My review of Martin Amis, originally written here, has now been reprinted on Jewish Currents!
Check it out here.
The first Martin Amis novel I read was also the first one he published. The only thing The Rachel Papers (1973) shares with The Zone of Interest (2014) is the oddness of a romance that seems to be almost an afterthought to what are essentially character studies of men.
This is what I found most compelling about The Zone of Interest, and what is perhaps extremely difficult for some; it is a humane look at humans, on both sides of a situation which is hardly comprehensible. It’s hard to comprehend the excuses people made for themselves as well as the ability to survive. It’s hard to measure the depths of human ability to both enact and survive such horrors.
My perspective on this is perhaps somewhat different than many of the reviewers out there. I was raised in a secular Jewish household in Israel, where Holocaust Day means you wear white shirts to school and attend a ceremony where some aspiring American Idolers ululate and make sad faces in front of microphones and halfhearted bands. Holocaust Day means standing in the too hot yard at your school and waiting for the siren which comes on nationwide and standing there for two minutes trying not to giggle as you pinch your friends, or trying to be solemn and think about your grandparents in camps, or trying not to get impatient with the people fainting in the back from the heat or the people crying because oh, oh, oh, it’s so sad that their grandfather’s brothers all died sixty years ago.
It is so sad. It was so sad. But sad is not a big enough word and it almost trivializes “that which happened,” as Martin Amis calls the Holocaust in his Afterword. The over-saturation of Holocaust stories told to children in Israel, though, can be somewhat anesthetizing. I was never a grade or high school student in the US, so I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that it is hard for many kids to really grasp the horrors of slavery, even if their families are intimately connected to it on one side of the equation or the other. It is so easy to understand, to get it, and to move on and say Well, we’re okay, and it’s not like that anymore, not exactly, so…
But of course, just as racism is not eradicated (far from it) so antisemitism is alive and well in more than enough minds. That probably won’t change. I can’t imagine a world in which we, humans, stop using history and color and weight and language and heritage and speech patterns and intelligence and developmental or physical differences to set us apart from one another. I hope we do evolve that far, but I can’t see it.
Because humans, and this is what The Zone of Interest does so well, are so incredibly good at adapting to situations. We build defenses against both our worst and our best thoughts, depending on what is asked of us and what social sphere we’re part of. One of the protagonists in Amis’s book is a Kommandant at Auschwitz who is basically a bumbling, misogynistic alcoholic. But he is also a victim in his own way. As is the officer who falls in love with the Kommandant’s wife. As is the Jewish man who spends his days with the bodies of those he has reassured on their way to their deaths.
It is not the description of the horrors themselves that I found most profoundly moving in The Zone of Interest. I’ve been to Auschwitz. I’ve seen the piles of shoes and hair and the gas chambers. I’ve seen the films simulating the full 15 minutes it would take for people to die there. I’ve read novels about the Holocaust from the time I was a kid reading The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, a teen rereading Anne Frank’s diary, and up until now, reading The Zone of Interest. There is an endless fascination with this subject because it is so incredibly easy to dismiss it as impossible. And we need to understand the impossible. It is like trying to imagine the heat at the core of the earth or the distance of the stars or the idea that the universe is both endless and expanding. It boggles the mind.
What Martin Amis does so well, then, is present the psychology of his three male protagonists as they experience the events that made up their day to day existence. He looks at how easy it is for a Nazi commander to unravel while committing continuous acts of murder while the complicit but surviving empty-eyed Jews who promise safety and pluck gold teeth out of dead mouths. Who is reviled more by the reader? Or is it the middleman who clings to love and bureaucracy in order to maintain his humanity?
It is profoundly human to be a survivor, but it is also profoundly human to be a murderer. Martin Amis made me feel more for the characters in his novel than many a Holocaust Ceremony at school did. This is a book for those who do not wish to forgive or forget, but who do wish to confront what humanity is, in all its strength, weakness, beauty and foulness.
Last night, I was arguing with a good friend of mine about the nature of the internet. He contends that there is something inherently wrong with a model of information in which advertisements pay for content. He sees a deep and problematic flaw with the fact that so many blogs, forums, online newspapers and – most of all – social networking sites are supported almost entirely by ads that use our information to try to sell us things.
I mention this only because this is a trap that Find Me I’m Yours could have fallen into. It could have been a big ol’ scam, in which the money-making ads on all the various websites, navigating by everyone reading the book, would put more dimes in the publisher’s and author’s pocket than the book itself.
