26 February 2009

Dead Babies (Martin Amis)

Quentin and Celia Villers are hosting a weekend party at their country home: Appleseed Rectory. As well as the bright young things gadding down from town, a group of Americans are expected and they have ensured there are enough drugs and alcohol to fuel the debauched few days.

The term 'dead babies' refers to those periods of ennui that the characters experience when they are without chemical stimulation and are forced to face reality. Fortunately for us, these periods are few and far between. The weekend takes a turn for the dramatic when, after a day of topless sunbathing and philosophical discussion, one of the guests overdoses. The situation is worsened with the plying of the young man with more narcotics in an attempt to revive him. This coupled with the anonymous, threatening letters everybody has been receiving all weekend from 'Johnny' darken the mood somewhat, although provide good acceleration towards the bloody, brutal and chilling end.

Compared to Money or London Fields it may not seem as intelligent or visceral a comment on society. But it's freaking hilarious and Amis' style is racier, more exciting than in his later work. The characterisation is particularly sublime although it is Keith Whitehead who is the most entertaining and richly described. I am not going to bother paraphrasing Amis' brilliant words; here is Keith's introduction for you to read for yourself:

"Whitehead is an almost preposterously unattractive young man- practically, for instance, a dwarf. Whenever people want to say something nice about his appearance they usually come up with 'You've got quite nice colouring', a reference to his dark eyebrows and thinning yellow hair. That granted, nothing remained to be praised about his unappetising person, the sparse straw mat atop a squashed and petulant mask of acne... The more clothes you took off him, the more traumatic the spectacle became... As he entered the Wimbledon municipal swimming pool two teenage girls spontaneously vomited into the shallow end."

The book was made into a film a few years ago. I will pass no judgement on the film but merely quote Paul Bettany who starred as Quentin: "It's an amazing novel... it's a less amazing film."
The poor PR team probably already had the job from hell promoting a film called Dead Babies and after that they would have curled up in the foetal position and sobbed.

This is not a book for people who are easily offended or who entertain politically correct notions. It's a bit of a liability, being so laugh-out-loud funny yet having the title Dead Babies. You will get some strange looks on the tube, but for a select few of you who can stomach the disgusting and hilarious cruelty of this novel, it will be worth it. Martin Amis is polarising... he is the Vegemite of authors.

Rating: 8/10.
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