Book Review: The Zone of Interest

Martin Amis revisits the Holocaust in this new novel, which is eloquent and yet lacks depth

The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest

by Martin Amis
Alfred A. Knopf, 320pp., $26.95

No one can accuse Martin Amis of lacking ambition. Since the publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers, in 1973, he's written 13 more novels, as well as several works of nonfiction. In his latest novel, The Zone of Interest, he revisits the topic of the Holocaust, which he first explored in 1991's Time's Arrow. For Amis, the Holocaust represents a singular, inexplicable evil. He writes in the afterword to the book, "Very cautiously I submit that part of the exceptionalism of the Third Reich lies in its unyieldingness, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip." Amis' linguistic facility is almost without peer among English-speaking writers, but it can be painful to witness him try to position himself as a serious thinker, grappling with what he considers the important issues of our time. He has the eloquence to set the scene, writing, for example, "I reached a coppice of decrepit birches where the smell of the natural decay blessedly overwhelmed the circumambient air. Natural decay, unadulterated, and not the work of man." He has the confidence to crawl into the minds of the perpetrators, allowing them thoughts varying from comically petty to inhumanly cold to insightful. The problem is that anyone who's lived through the past 65 years and yet remains convinced that the Holocaust was aberrantly horrific has no business writing about it. In novels such as Money and The Information, Amis perfectly captures the indignities of everyday life, such as when he describes a protagonist's particularly strong affinity for cigarettes: "Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn't be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette." One wishes Amis would recognize where his strengths lie – it's no little achievement to make someone laugh with recognition – and leave the deep thoughts to deeper thinkers.

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