But this is not the case. Find Me I’m You’rs is brilliant because it is opening up a new model and starting what is basically an entirely new medium that utilizes existing platforms in a way that I found incredibly gratifying.
I’m not an e-book person. I like the feel of pages between my fingers, the smell of dust between the pages, holding a hard or soft cover between my hands. I love the tactile book.
But I also love the internet. I am on it all day, every day, for my various jobs. I read articles online, I chat to my friends online, I handle my invoices and my money and my social calendar online. It is an essential part of my life that blends in with everything else I’m doing in the non-digital world. With phones and things, the two are seamlessly intertwined, and I am one of those people who don’t really have a problem with that.
What Hillary Carlip does so well is understand that this is how the majority of privileged Americans spend their days, scrolling screens while conversing with their mouths to people right beside them, reading articles online and eating food they just cooked over their gas stoves, marrying the digital and the daily realities together.
But that’s not all – she also sees the potential for what e-books could and really should be. They should not be books in the same sense as the ones we buy bound and printed. Print books are one kind of medium, and while they can b translated to screens, they lose something because of their originally tactile nature. However, an e-book like Carlip’s could never exist in print book form, and shouldn’t even attempt to be translated into it. The whole point of reading it is being able to switch over quickly between the pages of the book to the online web-pages created specifically to create a world for the main character, from a blog to a dating website to a PG-13 pin-up model’s website. Trying to make a print book of Find Me I’m Yours would turn it into a pretentious postmodernist meta-novel instead of what it is as an e-book – which is a wildly funny, interactive and immursive piece of fiction.
Instead of the ads that could be running on all those websites, Carlip does something different – she has embedded merch that is specific to the game/book the reader is participating in, and if I weren’t in about the same financial situation as the main character is, I don’t doubt I would be hitting up some of those options in order to get myself fully in the spirit of the thing. And why not? Pamela, one of the oldest novels, had merchandise galore, but no advertisements. That is how it should be. Support the story, not a random bunch of corporations gunning for your info.
Several fully opposable thumbs up, Hillary Carlip, and a few paws raised as well. Readers: read this. Readers who are also gamers will especially enjoy it due to the gamified aspect of the whole thing.
On a more serious note: what this book does very well is show how even someone super privileged, coming from a middle class background, can be totally broke and fearing for her well-being, her ability to keep her apartment, her actual physical inability to pay for food. Yes, okay, so she had money and spent it badly, or she used it on things that weren’t essential, but how many people do that in our culture? Many. Because we’re almost supposed to. But being a starving artist is no joke, when it comes down to that person’s reality, and you can come from all the privilege in the world, but when you’re broke, you’re broke.
And just when there is a moment of true downness, where I am so emotionally there for Mags, the author gives me a chance to alleviate my sadness and my secondhand anger at her roommate and her ex and just all of the #feels. Because she links to a website that includes this on its home page:
AND a honeymoon registry:
AND a donation registry:
…I think Carlip must have had a blast creating those. I know I would have. Oh, Mags too probably!
When I get to the picture of a missing dog sign, I can’t bring myself to call the number (which I can juuust make out) because I worry – what if this is a REAL missing dog poster? What if I’d call and they would just be really sad that I haven’t found their dog and don’t even live in LA? I wonder if I’m missing out on something, but it would just make me too sad and embarrassed to try.
Which, speaking of, I really hope that there’s a website out there like this one or that this one is turning legit because this is a brilliant idea: ISpottedYourDog.com. SO USEFUL.
And entirely NOT useful, but absolutely mesmerizing is http://www.paintbynumberinvasions.com/ – I really want this Al artist dude to be real and to get some killah sales off this book because I love his idea. I totally wrote to him, of course, asking if he’s real or if it’s Carlip’s artwork!
See, that’s the thing, she’s such a tease is Carlip! Like look, I really want to go to this bar:
But what if she made it up?! I bet she did, and that makes me sad (and happy too, because how often do I get to at least visit the website of the places in books? There’s no Pemberly.com website – or… is there? – NOPE. There isn’t. Go buy it now if you want.)
Can I just say how much I appreciate Carlip’s love of puns? And, as a result, her characters’ appreciation of puns? Sole Mate Shoe Repair leads to Mags saying “…it was time to get this shoe on the road.” And I melted with cheesy hilarity.
