Analysis of Martin Amis’s The Immortals

This story by Martin Amis appeared in the 1987 collection Einstein’s Monsters, comprising five short stories and an introductory essay, “Thinkability,” relating the author’s observations about the nuclear threat’s chilling effects on intellectual and spiritual life. Amis later referred to the anthology as the first of a trilogy of major works dealing with the three major problematic events of the 20th century; the other books were the Holocaust novel Time’s Arrow (1991) and Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002), about the Russian dictator Josef Stalin’s genocidal acts in the 1930s and 1940s. “The Immortals” and the other pieces in Einstein’s Monsters reflected Amis’s increasing concern, bordering on obsession, with the nuclear bomb during the 1980s, and the collection signaled the growing importance of the themes of worldwide crisis and environmental awareness in his work.

“The Immortals,” the final and shortest story in Einstein’s Monsters, was generally considered inferior to the other stories in the collection, particularly the first two, “Bujak and the Strong Force” and “Insight at Flame Lake,” both of which focused on the psychological damage, the anxiety and dread, wrought by the theory of nuclear deterrence. “The Immortals” and its predecessor in the collection, “The Little Puppy That Could,” were negatively criticized for their showiness, jokiness, and sentimentality. Reviewer Jack Miles, for example, referred to the former as a glorified “comic routine” reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s “The Two-Thousand- Year-Old Man.” Others, including reviewer Carolyn See, viewed “The Immortals” as integral to a collection that produced a particular response in readers— equal measures of pleasure and horror. According to James Diedrick, the stories failed to fulfill the rhetorical purpose apparently intended by the author, but they succeeded as examples of unconventional writing: “Ultimately, Einstein’s Monsters is more successful as a set of experiments in fictional technique and tone than as an attempt to locate postmodern malaise exclusively in the nuclear fire zone” (118).

Elena Seibert/The Guardian

“The Immortals,” set some time after the nuclear “apocalypse” (139) and “death typhoon” (141) of 2045—Tokyo was ground zero—is told from the point of view of a character who claims to have roamed the earth since the beginning of time, before the arrival of the “space-seeded life” (137) of plants, dinosaurs, and humans. The narrator, living among the dying, in the first paragraph refers to the “diseases and delusions” (135) of those surrounding him. As mentioned above, the narrator delivers his monologue like a stand-up comedian, punctuating his fanciful tale about the march of global history with one-liners straight out of Borscht Belt traditions: “I once stayed awake for seven years on end. Not even a nap. Boy, was I bushed” (136). He offers quirky observations on the dinosaurs, the Ice Age, classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, ancient China, and the London of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

In a poignant ironic twist, near the end of the story, the narrator reveals that he is occasionally troubled by a particularly disturbing delusion, one that speaks to the true identity of the narrator, whose own mind is diseased: “Sometimes I have this weird idea that I am just a second-rate New Zealand schoolmaster who never did anything or went anywhere and is now painfully and noisily dying of solar radiation along with everybody else.” The narrator’s grand delusion functions in part as Amis’s commentary on the delusions inherent in the nuclear age, particularly the concepts of deterrence and nuclear survivability, as addressed in “Thinkability”: “Nuclear weapons deter a nuclear holocaust by threatening a nuclear holocaust, and if things go wrong then that is what you get: a nuclear holocaust.” By the conclusion of “The Immortals,” the bad jokes and other defense mechanisms have vanished, and the reader is left with a pitiful character, one facing certain destruction with all of his delusions intact.

Amis, Martin. Einstein’s Monsters. New York: Harmony, 1987.
Diedrick, James. Understanding Martin Amis. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Miles, Jack. “The Immortals,” Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1987, p. 13.
See, Carolyn. “Humanity Is Washed Up—True or False?” New York Times, 17 May 1987, p. 501.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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