Any new Martin Amis book always comes with plenty of baggage, and House Of Meetings is no exception. As his first full-length fiction since 2003’s Yellow Dog, it comes complete with high expectations and the ugly face of his previous achievements leering over its shoulder. You can almost hear the critics sharpening their knives even before it hits the shelves.
Like so many of his previous novels, it also brings with it some worryingly dense prose and more than a few literary references. His books have never made for easy reading, but that’s exactly where their strength lies, and it’s good to see that one of the English language’s greatest wordsmiths still shows no sign of sugaring the pill as he grows older. You may love Amis’s work, or you may hate it – but it’s hard to view it with anything other than admiration.
House Of Meetings is significant for more than just the long wait that preceded it, however. It shows Amis dipping his toes into the waters of historical fiction, and coming back with what feels like a political fable from start to finish.
This is the story of a Russian survivor of the Arctic gulags, told exclusively from his point of view and taking the form of a lifetime confession. We learn of our nameless narrator’s early life, his acclimatisation to the challenges of the gulag, and his struggles to re-acclimatise to the real world afterwards. We also learn of his rivalry with his half-brother Lev. Both siblings lust after the enigmatic Jewess Zoya, but it is Lev who eventually marries her, before he too is sent to the gulag.
Of course, this is a Martin Amis novel, so it is also filled with unspeakable deeds and horror at the pain and suffering that man inflicts on fellow man. As if it’s not enough that he fantasizes about his brother’s wife on a daily basis, the narrator also confesses that he’s a multiple rapist, his crimes having been committed in the aftermath of the war. Life in the gulag is shown with a characteristic harshness too, as Amis turns his spotlight on the historical atrocities and everyday barbarism of a country in turmoil.
All of this should come as no surprise to this who have read his work before, and here he delivers the same kind of intellectual violence that we’ve come to expect over the years. What marks House Of Meetings out from his other novels – and, in some ways, undermines its considerable effects – is the need to present historical facts in large, indigestible chunks scattered throughout the fiction. The outcome is that these puddles of historical reality dilute the narrative, and while they are often intriguing in their own right, they don’t make for a great novel.
Historical fiction is a delicate balancing act between its two disparate elements – history and fiction – and here Amis doesn’t always get the mix right. In the end, the story of two brothers and their troubled love lives is swamped by the weight of the history surrounding it, leaving the characters feeling shallow and unfulfilling. They’re at their most vibrant and intriguing during the chapters set in the gulag itself, but what may have made an interesting novella starts to drag as it progresses, and the ending feels more like a political rant than the kind of fully-realised fiction that we’ve come to expect.
By all means read House Of Meetings for the vivid descriptions of life in the gulags, or for snapshot of the last century of Russian history – just don’t expect it to be vintage Amis. We may have to wait at least another three years for that.