Also, Coco is trying to hook Mags up with someone, and I have my suspicions that he’s actually into Coco, which would make this awkward. This IS NOT A SPOILER because it’s all conjecture, and just like me, you’ll have to keep reading the book or these reviews to find out. Though FYI, Mags seems to agree with my guestimate.
When Mags and Coco continue on the search for Mr. Right – erm, excuse me, Mr. WTF, we get another dose of lovely punnage. Delhicattesen, a Jewish-Indian food truck. The dishes are hilarious. If only this existed for real (or wait, maybe it does? Or is that Carlip’s backup plan if this novel doesn’t work out? Because she’d make like a million dollars off of this if she made it into a reality!) But I mean seriously, just look at this, how perfect (and hilarious) is it?
So once Mags finds this cool food truck and her next clue and once she then gets her NEXT clue (and I don’t want to list them all because I want you to have fun reading this thing yourselves), she also gets a phone number to call.
Well, of course, I called it. A woman with an incredibly smoky voice coughed into my ear and raspily said something about knowing I was going to call. Her coughs were so loud that my friend sitting next to me heard it and started laughing along with me. The best part, for me anyway, is that she sounded exactly like my old landlady who had no front teeth, a cigarette in her hands at all times, and was adorable.
The next website I’m brought to might actually be unconnected from the game, which confused me – there is no banner at the bottom alerting me that it’s part of this book’s experience, and yet there’s a login, which most of the sites HAVE had. Suspicious. And so many links leading to completely disconnected websites! Am I losing the thread like poor Mags?
Wait, NO! The Favicon on the website is totally the X that marks all of them. Phew!
Next website is another totally cool artsy one that I hope takes off in real life and outside of the bookverse: WorshipTheBrand.com There’s awesome Harry Potter and Sherlock fanart, there’s MAGS’ NAILS on the first page, and I totally signed up for email updates of future contests, because who knows, what if I become inspired? And oh wait, this is awesome, this site totally features the author herself! How cool is that? I don’t know if it existed before the book or was created for it but either way, it’s so awesome that Mags and Hillary Carlip now exist in the same universe. SO META
So I was very so-so about my attraction to Mr. WTF before the second video happened and he did this wiggly eyebrow thing and was goofy. And you know, there’s something about a traditionally good looking guy being really silly with his face that just makes him look better.
Okay, but so the silliest website so far and probably my favorite is the IHeartBobBarker one. Because seriously. Can you imagine either how incredibly fun or how mind numbingly annoying it must be to set up a website utterly devoted to the Price is Right dude’s fan art, finding his face tattooed on people and stuff? I think it would be fun, but then I can’t imagine working on this book and not having a blast.
We’re finding stairwalks now. And actually, this may be the most useful website of all when it comes to LA tourists who have NO idea what to do there once they’ve finished the tiny bit of land called “Hollywood”…
Oh my goodness, so I totally got a response, look:
So glad you’re finding my site useful.
I wish I had more time to blog about more stair walks, but it makes my
day knowing it’s helpful, and makes me want to do more soon.
Liza is Mags best friend and she works for a self-help (sigh, I don’t like those) website called eVolve, but what’s BETTER is that there’s a link from there to a Tumblr called http://www.messagespotting.com/ – and it doesn’t have the little bar at the bottom telling me that it’s part of the Click Lit experience! I feel like I broke the system – or maybe the author just wants us to get to know this site since actually it’s amazeballs (I followed, obvs). Another part of Liza’s job? Well, I texted my wish to it, and it totally came up. Check it:
Yup, that one’s mine. Select wishes are supposed to come true… Maybe Hillary Carlip will want me to help her on her next project! (Just saying, this format would work SO WELL for a noir/crime/mystery novel.)
The next website I’m brought to is part of the-trying-to-find-Mr-WTF from the video. DogParksLA.com is a feat of true marketing in that it is actually functional, with a bunch of listings for dog parks – using Google Maps listings, but still, so actually useful if one were an LA resident with a dog!
And as the parks get explored, we find that Mr. WTF could basically be orchestrating this whole novel, because next thing you know, Mags has discovered her first clue from him. Another website, about seaside villas. I shit you not. There’s even an application, look:
That’s not all. There are blueprints of the apartments. A flyer for a gym (I have a feeling this will play into something later on. Maybe quite soon even). A grievance committee document with notes. I wonder if one of these two dudes listed there as residents – Jeff S. (#268), Eryk C. (#160) – is Mr. WTF. One of them has a dog that there is a complaint lodged against. But that man didn’t attend the meeting – he is a resident of #316. Could I have figured it out already?!
