House of Meetings is the kind of book that makes me wish I’d already read another of Amis’ novels so that I would have the benefit of a reading relationship with him before writing a review. As it is, my only other experience with Amis comes from two short stories in The New Yorker – one about the double of a dictator’s son who is about to be castrated in order to remain ‘a double’ and another called The Last Days of Muhammed Atta – neither of which affected me in the way that House of Meetings did. Both dealt with male violence and political violence and both managed to make me very uncomfortable, as did House of Meetings, but neither of the stories were able to make the difficult queries about humanity that Meetings did so beautifully, so eloquently.I’m at a loss to describe what this book is about. On one level the novel is a psychological portrait of Russia and the self-inflicted damage of that country’s history on its own consciousness. On a parallel but more specific level, it is about the injury that performing violent acts does to a perpetrator’s psyche. On yet one more, it’s about hunger and sex, love and family loyalty. And yet the whole thing is also about one man discovering the ability to love, little by little, when he least deserves it. As you can imagine, this did not make for easy reading. And yet the narrator, who turned me into a captive audience as early as the first page – the way he wrote, the risks he took with language and honesty – made it all entirely too easy.
Difficult queries about humanity – yes, this is what I’ve taken away from this book, plus a profound admiration for Amis for attempting to discuss them. Much of what he presented – rape and killing in the context of war, and a cycle of violence that spirals away from that “accepted” context simply because of the damage it engenders on both the individual and society as a whole – was extremely difficult to evaluate objectively. I found myself in the shoes of the narrator’s step-daughter (which is precisely, I suspect, what Amis wanted), wondering how on earth I would receive such a testament from someone I loved. Someone I looked up to. The narrator addresses this very question in the earliest pages of his confession and I go back to it –
The truth will be painful for you. It has once again struck me (a subtle laceration, like a paper cut) that my most disgraceful act was perpetrated, not in the distant past, like nearly all the others, but well within your lifetime, and a matter of months before I was introduced to your mother. My ghost expects censure. But make it personal, Venus; make it your own and not the censure of your group and your ideology.
Structured historical violence (horrible realities, I know) is one thing but the often contextless and unnecessary violence of today is what we really struggle to understand and Amis pinpoints this so perfectly and then asks us to throw away the one tool we might feel comfortable wielding. This censorious plea took me aback but certainly made me into a careful reader. A narrator like this deserved my unswerving attention. And I wasn’t disappointed. I consider this one of the best books I have ever read.