Martin Amis: Night Train

Night Train (1997) is my first venture into the world of Martin Amis. After the hullabaloo, I thought I had to get a sense of his writing.

Here we have an interesting twist on the tried and true (but usually overcooked) American detective novel. In the first paragraph, detective Mike Hoolihan introduces herself:

I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement — or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman also.

Mike has been a police for a long time now, but she’s about to tell the story of her worse assignment, one she was personally involved in, and one that has more significance to us than the typical detective story. Jennifer Rockwell, who seemingly has it all and has it all together has committed suicide. Jennifer is the daughter of Colonel Tom, Mike’s boss and a true friend who has helped Mike through many rough patches in her life. Colonel Tom cannot believe that his daughter would commit suicide, so he sends Mike in to investigate.

Because any outcome, yes, any at all, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, marathon tortures of Chinese ingenuity, of Afghan lavishness, any outcome was better than the other thing. Which was his daughter putting the .22 in her mouth and pulling the trigger three times.

Three times? That should be an early clue that indeed Jennifer could not have committed suicide. But these jaded police don’t jump blindly to conclusions. They have their response:

You shoot yourself once in the mouth. That’s life.  You shoot yourself twice. Hey. Accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You got to really want to go.

But even though some suicides have succeeded by shooting themselves in the head three times, Jennifer’s still makes no sense. While often unlikely suicides happen because the person just succumbed to “the water torture of staying alive,” Jennifer’s never shown any signs that she’s even slightly tired or depressed. Quite the opposite. She has everything anyone could want: a perfect boyfriend, a perfect family, a perfect job she loved, a perfect figure, no financial problems, no troubled past. But there are clues that suggest something went wrong — or right.

But like many detective novels, once the answer to the mystery is disclosed, it loses some of its flavor. Incredibly clever. And the book was certainly tight enough to lead up to it perfectly. But I must say that as clever as it was, as good a read as it was, I’m happy to move on to other thoughts, to other reads.

I’m also glad to move away from Amis’s style; sometimes his adoption of the jaded detective voice was, as it often is, annoying to the point of becoming its own analogue of water torture. All those short, repetitive jabs. In fact, through the first fifty pages or so I really wondered whether I’d be able to handle the rest of the slim novel. I’m glad I stuck with it. It turns out to be a tightly wound post-modern novel with a satisfying ending.

On a side note, because Amis’s 2006 statements that have sullied his reputation somewhat, I was paying particular attention to any author signals in this book, written over ten years ago. Early in the book, Mike gives one of those preemptive apologies that is not an apology:

Allow me to apologize for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and the bigotry.

Hmmm.

Even though by the end I was smiling at Amis’s clever resolution, I’m not sure Night Train was the best jumping off point for getting to know Martin Amis. I think I’d like to see something he’s written with more substance. But it was definitely impressive enough I want to get to know his work better, so what do you recommend?

21 thoughts on “Martin Amis: Night Train

  1. Stewart says:

    I read Night Train a few months back and found myself, once again, captivated by Amis’ writing. The only others I’ve read by him are The War Against Cliche and Time’s Arrow. The latter really has to be read – who would have thought that one little stylistic gimmick could produce such a throught provoking novel?

  2. Thanks Stewart. Just last night I was browsing through Amis’s books and noticed that Time’s Arrow was shortlisted for the Booker. But then when I read about it I thought, hmmm, is this just an extended version of Billy Pilgrim’s backwards time in Slaughterhouse Five? But with your recommendation, I will move to it quickly! By the way, have you ever read another book that takes on the basic idea in Night Train? I thought it was really interesting and wondered if anyone’s done anything with it (in fiction or in nonfiction).

  3. John Self says:

    I too recommend Time’s Arrow, Trevor (but I really love Night Train too). More substantially, you might want to tackle Money soon; it’s widely regarded as Amis’s best novel, and it’s the source of my username! His other big novels would be London Fields and The Information. I’d recommend the latter first, it’s funnier, and the former second, which is ambitious and not entirely successful but often dazzling.

  4. Thanks for all of the recommendations, John. It looks like I have some pleasant work in front of me. By the way, I hope your vacation was nice, but it’s great to have you back!

  5. Trevor,

    I found myself wondering on reading your comments whether the book successfully avoided/transcended pastiche. Do you think it does? Is the use of the hardboiled tone a starting place, an homage, something else?

    I haven’t read any Amis in years, but I remember Money as well worth recommending. That said, it’s sufficiently good it may spoil the others for you, it did rather for me in a way.

    Also, Amis is an English writer, does he successfully capture an English voice do you think?

    The before you read the book/after you read the book concept is marvellous, I don’t think I’ve seen that before. I can’t help but skip to after you read the book though, to see your conclusions…

  6. Excellent questions, Max! I hope others will lend a hand in giving their views about the book!

    Though there were times when I first started Night Train that I felt it was flat-on pastiche, and strained in the process. It felt like Amis just thought, hey, I would like to write an American noir (but I have to say his style and word choice were impressively spot on). But as I made my way through the book and captured more of the underlying themes I realized that Amis was doing something quite brilliant – taking a familiar genre and tone, turning it upside down, and in the process legitimizing further the hardboiled tone. In Night Train the jaded detective has a pretty good reason to be jaded after discovering the cause of her friend’s death since that death didn’t just say something about the depravity of humanity; it also said something about the state of the detective herself. So I think the potentially overdone tone was just a starting place (a great one) and Amis successfully transcended pastiche. And thankfully it didn’t take too many pages for me to forget my initial misgivings.

    Also, thanks for the recommendation. Perhaps I will save Money for later.

    I hope you keep visiting and offering your insights and insightful questions. . . . And I hope that my format on the site doesn’t ruin the books for you or anyone else!