And, of course, there’s a contact form. Which I used. And will keep using at every chance I get.
Oh no! Page 50 has a mistake – a text is on the wrong side of the screen!
While lots of books try to be “contemporary,” there is still a certain awkwardness in the way most of them manage to integrate technology. Either people are constantly “thumbing” their phones, or they ignore them completely or they’re living in a romantic past where cell phones weren’t a thing (Landline, anybody?). What this book does so superbly is that it integrates tech in a way that makes sense and is realistic for the characters, precisely because it’s so interactive. Get to page 57, you’ll see what I mean (hint: it has to do with using your phone camera as a shortcut).
Page 65, typo 😦 “steak” instead of “stake”. But then again, it’s Shari, the ex-bf-bonking roommate, so maybe it’s on purpose?
Contacted my next website, the Madelyn Evans Gallery. Or MEG. My cat’s name is Meg!
I’m a little in love with Mr. WTF for turning himself into a Cinderella (next mission is find his other boot!) plus, I can’t help but wonder who the person behind the camera who’s shooting his videos is. Could he be the true Prince Charming?
Even better, Mags has (predictably) a super artsy Instagram. Check it out. http://instagram.com/magsmarclay It’s sort of creepy, but awesome, how she’s searching for someone who may or may not be for real, while we the readers are reading someone who might as well be for real but actually isn’t. A character brought to life by the power of the internet, where we believe people are who they say there are in this age of verification.
I wonder if Vrommans’ actually sells Mags’ zine, DIY Collage. Anyone in LA feel like finding out and reporting back?!
(You can read the first part HERE)
Found another website. Bridalville. With a Youtube video about #WhitePeopleWeddings. This is bizarre and amazing. So much effort went into this. Talk about immersive. I did, however, notice that one of the menu options was “Get Merried” and while this could totally be a pun I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a typo so I used the contact form to ask them about it. Look:
Aaaand after an hour trolling websites I would never been on if it weren’t for the fact that they’re part of this book, I’m actually going back to page 10 or so of the reading experience. Oh, but before I finished the list, there was another link to an actually hilarious tumblr site also set up by “Mags” – DIY in the USA, where people submit photos of questionable patriotic displays.
In the next chapter, I was taken to a website called Creative Matchmaking, which I tried to sign up for, because it would be great if a real matchmaking service could come of this book. For creatives, that is. People who really dig the whole “wacky artist” vibe. But alas, the site is not accepting new members at the time.
Still, you gotta wonder, who did the author recruit to help her with the videos on the site? Her friends? Professional actors? Whichever they are, they’re amazing.
SHARI, wouldn’t you know, is poor Mags’ roommate! I am rather proud of myself for having gone all over her website even before I knew this, just from the comment that was on Mags’ collage blog (also, amusing anecdote, as I write this review a squiggly red line tries to convince me that “collage” is not a word and that I should change it to “college.” This is hilarious because Shari’s own tic that ticks Mags off is that she calls Mags’ collages colleges. So basically, my tablet has decided to side with Shari. My tablet must like her breastiness).
Just took my first poll! The question, a burning one, is whether or not Mags should go see her ex boyfriend who’s been dying to talk to her. Hmpf. A few pages later brought me to what this whole book is about, a video of a kind of cute (very Ken-doll) white guy who’s asking the purchasers of his cameras to find him and be his soul mate.
But that’s not my favorite thing. My favorite thing so far is the ifckedup.com website, which, like some of the others, I hope will take on a life of its own beyond this novel because the concept is so cool. On the website, Jason apologized publicly (and sets up a platform for others to do so) with up and down votes for each apology, as in, crowdsourcing forgiveness. Though Jason tells Mags that a lot of people think she should forgive him, the current tally I see is 25 to 7 that she should NOT.
MORE TO COME
Find Me I’m Yours, by Hillary Carlip belongs to a new genre the author is calling “Click Lit.” In other words, Chick-Lit meets the World Wide Web – although I’d like to think that the genre will grow beyond the New Adult themes this book has, and be embraced by those with ambitious projects that have been going on for years, whether it’s click-through novels or webcomics with interactive elements like Homestuck.
