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Parade of Horrors

Dead Babies by Martin Amis Alfred Knopf;$6.95,206 pp

By Joseph Straus

IT HAS BEEN a long time now since pleasant utopian vision were in literary fashion. In recent days, they have been replaced with bleak prophecies of emotional aridity and violence like those of Huxley and Burroughs. Martin Amis's new novel, Dead Babies, is in this new tradition.

The novel takes place about twenty years from now, in a large English manor where four English aristocrats (one with a fear of losing his teeth), three dissolute Americans (including a nymphomaniac and a Timothy Leary type), one whore and one dwarf have gathered for a weekend of debauchery. Given the strange passions of some, sexual ambivalence of others, and a wide range of futuristic drugs, it is not surprising that Amis is able to generate more than two hundred pages of sordid situations.

But even with prodigal use of those two favorite novelistic themes, drugs and sex, the book remains a heavy-handed and smug treatment of emotionless, sterile relationships and the depravity and violence they engender. The dead babies of the title (and Amis spells this out without much subtlety) are the love, understanding and compassion which the characters of the novel have destroyed with their omniverous desire for pleasurable sensations.

The outlook of the characters is thoroughly reductionist, their feelings and moods governed by chemicals and simple physical drives. Yet through the drugged, alcoholic, and lustful haze, the characters are troubled by an occasional resonance of deeper spiritual longings, in the form of 'street sadness' and 'false memories'. These bad dreams--all that remains from a lost world of emotion and intuition are anxiously banished from consciousness.

AMIS USES A variety of devices to maintain a sense of alienation between the reader and the action. The least successful of these are the narrator's occasional clumsy interjections. For example, when Keith, the dwarf, contemplates his feet bloodied by the nails which protrude from his makeshift elevator shoes, the narrator intrudes with, "Well, we're sorry about it Keith, of course, but we're afraid that you simply had to be that way. Nothing personal, please understand--merely in order to serve the designs of this particular fiction."

But when he is content to remain in the third person, Amis is able to maintain a flat, detached tone that permits a parade of horrors to pass strangely muted, without arousing more than a vague disgust.

Giles's mother's mouth comprised, from left to right, a tapering upper eyetooth which eroded a millimeter a year into the black pool of her gum socket, two long wedge-shaped frontals which overlapped like tightly crossed fingers...a lower incisor as yellow as sunshine off dusty grass, an El that resembled a squat, burnt-out matchstick, and a lonely lopsided masticator which jutted out between her lips even when they were closed.

Amis is at his best in these graphic physical descriptions, which can be almost lyrical in their evocation of death and disease. But the dialogue between characters, circumscribed by their lack of self-awareness, tends to be inane and repetitive. "How the fuck do I know I want to fuck them till I fuck them? Be reasonable, woman. And anyway, so fucking what?"

Similarly, in the rare moments when the characters consider their situation, the result is usually on the level of a teenage Clockwork Orange. "...perversion is justified--no demanded--by an environment that is now totally man-made, totally without a biology."

Unrelieved by engaging dialogue or insight, the book meanders from perversion to perversion, progressing through huge quantities of drugs and alcohol, through impotence and sadism, to a final act of dwarfish fistfucking. Amis is able to extricate himself from this morass only with difficulty, and the ending he chooses has an abrupt, they-all-get-run-over-by-a-truck quality.

Part of Amis's problem is his choice of subject. His characters are pitiful in their self-indulgence. He seems to find it hard to convey the emptiness and boredom of their lives without those qualities permeating his writing. In addition, the pointlessness of their lives makes it difficult to envision a conclusion that would not seem like authorial arbitrariness. Amis's solution--wholesale destruction of his characters after 200 pages--is really no solution at all.

Dead Babies attempts to make judgments about destructive tendencies in modern lives. But the characters are so shallow, their acts and their final destruction so gratuitous, that their boredom and apathy finally become ours as well.

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