Home > 20th Century, Amis, Martin, British Literature, Novel > The Flesh should have been Sade, it is only sad.

The Flesh should have been Sade, it is only sad.

Dead Babies, by Martin Amis.

 A group of six English acquaintances welcome for the week-end three American “friends” and an English outsider, a whore named Lucy Littlejohn. The particularity of those three newcomers ? They are sex addicts on a Sadian mode and particularly like threesomes parties. One of them, Marvel, is also marvellous at mixing any kind of drugs. So the English are anxious and curious to meet these three sexually liberated Americans and try made-to-measure drugs.

The week-end takes place in a house which used to be a presbytery and is still named Appleseed Presbytary. Is it not a hilarious name for a place due to witness a drug and sex orgy ? It seems to be a comic reference to the Bible and the original sin, and given all the different meanings of “seed”, it cannot be a coincidence.

 Each character has his own psychological issues, some are more sickly crazy than others. Some are more openly violent than others.

Giles Clearstream is a good one. He’s obsessed with his teeth. The novel opens with him dreaming his teeth are falling. According to Freud, such dreams of teeth falling out and extraction of them are symbols of castration as a punishment for masturbating. I don’t think it is incidental, if I refer to his personal history with his mother. Martin Amis delights in finding every possible situation where the word “teeth” or teeth-related words are used. It is huge fun.

The host, the Honourable Quentin Villiers is the cliché of the perfect Victorian Englishman. His perfect self control is impossible to undermine, he is always utterly polite and knows how to act properly in every circumstance. His friend Andy Adorno is the caricature of the continental man: loud, violent, indiscreet about his sex life, showing off a little.

Keith Whitehead – an unfortunate name – is the dwarf of the court. He’s beyond ugly, he’s disgusting. He’s short, obese, stinks because of digestive problems. We, readers, should pity him but cannot, we are only thoroughly repulsed, because instead of being just ridiculous, he is nasty and cruel too. The scene with his boots with high heels is dark funny.

The construction of the novel is interesting in itself, it borrows a lot from theatre. For example, the presentation of the characters as an introduction of the novel reminded me of plays. Each day of the week-end is a separate part of the book, as an act, each short chapter being a scene. The author intervenes in the novel, like the chorus in Greek drama. The ghostly figure of Johnny who plays tricks to the English crowd reminded by of a Greek god mingling into the plot to impact the course of the story and provoke the last catastrophe. Every ten chapter, a special part is dedicated to the story of one English character. Flashbacks are intertwined in the general narrative, giving some light on the past of each protagonist. I also noted that the title of the book was repeated from time to time as a conclusion of chapters. In the end, we see the pattern of the novel, and cannot forget that Martin Amis is the god which pulls all the strings of the puppet-characters and decides of the course of the story.

Dead Babies was published in 1975 and I guess it was quite innovative and scandalous. It is a parody of sexual liberation. There’s a song which says “Free your mind and your ass will follow” : these English people have done the contrary. Their ass is free but it seems their mind is running after it, desperately trying to catch up. So the Flesh is not Sade, it is only sad.

Martin Amis also makes fun of art happenings – the so-called “conceptualists” – and intellectual quest on drugs, with all the pseudo-scientific speeches of Marvel on drug effects. Marvel looks like William Burroughs to me.

Suddenly, the dark-funny situation of ill-matched people locked in a house for a whole week-end turns into a gore thriller. What should have been a joyful Sadian mayhem turns out in a gore Sartrian No Exit. “Hell is other people”. That last part made me feel ill at ease, but I will not tell too much about it to avoid spoilers. Maybe I lost my sense of humour and failed to see the funny side of it.

 So in the end, what is my opinion on this book? It is definitely a breaktrough in literature. I liked it, despite or because of the dark, nasty and yet ridiculous characters.  I was surprised by the outcome. I wish I had read it in English instead of my French translation, the language is colourful and funny.

PS : I have found another review of this book here

  1. July 29, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Well, to read that in French too is really making life difficult for yourself (perhaps not as you’re obviously fluent in French). Your review is fascinating but I can’t say it makes me want to read the book – but at least I know what its about now!

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  2. July 29, 2010 at 7:25 am

    Sorry, sorry sorry – I forgot – y ou ARE French

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    • July 29, 2010 at 7:46 am

      I’m happy my English is fluent enough for you to forget I’m French!
      Dead Babies is the kind of book people like or hate, I don’t think there’s room for mild feelings.

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  3. July 29, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    I read it as a teenager. I remember I liked it but I recall the earlier scenes better than the later which suggests I had the same reaction you did.

    I preferred Success, and of course Money.

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  4. July 30, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    There’s a writeup of Night Train on my blog. That’s one that divides people, I liked it but plenty hate it.

    I’ve mostly read his early stuff. They’re not quite like that but you can definitely tell it’s the same guy with similar concerns.

    Success is good, Money is something of a tour de force, I actually don’t much recall The Rachel Papers which is the one that made his name.

    I’ve not read the later ones, Time’s Arrow and so on. Opinions differ.

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  5. August 25, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I read Time’s Arrow maybe twenty years ago and (allowing for a general willingness at the time to read just about anything without criticism) I did appreciate the concept. ( A Nazi doctor lives his life backwards, returning his victims to life and moving back towards a happier and better time.) In retrospect I wonder what the novel did beyond carrying the concept, but I have a recollection that it was surprisingly moving.

    Anyway, I formed the opinion that it was probably the only Amis which I would like, but your post leads me to reconsider.

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  6. August 25, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    John Self, as his username suggests, is a big fan of that one.

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  1. May 3, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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