Gender Bender

The hapless Richard Tull of The Information took Amis’ inclusion of an author within each book to a typically deflatory end. In this, his ninth novel, we get astrophysicists, politicians and ‘polices’ but absolutely no writers. Or metonyms, loveless sex scenes, or cars. Change enough to sound off the words ‘a new Amis’ that echo in column inches and at book-signings nationwide. ‘Marty’ has indeed jumped ship to New York, to Ed McBain’s sanguine 47th Precinct of ‘gang raped nonagenarians’, but thankfully, has his idiosyncrasies in tow.

Before, Amis women have crowded the dock, accused of barely registering in the three dimensional. The buttery bimbo or the tipsy housewife are as familiar now as the hard-nosed mistresses; and so, delighting in the fastidiousness of criticism he has earned, Amis makes his riposte. Night Train’s voice is Mike. Mike is a woman. But gender, in the prerequisite chaos of New York, is just another plaything.

Mike sounds like a man on the phone. She is as emotionally hardened, through her work as ‘a police’ in the suicide division, as her male colleagues. She has a partner, Tobe, yet he is conveniently absent at a computer seminar throughout. As part of a long line of legless Amis protagonists, she had a drink problem. A big one. To complete the masquerade, the majority of insight into the female psyche deals with the shortcomings of men. As expected, we don’t get what we hope for - Amis’ first full-on female- but Mike is, in all senses, a big enough creation to cope.

The case taken to hand is the suicide of astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell. She is found naked, a bloodied towel about her shot-away skull, one morning. The gun is hers, and so is the crime we presume. Mike, believing there to be too much care and consideration behind this alleged suicide, begins another murder enquiry. Amis here runs in true NYPD Blue form; the jargon and brusqueness of the Channel Four staple intact, post-mortems ‘n’ all.

The investigation plods methodically on, with wry statistical observations on self-slaughter casually dropped along the way. The present-day neglect of the motive to murder (a theme brushed upon in The Information) is that which Amis tackles foremost. The wherewithal is anybody’s in the urban hysteria: the why is the key matter of interest. Jennifer had the ‘ideal’ relationship, an inventive mind and (here the old Amis resurfaces)‘a sports body with tits’. Night Train is an exposition on the motiveless; it requires explanatory emotions, not information, for its conclusion.

Elsewhere, the snobbery that spruced up the customary take on the underclass has been usurped by a less meritocratic medium: that of a TV cop show. Amis has a crack at ‘doing a woman’ but revels in her occupational virilism. The same certain corollary is drawn between the incomprehensibly vast, and abject nothingness, ‘cop-speak’ provides the dialect and the final pages are as bleak as any in his canon.

Night Train deals in the upsettingly mundane and shocks with its finality. It knows a love that is ‘pure’, not obsessive or mercantile, and is disturbingly probing and passionate in its nihilism. Amis is immediately identifiable as its author nonetheless, a man who once quipped that success for an English writer meant ‘buy a new typewriter’. Repeated hits have afforded him the luxury of new home and a bigger telescope, but, as ever, the roll-up remains the crutch of choice.

Harper Collins, £10.99

Nick Paton Walsh

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