"The Aleph" in The Information
(from Understanding Martin Amis, chapter 6, pp. 181-83).
Like Other People, Money, and London Fields, The Information is a multilayered narrative, as its multivalent title suggests. Within its symbolic web Richard's tragicomic misery comes to represent male mid-life crisis generally, and the decline of a literary culture exists in a metonymic relationship to other forms of cultural decay--from the widening gap between rich and poor to the erosion of childhood innocence. Richard's story is the unstable center of a series of symbolically concentric circles in The Information, a fact which Amis alludes to midway through the novel. Richard has been thinking about "The Aleph," a story by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges that "everything always reminded him of" ("aleph" is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). The story is "about a magical device, the aleph, that knew everything. . . . About a terrible poet, who wins a big prize, a big requital, for his terrible poem" (224).
Ironic parallels to Richard's situation abound. He is famed at his local pub The Warlock for his skill at "Wise Money," a video game that tests the player's cultural knowledge. In reality, Richard is like Tantalus, constantly striving for a cultural mastery that always exceeds his grasp, despite his wide reading and the endless book reviews he writes for The Little Magazine. "Who was said to be the last man to have read everything? Coleridge. . . . Two hundred years on, nobody had read a millionth of everything, and the fraction was getting smaller every day" (242). Moreover, Richard's rival is a terrible novelist who is nonetheless about to win a prestigious literary award called "The Profundity Requital."
The significance of "The Aleph" does not stop here. In Borges's story, the aleph is "a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. . . .one of the points in space that contains all other points."1 A paradox, in other words: a center without a center. For Borges, it symbolizes the nothingness of the individual ego, and the corresponding idea that the one is the all--that the microcosm contains the macrocosm. Both symbolic associations are relevant to The Information. So is the image of the sphere itself, which Amis evokes through repeated references to the sun and solar system, and through a web of mythological allusions (readers of The Information will benefit from regularly consulting a handbook of classical literature). Richard's trials are one long lesson in his insignificance, from his literary humiliations to his interpretation of literary and cosmic history (like his walk from Coach to World Class, both describe "shocking decline") to "the information," which comes to him at night, and whispers its existential message of dissolution and death. These hard lessons are not for Richard alone; his story is the human story, part of what he calls "the journey from Narcissus to Philoctetes" (197).
The underlying message may be bleak, but Amis's method of linking the comic to the cosmic, the microcosm to the macrocosm, is often exhilarating. Before leaving for America, Richard announces to his wife Gina that "America will kill me" (287). Earlier, in an imaginative effort to "solarsystematize his immediate circle," Richard describes himself as Pluto, adding "Charon was his art" (230-1). Pluto is the god of the dead in Greek mythology, and Charon is the ferryman who conveys the dead to Hades. When Richard and Gwyn fly to New York, Richard has several brushes with death, beginning with an epic nosebleed that erupts soon after take-off. Later, visiting Gwyn in first class, Richard notes that "the light was coming in sideways, and everything looked combustible or already white-hot, close to burn-out or heat death" (290). On his way back to his seat, he notices several women crying and confronts death in more intimate terms. "Women on planes are crying because someone they love or loved is dead or dying. Every plane has them. . . . Death can do this . . . . Death, which sends women hurrying to the end of the street, to bus stops, which makes them run under the clocks of railway stations, which lifts them five miles high and fires them weeping through the air at the speed of death, all over the world" (292).
These intimations of mortality serve as a prelude to Richard's near-death experience in the small plane he and Gwyn board in Boston on their way back to New York. As they take off late in the day, during a storm, Richard looks through his porthole (another illuminating sphere, like the aleph and the sun). He likens the end of the day to the end of life. "The storm was there, like a gothic cathedral, with all its glaring gargoyles . . . Diurnal time was a figure for the human span: waking, innocent morning, full midday and the pomp of the afternoon, then loss of colour, then weariness, then mortal weariness and certainty of sleep, then nightmare, then dreamlessness" (378-9). Once in the eye of the storm, Richard comes closer to a religious experience than any other character in Amis's fiction: "The gods had put aside their bullwhips and their elemental rodeo and were now at play with their bowling balls clattering down the gutters of spacetime. Within were the mortals, starfished from white knuckle to white toejoint, stretched like Christs, like Joans in her fire. Richard looked and now felt love for the publicity boy, his sleek, shaking, tear-washed face" (381). Richard survives this battering, only to return to a different kind of nightmare back in England when the revenge plot he has set in motion goes spinning out of his control.
1. Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-1969, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: Dutton: 1970), 23, 26.
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