Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 223 pages; 2004.
Dead Babies, first published in 1975, was Martin Amis‘ second novel. It’s a rather sordid, but richly comic tale, about a group of young and somewhat privileged Brits living it up over the course of a weekend. Think Chuck Palahniuk, but 30 to 40 years before his time.
The book is not for the faint-hearted, because, while there are no real dead babies in the story, there is plenty of illicit drug-taking, alcohol consumption and debauched sex.
The vast cast of quite vile characters, who gather at the five-bedroom, three-storey Appleseed Rectory in rural Hertfordshire, include: Quentin, who is handsome but deceitful; Andy, who is sexually aggressive; Giles, who is rich but beset by anxiety (his special fixation is losing his teeth); and Keith, who is ugly, dwarf-like and fat, and the butt of everyone’s jokes. The two females, Celia (Quentin’s wife) and Diana (Andy’s girlfriend), are less objectionable, but perhaps because neither are particularly well drawn.
Into this toxic cauldron of adolescent-like friends come three American guests: Marvell, a “postgraduate in psychology, anthropology and environment at Columbia University, underground journalist, film-maker and pop-cultural entrepreneur” with a penchant for hard drugs and pornography; Skip, a slow-talking, quite-stupid Southerner; and Roxeanne, a lively red head with a big chest.
The book is divided into two parts, “Saturday” and “Sunday”, and these are further divided into bite-sized chapters, sometimes only a few pages in length. Amis, who butts in every so often with an almost pompous omnipresent narrator’s voice to let you know he’s in charge of the story, provides carefully scripted scenarios for each character, delving into their back stories one by one before immersing them into present-day activities. It’s an effective method of telling such a seemingly chaotic and depraved tale, because it gives you a real sense of each person’s motivations and vanities and allows you to see what makes them tick. Despite the fact they’re all universally deplorable human beings, there’s something about these insights that makes you empathise just a little with their current situation.
As you would expect, the course of the weekend doesn’t run smoothly, because these people are nihilistic characters, hell-bent on self-indulgence rather than any sense of responsibility, whether to themselves or to other people. And when things start going horribly wrong, they start going horribly wrong. And just to up the ante that little bit further, Amis injects some psychological terror into the storyline. This is in the form of a series of nasty notes signed by “Johnny”, a character no-one seems to know…
Of course, this isn’t a book for everyone. Many will find it offensive, but if you get the joke and can appreciate the message at the heart of the book (which is effectively that drugs screw you up, but so, too, does money, privilege and your parents), then you’ll find much to laugh at here. Even if you have to do it with your eyes squeezed shut.