really didnt agree with London Fields, I had a bad reaction. Not read any Kureshi, not sure if I want to.

  4. jane

    Great review – that passage about Family Keith was one of my favourite/most reviled as well. It was a great book to discuss wasn’t it – lots of interesting issues about context and influence. Think you’re right, reading it at the time would have been good. I haven’t read American Psycho but Brett Easton Ellis is on radio 3’s Nightwaves tonight talking about his new novel – should be interesting.

    As for things I wouldn’t re-read… have been reading some Bukowski recently on and off – enjoyed it greatly but not sure I would ever go back to it. Fortunately he was so ridiculously prolific i think there will always be something new of his to turn to thus averting the problem!

    • I thought every scene with Whitehead really brought the book to life despite the fact he was such a hideous characature throughout the book. I loved any of his back story and would love Amis to write a book about just him. Who knows.

  5. I read Information a while back and couldn’t finish it. There was something about the characters that really put me off. But I went back a few years later and finished it because I couldn’t bear to leave a book unfinished then (I’m getting better at this though). But I still didn’t like it. I keep thinking I should try and read some of his earlier work because he’s supposed to be brilliant but I can’t quite make myself do it just yet.

    • I am getting so much better at leaving a book unfinished. I don’t give them away or get rid of them if I can see hope, I just dont mind reading 50 pages again another time when I am more in the mood. I need to get more cut throat though!

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  8. Ella

    It’s funny, I absolutely adore Amis (London Fie3lds is one of my favourite books), but couldn’t stand Dead Babies!

  9. Ella

    Everyone should read Time’s Arrow there – bloody brilliant!

  10. jimmy

    ‘Money’ by Amis, predates ‘American Psycho’ by more than a decade and is basically the same minus the descriptions of products and their price tag.

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