on 13 June 2013
Adam Mars-Jones is one of the nation's foremost literary critics. What a shame it is, then, that Blind Bitter Happiness is his sole collection of non-fiction to date. Published in 1997, the volume has been stranded without siblings, and thus Mars-Jones's criticism for the Observer, London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement remains scattered over the internet. Although Noriko Smiling, a monograph, appeared in 2011, that is clearly not the same as the diversity on display here. Nevertheless, Mars-Jones is an astute writer and a perceptive thinker, and his sparkling repartee infuses everything he writes, his prose a mixture of seamless registers.
The book is divided into three sections, although the rationale behind that decision isn't entirely clear. There is, however, a keen focus on gay culture. These are interesting articles, and their spacing over a decade conveys the marginal sense of change, the tiny shifts in cultural perception. They also establish context. If 'Gay London 1984' documents 'the usual placid turmoil' of the city's scene, then 'Gay Rights and Wrongs' - published in 1995 - surveys a range of 'contemporary gay thinking in Britain and America'. Collectively, they give a great overview of the decade's progressions and regressions, and Mars-Jones carefully unravels the authors' paradoxical mindsets.
He also tackles popular culture. In 'Mr Philips', Mars-Jones recounts a surreal meeting with The Rolling Stones, a confab called to discuss the bizarre possibility of him ghost-writing Mick Jagger's memoirs; he also includes interviews with Boy George and Marc Almond. Nonetheless, the essay 'Venus Envy' undoubtedly takes centre stage. Although an open assault on the Amis/McEwan hegemony, it is far from a hatchet job, as Mars-Jones simply wishes to expose the underlying fallaciousness of their works. Stripped of tendentiousness, and free from ad hominem attacks, it is a truly first-class essay and the starting point for any student of Amis's oeuvre.
The book's touching memoir, 'Blind Bitter Happiness', tells the story of the author's mother. Ultimately, it was a life blighted by mishaps and depression, childhood neglect and failed aspirations; a life, in short, that was 'rich as well as...almost continuously unhappy'. It may seem a curiously detached piece, but is there a better portrait of a mother than this? A beautifully understated yet elegant work, it is further proof of Mars-Jones's adept handling of tone. Humorous and serious, objective and subjective, angry and restrained, it is a perfect representation of all the qualities that make him such an original and gifted writer.