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New Yorker Fiction Review #126: "Oktober" by Martin Amis

Issue: Dec. 7, 2015

Story: "Oktober" by Martin Amis

Rating: $

Review: This makes two somewhat bleak non-fiction-ish "stories" to appear in The New Yorker Fiction section back to back, making me wonder if the Nov. 13th terrorist attacks on Paris had put the NYer editors into a particularly somber mood or if this was all just a co-incidence. Given the lead-time with which most magazines tend to work, this run of realistic stories is probably a co-incidence, but who knows. Not me.

Anyway, "Oktober" is not really a story. In fact, I'm not sure what to call it. It's more like a lightly fictionalized dispatch -- really more like musings -- from the front lines of the 2015 European migrant crisis by a famous writer on a book tour. Most of it takes place in the lobby of a hotel in Munich, where the narrator contrasts the revelings of Oktoberfest, going on right outside in the streets, with the the bourgeois, First World Problems of a fellow Englishman sitting next to him in the  lobby, in front of the looming backdrop of the tsunami of Middle Eastern migrants who have come to Germany in increasing droves over the past six months, bringing with them the specter of a new and unwelcome era for Europe.

Interlaced throughout this hash of concepts are Amis's constant literary, historical, personal, and political references -- references to a book he's reading about Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, his personal meetings with Angela Merkel and Tony Blair, places he's lived in Europe, etc. These are written into the piece in what I perceive as a rather grandiose attempt to tie Europe's history, politics, and literature, it's present and future, into a coherent storyline...and possibly to assert that he has a place within that storyline as more than just an observer.

Aside from a few trenchant observations, what it actually comes off as is an attempt to show us how smart and well-read and well-connected Martin Amis is; it comes off as an attempt by Martin Amis to show us how he, as a famous writer, is somehow also a player in this vast historical, political, and artistic tableaux. I suppose one could make an argument that he is -- I don't really know much about the political or literary significance of his books -- but it made for kind of clunky and tedious reading material.

Not only was the content itself a kind of forced patchwork of references, observations, and musings, but the actual writing -- Amis's choices of words -- was at times headache-inducing. Too many adjectives and adverbs to qualify as anything close to good writing. Take for example this essentially useless string of words:

"So there was time for lots of coffee and for delicious and fattening croissants in the lounge. Then the brand-new, hangar-fresh Lufthansa jumbo jet took off, on schedule."

I suppose what he's trying to do, using decadent language like this, and in that particular sentence, is contrast the world he inhabits with the world in which the migrants live. And if you look at it through that lens, I suppose it works. But paragraph after paragraph of these kinds of adjective fests made me a little queasy.

Martin Amis: British Guy
On the positive side, I was grateful for Amis's sort of annotated, ground-level view of the migrant situation going on in Europe. I like to consider myself a pretty informed person, but there are perspectives and angles that the news media can't provide. For example, when Amis contrasts what is going on now in Europe with the 10 million homeless and dispossessed in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Third Reich and the end of World War II. The contrast is not only helpful to form a historical perspective on the situation, but it is also comforting in a "this has all happened before" sort of way.

Taking a step back, I suppose what Amis is trying to do in this "essay" -- I have to call it an essay because it's not a story -- becomes a bit more apparent and even admirable, given such a short space. However, it is far too cluttered and Amis's perch a little too haughty to be engaging or even properly processed on the first go-round; and it's not the kind of piece that begs to be re-read. This is a straight-up magazine journalism assignment tossed off to a famous writer who has grown fat in the ass and wants to write about the world from the lobby of his Four Star hotel; the barrage of references and quotes and attempts at synthesis are there because he's watching the migrant crisis through his window and on T.V. In other words, this story reads like an old novelist's attempt to process the migrant situation without getting his hands dirty.

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