Swelter 6

To add insult to the injury of Amis's advance, The Information is also a wonderfully absorbing novel, raucous and politically incorrect, cruel and true. The story revolves around the tortured friendship of two very different writers, the press inevitably drawing analogies to Amis's competitive relationship with Julian Barnes. In the book, Richard Tull is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking dysfunctional nightmare of impotence, a spectacularly arcane failure with two sons and a long-suffering wife, working on an impenetrable novel called Untitled and a scholarly tome (The History of Increasing Humiliation) while eking out a living with virulent book reviewing. His college roommate, best friend, and worst enemy is Gywn Barry, a talentless Scotsman who has gone on to fame and fortune -- a royal wife, beautiful mistresses, movie deals -- with a series of vapid Utopian novels. To exact revenge on Barry for his fatuous glory, Tull calls in the criminal underworld of London and plots ever more complex punishments. In the manner of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, Tull's machinations endlessly rebound against him, as he's reduced to an ineffectual and venomous witness to Barry's great banquet of success.

As Gore Vidal once famously noted, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little," the great man himself probably did a little dance when he'd outlasted Truman Capote. Like the characters in his book, Amis seems to be straddling two opposing dialectics: the vast vulgar fray of America and the incestuous literary whirl of London, the glittering prizes at Barry's command and Tull's debasing but somehow honorable anonymity. "I love this country," he says, sweeping his hand over the pageantry of the pool, "although I exaggerated it through the eyes of an English asshole in the book, in the great tradition of the wide-eyed Englishman abroad. Tom Wolfe, in Bonfire of the Vanities, really captured the hypocrisy of the English, who come over here to sneer and then don't want to pay for anything. But with certain exceptions, people like Don DeLillo, American literature is in a real lull, whereas 30 or 40 years ago Americans dominated the scene.

"It's often occurred to me that one of the reasons Jewish writers in the past generation prevailed so much -- all that wrestling with libidos, that sense of productive alienation -- was because all the other writers were such drunks, and among the older generation drinking was considered such a Polack asshole thing to do. That seems to have disappeared with the newer generation. But this is a field that does seem to attract a lot of substance abuse, here and in England. Mailer used to really drink. For Will Self, constant joints and drinks is a bare minimum. My dad's a big drinker, and a big worker, as well. But for me the idea of going to my desk with a hangover is unbearable; I can't do it any more, if I ever could."

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The girlfriend, Isabel Fonseca, comes down from their room, and there's suddenly a certain Hamptons frisson. She's attractive and a card-carrying member of brand-name society, radiating self-assurance, style, and money. The real thing, a true perk, and Amis glows with self-mocking pride: "Julian Barnes once told me that literary success and sexual success is the one thing that's considered intolerable, and as you can see, I've had remarkable success here." The interview is pointedly winding down, as we move on to gossip and injustice, the universal language, Amis hanging tough. Asked about the contretemps with Barnes and Kavanagh, Amis weighs in with new charges: "Wylie had a better view of the big picture than Julian's wife. And she breached confidentiality: Within five minutes of our meetings with the publishers, I was being pricked by the press. I have my own grievances, and the reaction of Julian has amazed me."

But then what goes around does come around: Your friend's wife gets squeezed out of a big deal, there's going to be some damage done. Fonseca moans about how terrible the whole thing was, the press attentions that accompanied the deal and their courting, although the wife left behind with two kids no doubt has her own sad stories. Amis bridles at the suggestion that the controversy may have resulted from the public holding novelists to higher standards, and reels off a learned list of brilliant moral messes: "You can't make any distinctions about writers on the basis of what their lives are like. In fact, they tend to have even more chaotic personal lives." It's turning a bit Gywn Barryish, all the self-pity, rationalizations, and random hurts of success, a line from the book ("Writers are nightmares from which you cannot awake") capturing the eternal illusions of art. Forever onto end, Amis remains ahead of the game, terminally ironic and clever, but perhaps the seismographic image that runs through his book -- the rhythms of dark knowledge that come in the night -- is the price of life, the toll that must be paid when you win.

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