The Information is first and foremost a book about mid-life, and this is clearly shown through how Amis has chosen to render his protagonist, Richard Tull. In an interview, Amis once quoted Milan Kundera, saying "'We're children all our lives because we have to learn a new set of rules every ten years.' Which is a good remark. But I think that the real new set of rules is when you hit forty. All of what you know up until then is of no use, and you have to start from scratch." (1996).
The title of the novel can be interpreted in two distinct ways: the information is sometimes used in a general sense as a reference to all the bad news a person must absorb during his or her lifetime, especially during their middle age. This includes births, marriages, the death of one's parents, divorce, and the like. When even more specifically related to Richard Tull, the information refers to Richard's unescapable realisation that his death is unavoidable. Richard states his crisis in a fairly rational manner on page 152: "[I]t wasn't his fault-- it was death's fault. Every sensitive man was allowed a midlife crisis: when you found out for sure that you were going to die, then you ought to have one. If you don't have a midlife crisis, then that's a crisis."
Forty year-old Richard's constant fear of death and the unknown cause him to exist in a permanent state of alarm. This is intrinsically linked to Richard's battle against significance, against his feeling of being the cliched worthless speck amid an infinite void. In a 1996 interview, Amis summed up Richard's fears in a few blunt words: "Nothing is the void we come from and return to. You're dead for a lot longer than you're alive." This is the information, which comes to Richard at night. After suffering through countless nights of sobbing in his sleep, Richard hopes the day will bring him a brief respite from his dark thoughts. His cheerless attitude throughout the novel, however, shows that the information is not so easily evaded.
As a result of his constant panic and paranoia, Richard begins developing an obsession with smell, while additionally experiencing olfactory hallucinations. When his son Marco unintentionally implies that Richard smells of poo during the punchline to a knock-knock joke, a devastated Richard calls his puzzled son into his study to discuss the perceived slight. Richard's paranoia increases when his drinking buddies nickname him "anosmia", which is actually due to his ability to define the condition, not a suggestion that he suffers from it. He begins to bathe obsessively, taking long baths at least twice a day. Richard becomes distraught when considering the nature of his imagined stench, thinking it to be the reek of his impending death:
Half the time, accordingly, in necromode, he thought he was smelling his own death, nosing it, getting wind of it. And the other half (this was copromode) he thought it all made perfect sense: that if you looked like shit, and felt like shit, and behaved like shit, then pretty soon you were going to smell like shit. For Richard knew he was going to hell: it was just a question of which circle. (173).
This fear of death is the single most dominant aspect of Tull's character, and is the basis for most of his other thematically illustrative character traits. One such trait includes Richard's chronic tendancy to fail at everything. The most disappointing of these failures is Richard's failure at writing, the trade to which he has devoted forty years of his life. Richard used to be better at everything than his former best friend, Gwyn Barry. While Richard's "success" was questionable, he was relatively successful in comparison to Gwyn, which was good enough for him. Now that Gwyn is an internationally bestselling author, his success is torturous for Richard. Even worse is the fact that even Gwyn's own wife admits that he "can't write for toffee" (200), but despite their poor quality, Gwyn's novels are enormously successful. Richard's bitterness and contempt for Gwyn and his readers is evident in the following syllogism which Richard constructs on page 126:
A. Gwyn's trex was loved by the world; his trex was universal.
B. The world loved trex; the world was trex.
C. Better use the world, in that case; better have Gwyn picked on by something his own size....
Richard figures that if Gwyn writes trash, and the world devours his trash, then the entire world must logically be trash as well. This is another source of torment for Richard, as he desperately yearns for approval from others. He wants glowing reviews from a vast readership in order to compensate for the years of failure, and to secure literary immortality comparable to that of Shakespeare or Homer.
Richard's own novels are described on the preceeding page as an attempt at Joycean genius. The problem is that, understandably, the world finds little of interest in Richard's gigantic tomes of knowledge:
He wasn't trying to write talent novels. He was trying to write genius novels, like Joyce. Joyce was the best yet at genius novels, and even he was a drag about half the time. Richard, arguably, was a drag all the time...Richard was too proud and too lazy and--in a way-- too clever and too nuts to write talent novels. For instance, the thought of getting a character out of the house and across town to somewhere else made him go vague with exhaustion...(125).
