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?