Other People is Amis at his most puzzle-like with structure. The book opens with a girl being told that she’s on her own now and to take care. She doesn’t remember anything before that. She names herself Mary in order to say something when people ask her who she is.
Mary’s amnesia is so complete that she can’t quite figure out what basic objects are like shoes and chairs. She is a baby. She has to learn everything from the beginning. This allows her some strikingly simple but profound observations about features of life we accept so readily.
Of tramps, her conclusion follows:
‘The reason they are tramps is that they have no money. The reason they have no money is that they won’t sell anything, which is what nearly everyone else does. You sell something, don’t you, I’m sure? I know I do. Why don’t they? Tramps just don’t want to sell what other people sell—they just don’t want to sell their time.’
As the story moves forward, it acts like a whodunit in which the main character is not asking whodunit. A policeman named Prince shows up trying to help her, and his grave concern is interpreted by Mary as hostility, thus making him a sinister figure.
Mary wanders around getting mixed up with different people, none of whom seem to understand what her exact predicament is. An early unfortunate violation puts her off of the act of sex until she becomes the object of attraction for a couple men who work at a restaurant with her. She doesn’t quite understand why Alan is jealous when Russ makes advances on her, and vice versa.
Just as ever, Amis is a genius at capturing skewed or tragic images and making them completely comical. After Mary matter of factly tells her brief lover, Alan, that he’s not to come into her room anymore after a series of dissatisfying nightly sexual encounters, Amis paints the following picture:
‘He did two things at once. It didn’t at all help that he was naked. The first thing he did was start to cry—or at least that was what Mary supposed he had started doing. With utmost desolation he clenched shut his mouth and his eyes, and his white chest began to rock or pulse, all in silence. The second thing he did was even stranger: slowly and with shame, but not in concealment so much as if an gesture of protection, to keep it warm or out of harm’s way, he cupped both hands over the creaturely pith of his body.’
Never has anyone made crying so funny.
‘And she cried beautifully—not too loud, and with a sweetly harrowing catch at the end of each breath, like the soft yelp at the peak of a sneeze, bringing to the weeper’s tragedy a pang of the sneezer’s comedy. Mary was good at crying.’
Something peculiar happens when a young man named Jaime enters the picture. He seems to have had a relationship with ‘Amy Hide,’ (who Prince suggests is the girl that Mary used to be). Jaime doesn’t seem to remember that Mary is Amy anymore than Mary remembers it.
As we get closer to the end, the book becomes more and more dreamlike, operating on its own internal logic. In the first half of the book, Mary’s perceptions invite us to look at the world differently. In the last half of the book, we’re just as earnest to get answers, even as we approach the dark room at the end with her …
The book is like David Lynch in print. It is impressive to see Amis both funny and ominous all at once. He is so good on a sentence by sentence level that, in an attempt to isolate one sentence like an aphorism, one must either start quoting the whole book or leave behind a great many in favor of a few ‘bests.’ But how does one choose? Oh well.
‘He had drunk too much the night before. Mary speculated that people would never drink that much unless they were quite drunk already.’
‘Live people are as good as dead to active necrophiles.’
‘Big deal, thought Mary as Michael chatted contentedly on. Insecurity. Is that all. Who isn’t? What did people do and say about what they said and did before that kind of word came along?’