  7. Hi Trevor,

    That’s very reassuring. My concern was that I actually have a huge fondness for hardboiled fiction, so pure pastiche for its own sake would have left me a bit cold. Playing with genre and tone though, subverting or legitimising it, that I can get behind quite happily.

    It’s also useful to know you had those concerns initially, but that they were resolved, as that helps give confidence if one isn’t enjoying those early pages to stick with it and trust the author. That said, I very rarely don’t finish a book, but it’s nice to know the journey has some likely reward.

    Right, I’m off to read your Roth entry, I’ve never read him so I’m curious to see what you think.

  8. I think you’ll like what you find here, Max. Just be sure to let me know how you feel when you’ve read it!

  9. I’ve added it to my Amazon shopping basket Trevor, where it sits looking nervously at a Sam Selvon, a Naipaul (presumably sneering at Selvon’s characters), a Derek Raymond novel (that probably threatens to beat Amis up, Raymond doesn’t seem to have been a very nice chap), Farrel’s Troubles (which I’m really looking forward to), a Jean Rhys (thanks to John Self) and William Gibson’s latest which by all accounts is terrible. I reckon that’s near on two months’ reading right there. Ay caramba.

    Possibly I should cut the Gibson to make room for the Amis.

    You know, I really didn’t think I’d go back to Amis, and had I not read your blog I doubt I would have for a long time to come. I’ll let you know what I think, and thanks for giving me cause to give him a try again.

  10. Not only am I excited to see how you like the books (and for the purpose of this post, Night Train in particular), Max, but I can’t wait to hear about how the books in your next Amazon order get along! By the way, which Rhys book did you order?

  11. Good Morning, Midnight. John Self suggested it as a good place to start.

    Roth is getting added to the Amazon basket thanks to your persuasive posts on his behalf, as may a Kelman actually since I’ve been meaning to give him a try. With all that, Gibson will probably get jettisoned, but he’s only there as I read his last novel which his current is a sequel too(but which I didn’t particularly like come to think of it) and out of a (irrelevant in the context of a new work) regard for his early output.

  12. I’ll have to check out Good Morning, Midnight too. I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea, written nearly thirty years after Good Morning, Midnight, and wasn’t impressed with her prose, though the story itself was excellent. It was compelling enough to make me want to try again.

  13. Well, I’ve ordered Night Train from Amazon, I’ll probably read it and write it up next week so you’ll see how I got on with it. I got the Roth you recommended in the same parcel plus the others I mentioned above.

    Just finished Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, which was spectacular by the way, hence why I’m buying more Selvon. I suspect you might like him.

  14. Note: Must buy Selvon books.

    I must say, Max, I’m not sure this blog is going to be good for my finances – maybe yours either! But keep the recommendations coming!

    I look forward to your post on Night Train, especially since I’m sure you’ll be able to speak more to how it plays with the genre.

  15. Stewart says:

    Just finished Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, which was spectacular by the way, hence why I’m buying more Selvon. I suspect you might like him.

    I can echo this, as I thought the book was great too. I have the sequel, Moses Ascending on the shelves, ready to go but Hari Kunzru’s introduction to it strikes me as bizarre since, rather than hype it up, is rather critical of it.

  16. Intros vary hugely in quality, I’ve also read some where they seem to utterly slate the book they’re introing. The intro for He Died with his Eyes Open talks about how important a wholly different Derek Raymond novel is, making one wonder if they should possibly have written an intro for that other book instead.

    Nice writeup Stewart, mine (http://pechorinjournal.blogspot.com/) comes to similar conclusions I think.

    Trevor, exposure to blogs does increase the wallet strain I agree, but the exposure to stuff I otherwise might not have touched at all or for ages kind of makes up for it. Had it not been for you I wouldn’t be buying Roth and Amis after all, which I think overall is a good thing even if my cats had rather I spent the money on yogurt treats for them.

  17. My Amazon parcel arrived, everything intact despite apparently having been packed by a drunken baboon, poor old Roth was a bit dented. I think I’ll give Book Depository a try next time, I realised afterwards it would have been a fair bit cheaper for this order and it seems like a good operation.

    Anyway, apart from the slight disappointment of discovering that A House for Mr Biswas is about 600 pages long rather than the more sprightly 200 I had for some reason imagined, it all looks good, and two of the books in it (two of the more promising looking actually) are directly down to your blog Trevor…

    I’m reading volume 5 of A Dance to the Music of Time presently, and I usually try to clear my palate after something as good as that with a bit of crime or sf, but as soon as my palate is refreshed I’ll be at the Amis and will let you know how I get on with it.

    The palate refreshing thing is that I find I get jaded if I read too much of any one thing in a row, so I prefer to mix genres and styles to a limited degree.

  18. Let me know when you get through A House for Mr. Biswas, Max. I bought it years ago after reading and enjoying Naipaul’s Miguel Street (which is that “sprightly” 200 or so pages). But when I thought I’d start reading it, I just couldn’t do it. Maybe after the Booker season is over . . . Then again, something new always comes along, and once something’s sat on the shelf (and is talked about in the press) for so long it feels familiar and old.

  19. Hey Trevor, I just finished Night Train (and thank you for bringing it to my attention) and have written up my thoughts on it here: http://pechorinjournal.blogspot.com/

  20. I just popped over to Max’s blog again to peruse the comments on his review of Night Train. I noticed that John Self had left a link to an essay discussing the book in much more detail than I even considered. Click here for the essay.

    I like this book more and more as time goes on. Of the books I’ve read in the past two months, it is up there with The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound as books I think about often. And this essay helped me see it with more light. I’ll definitely be reading this short, packed novel again – soon!

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