This book is brilliant because it mimics and indeed creates the internet hole we perpetually fall down every day. I clicked on a pseudo spam comment on the very first link the book brought me to and ended up on a supremely glitzy pinup model’s site, the bottom banner of which assured me that I was still indeed in the realm of the book’s created websites. What really got to me is that when I tried to buy one of the pinup Shari’s images (specifically, Shari Banana, if you want to know the title), I was actually brought to a billing page. I was very tempted to go through with it but decided ultimately not to tempt the whatever from high atop the thing (West Wing reference, anyone?) Because I didn’t really want to end up having paid 16 dollars for a picture of a busty blonde woman (is it the author? I’m going to look this up) for the sake of the realistic experience. I did send Shari an email, though, which she responded to. Check it out:
Left a comment on Post #4 in CollageAWeek. It went up. Wonder if it’ll be erased. Hmm. Reading through the entire website, I’m figuring out that Coco and Liza are Mags’ besties. Cooper is her brother? Also, found Kristina Horner’s comment on #9! Very very fun to see this, like a little Easter Egg.
NEXT PART, TOMORROW
Having just reviewed Ben Lerner’s first novel, it’s strange to be reviewing one that is both so similar and so different. Similar, because it is about a young, probably white, male writer who is somewhat lost in life. Different, because unlike Ben Lerner’s main character and narrator Adam Gordon, I felt something like empathy for David Moore.
David is 29, depressed, basically unemployed and trying to come to terms with the fact that he might never get published. He is a familiar figure – he reminded me of someone I see in the mirror rather a lot. That is not to say that Bummed Out City will only resonate with struggling artists and writers; David’s frustration and confusion are symptoms of many a modern young adult.
David has written several novels, all unpublished, though not for lack of trying. He has a girlfriend he loves but whose vision for their future life together diverges from his own. He has a mother going through chemotherapy, a father who’s entered and exited his life several times and usually just to hit him up for money, and even a few friends. While there actually is a plot, the novel does a great impression of lacking one, hiding the inciting incident and conflicts within David’s narration, which is what carries the book along. One moment in a movie-theater is particularly illuminating
I’m there with the characters as they move through their fictional lives with that special kind of purpose that only fictional characters get to have, where everything matters and each thing leads necessarily to the next thing and it al adds up to something, to some dramatic and fulfilling and satisfying and appropriate conclusion and it’s nothing at all like real life, where things just happen and you do one thing and then you do something else and the next day you do it again or maybe you don’t and none of it adds up to anything or goes anywhere, where you wake up the next morning and you’re still there and you still have to brush your teeth and trim your toenails and worry about money and pay for car insurance and all the other mundane pedestrian slogging shit you did the day before.
David is basically an angsty teenager inside a man’s body and hasn’t yet caught up to the responsibility he owes to other people as well as himself. By the time he begins to understand that he is actually grown up, he has both fallen naturally into adulthood and royally screwed up his first phase in it.
Whether he is writing a blog post, fighting with his girlfriend or getting drunk at a bar, David’s voice is monotone – not monotonous, mind you – and gray. His voice is flavored with the apathy of true clinical depression as well as the ashy taste of dying dreams. It is refreshingly honest in that David manages to lie to himself while the reader sees through his convenient truths to the actual consequences that must eventually follow his behavior and his attitude. There is a self-conscious nod to this when David comes to realize things and feels no need to explain them to us; he just tells us that he gets it, and as a reader, I knew just what he meant. It was refreshing, actually, not to slog through a paragraph of what exactly was illuminated, since it had always been startlingly obvious to me, though not to him. The lack of expository fluff is one of the reasons this book works so well.
What really struck me, though, is what made Bummed Out City different than most books about artistic young men who don’t make it. Scott Burr manages to convey the absolute viability of a different styles of living rather than trashing all of them except for the bohemian author’s dream. Even while David wallows in his own self-pity, even while he cynically criticizes the American Dream of a house, a dog and 2.2 kids, I never felt as if the desire for such things was being truly undermined. When David is criticized by Carol, his girlfriend, for his passivity in their relationship, I agreed with her completely while also feeling she was being unfair. I was reading all sides of each situation through the subtly of Burr’s writing, which is a rare thing to experience in the depths of a first-person narrative.
It is always such a joy to feel that a book is distinctly of its time, and this one certainly is. The echoes of our currant climate are redolent: recession, high unemployment rates, urban decay. And, above all, the belief of my generation – that we are all special little snowflakes – and the reality. That we are not. And that’s okay.