The basal cause of Richard's envy is the fact that Gwyn is ensured immortality, wheras Richard is a failure who has already wasted forty years of his life, and will surely be forgotten as soon as he is dead. Feeling that Gwyn is unworthy of admiration and guaranteed immortality, Richard, in the words of the author, "...wants to do to Gwyn what Gwyn has done to him. He wants to assassinate his sleep. He wants to inform the sleeping man; an I for an I." (64). Richard wants to "inform" Gwyn so that he will cry in his sleep the same way Richard himself does. By destroying him, Richard, even if he is unable to secure immortality for himself, is at least able to take it away from the undeserving Gwyn Barry.
The dark humour in this is that while the root of Richard's jealously is his desperation at his failure in life, his attempts to destroy Gwyn are equally plagued by failure. In one instance, Richard hires a hit man to give Gwyn a thrashing. Richard takes Gwyn to a bar in order to fill his bladder with alcohol, and then brings him to a movie theatre where the hired delinquent waits in the bathroom. When Gwyn leaves partway through the feature and does not return, Richard heads to the bathroom to look for him. Instead of Gwyn, it is Richard who is ambushed by the felon in the bathroom, as it turns out Gwyn had left the theatre to go outside for some air. This incident serves to increase Richard's anger and bolster his determination, though ultimately setting him up for yet more failure.
Richard's preoccupations with his mortality and his failures, along with his frustration over Gwyn's success, all have a devastatingly cyclical effect on him. These obsessions limit the attention he is able to devote to the lone bright spot in his life-- his wife and children-- while also driving Richard to drink. The drinking, in turn, causes him to hardly notice or care about how he has neglected his family Richard's habitual overindulgence and its cyclical nature is documented by Amis in the second chapter: "These days he smoked and drank largely to solace himself for what smoking and drinking had done to him-- but smoking and drinking had done a lot to him so he smoked and drank a lot." (30). To further complicate matters, Richard struggles with impotency in his marital bed, as he does in his daily life.
A turning point for Richard occurs on page 29: when his son Marco accidentally breaks a table, an irate Richard strides into the room and slaps his son across the face While Marco bears the brunt of his father's anger, it is not on account of the broken table-- it is later revealed that Gwyn Barry's novel Amelior had entered the bestseller list that morning, at number nine. This is the day on which Richard's patience deserts him, never to return in its original form. It also marks the beginning of the fantastic growth of Richard's obsession with Gwyn, which shortly overtakes his devotion to his family. As Richard's fatherly patience gives way to apathy, his understanding of his children becomes basically non-existant. This parallels the deterioration of Richard's relationship with his wife, Gina. While Amis is sometimes criticised as being misogynistic for his weakly depicted female characters, in Gina Tull's case this is merely a reflection of Richard's own lack of understanding of her character.
For the most part, Richard has dissociated himself from his wife. He suspects she may be having an affair--which she is-- but he feels he has lost the right to stop her from doing so. While Richard is mildly aware of Gina's dissatisfaction with their marriage, he is unable to bring himself to do anything about it. This nagging awareness Richard feels is demonstrated by his coining the term batch (which he uses to described the reek of bachelorhood) in reference to himself.
Despite his awareness, Richard has resigned himself to this pitiable co-habitation. Richard repeatedly makes references to Gina leaving him, but due to his preoccupation with Gwyn and his alcohol-induced numbness, he seems to accept the prospect of their eventual divorce as inevitable. The following quotation is an example of one such reference, whiel also linking Richard's failure as a husband to his failure as a writer: "It was all right. Gina was no longer a writer's wife because he was no longer a writer. He didn't think she was going to leave him: yet. Together they had joined the great community of the exhausted." (306).
Richard's alcohol abuse, the crutch upon which he relies to get through his life, has damaged Richard to the point that he can no longer enjoy the life that he clings to so desparately. While Richard drinks for solace, it is the alcohol that creates even more reason for him to need solacing, such as his deteriorating relationship with his family, and his inability to author a readable novel.
The Information by Martin Amis
"Martin Amis is Getting Old and Wants to Talk About It." Maclean's Vol. 112 No. 37
"Misinformed by the Information." The Independent, March 1995.