Review: The Zone of Interest
6.6” x 9½” hardcover or perfect-bound trade paperback
New York, New York, USA
Review originally published on 3/23/15
I don’t know about other fans of Martin Amis, but for me, he is at his best when he is writing bad men. John Self in Money. Terence Service and Gregory Riding in Success. And of course “the worst man” (okay, “not the worst, the very worst ever,” but still a pretty bad bloke), Keith Talent in London Fields.
The three men who write (and I do mean “write” and not “tell”) first-person narratives in Amis’ latest book, The Zone of Interest, set in Auschwitz during The Holocaust, are all, in their own way, bad men. Some have had badness thrust upon them, like Szmul the Sonderkommando, forced to assist in the mass killing of his own people. Some have possibly always been bad, like the brutal commandant Paul Doll whose overwhelming jealousy is perhaps the least repulsive of his many repulsive traits. In any case, whatever has led to their badness, these are men who have suffered a kind of Seelenmord, a “death of the soul.” And maybe this is the case with all bad men. And maybe, after all, Seelenmord is the great predicament of the 20th century. And maybe this is why Amis comes back to it as a theme again and again.
The Zone of Interest is not my favorite novel by Martin Amis. That said, I did very much enjoy it, and it is my favorite novel of the last year. It made me remember why I like to read, and why I like to write. And I think that might be the best thing I could possibly say about any piece of writing.
For me, one of the most compelling and surprising things about The Zone of Interest was that, in addition to all the other things it was about, it was also a novel about writing: about how we write ourselves and the world we find ourselves in and how this can be an act of defiance in the face of adversity, a way to maintain a sense of self, even during forced resignation and submission. I think maybe that is the story of Szmul in the book. Maybe that is the story of everybody.
In his review for Slate, Mark O’Connell called The Zone of Interest, “the best novel Amis has written since The Information.” I can’t say this with the same sort of authority since I have not read all of those books. But I have read most of the books written before that point, and I can tell you that it certainly triggered all the right Amis endorphins in my brain parts, something that did not happen when I read The Pregnant Widow (2010). Whatever else can be said about The Zone of Interest, it is full of the clever, captivating prose we’ve come to expect from Amis, the kind of prose we now pretty much demand of him, and that if we don’t get, critics begin to prophesy his “decline.” If this novel proves anything, it’s that this sentiment is rubbish.