The good folks over at Goodreads have invited me to pose a question for Martin Amis. It's an honor I will do the dubious thanks of writing in longhand over here at Cobb. The opportunity to be drawn to the attention of the man I find to be one of the last and greatest of this generation is.. an invitation to which I will oversubscribe.
My interest in Amis is not coincidently related to my writing skeptically about the pursuit of religion here in the West in the Sun God Theory which is inspired in part by a story he wrote called The Janitor on Mars. I began reading Amis and other British writers somewhere back around 1990 when I got a little tired of T. Boyle and happened upon a journal called Granta. Or that's what I recall at the moment. Additionally of course, I was long tired of those more or lesss flat characters which were to be the role-monkeys for a man such as me, black and I wondered what there was worth conserving in all of Western Civilization. Reading Borges can do that. Since I was accustomed to reading out of school and out on a limb, picking up Amis wasn't difficult and was greatly rewarded. London Fields, Time's Arrow, Dead Babies, Money, Einstein's Monsters, Heavy Water and finally the book that broke my life in two Koba the Dread.
Amis has the great advantage of good company, something you rarely get without the right tackle in your box. And who would know what bait to use without hearing a sea story or two from the keepers of all that? It's not much fun reading directly out of the Prentice Hall Guide to English Literature. That advantage I percieve manifest in the company of men of wit and taste who actually try to be, unpretentiously, men of wit and taste. We over here have Woody Allen. I don't mean to complain much but Amis has had his headstart, the kind which obviates the heedless sensing and searching for a young man who wants to be something other than a rebel, a dropout, a sports hero, a billionaire or a gawdawful professional. We're connected by the language to the imaginations of millions, except the millions all watch TV and movies circumscribed by the vocabulary of an eighth grader; an American eight grader. I suppose that's why most of the time I'm listening to histories narrated by Simon Prebble. Somewhere in time, men were more than this.
So it falls to men of imagination who haven't had to hack through too many literary jungles to remind us of our possible virtues and our present failures. CYPHER: Gee-zus! What a mindjob. You're here to save the world. You gotta be shitting me. What do you say to something like that?
The rest of us, meaning me, are tired. After 4000 orgasms and 600 books. Meh, I'd rather compute. The adrenaline is not coming from those worldly pursuits. In fact, I think I was sold a bill of goods on adrenaline. It turns out that gin is just as good. So we read a bit of Martin and a precious few others narrowing in on something ineffable. But it's all too private and for me that's all it ever was. All the celebrity and community has been doled out to narcissistic sociopaths whose vices remind us to play it close to the vest and be happy that we're not actually James Bond, the last man. It's hard to be free. It's hard to be free when men of imagination stand in the margins society, when virtue seems idiosyncratic, when we need writers like Martin Amis more than they are able to save the world.
It's YouTube that can remind us that the spark lies in odd places. Some kid plays the guitar, or stacks cups, or does the robot and you gasp. There are supposed to be writers like there are piano virtuosos, and we're supposed to mob them or at least wave a lighter. But I guess most people want to just dance and not read, and I suppose that's what has gone wrong. I would be more declarative but I'm not so sure as a man like Amis must be.
And yet I could not, for the life of me, find anything to do with The Pregnant Widow but fall asleep. Can it be that the days of men are numbered? Maybe it was just a bad book, maybe I've already exhausted my disgust for those enticements that were supposed to be so spicy to the Boomers and so have no use for it said in more righteous English than my own.
So after all that, my question is simple. Are we not men? What will it take to move us off our asses? ls David Petraeus the last among us all that both think and act? Is there room in our world for men, or has our imagination on the whole, failed us? Are we unpledged ronin to a dead daimyo whose legacy is lost to the wind? I have lived my entire life in an era whose greatest hero is a man who made us to stare at perfect metal and glass boxes - the titan who built the wealthiest company on the planet by making us all look at i- stuff. A kingdom of introversion. A black hole of short attention spans spewing Hawking radiation of bucks to the Martyr of Silicon Valley.
But the question is more particular. It is about a Europe about to crumble. It is about an America, that like a nuclear gas turbine, can run on anything that burns. Neither seems to serve any principle well and the unprincipled way of life seems to dominate. We all play act at manly virtue fearing we can never really afford it. Except.
Except in our reading. In our listening for inspiration. In hearing the moment in a sweaty apartment on Houston summer night of the echoes of 20 million dead told true in the wake of the madness that inverts society and is born in the bearing of the man who must finally face death unafraid. Oh yeah, there's that. But how to make it public. How to make what we know to be true be the living way that rules the day?
I suppose we gather our courage inches by inches, word by word and action by action.
Is that a question?
Martin Amis is coming to America. Or perhaps he is here, I don't read the New Yorker or watch Charlie Rose enough to know. Is this the last refuge for a man who knows what freedom should be like? Here's the hard question. Can we rely with much certainty that we will rescue from mediocrity that which ought to support the best in us, or should we hack it out in the sticks? Does the Western city still work? Is it a metropolis or an aggregation of oddity? This seems to be a conversation I can only have here at midnight from my desk. Do you see my problem?