Doomed Despots

A reckless literary has-been meets his hip-hop analog.

🌅“DEATH SMELLS LIKE SHIT!”🌅

SAMUEL HYLAND

The mediocre novelist Richard Tull spent his 40th birthday weeping with self-pity, staring into mirrors, walking his vacuum to a repairman, and crawling back into his cluttered study—a dusty den whose denizens were dead-end manuscripts, rejection letters, bills—to cry over his pathetic state even more. Tull, a London man of letters, was something of a literary bigwig, at least by contemporary standards: he’d published two novels to mixed reception, held down a gig writing book reviews, been on staff at a median-level publishing house. He had a wife, Gina, and two young boys, Marco and Marius, who once saw him as respectable and lenient, the “cool” parent who let them watch Autobots ad nauseam, who sullenly puffed on pipes during strolls through petting zoos. That was, of course, until he struck Marco in a fit of rage. And that was, of course, because of Gwyn Barry.

It had been Gwyn Barry’s birthday the day prior, Tull’s yearly reminder of his own incessant, inescapable inferiority. Barry—to Tull—was a dull writer whose work rotted with contrivances and cliches. The two were Oxford chums, lifetimes ago; while the young Tull was a heartthrob with book deals and sex appeal, his wide-eyed roomie clawed for crumbs of his clout, sending him in-progress manuscripts the way an aspiring producer might send his hero mp3 files. And yet, inferior as he may have been, the grown-up Barry had a best-selling novel. The grown-up Tull did not. And there were a few other things the grown-up Tull didn’t have, too. He didn’t have the dazzling face he did at 20-something, nor the sure-shot literary aspirations that once lurked, calmly, behind its dead-set eyes. As mentioned above, he was 40, now: a broken man with broken dreams and broken features, one who convinced himself he hadn’t noticed the strange lumps lining his neck, and one whose wholehearted mission, given his own failure of a life, was to fuck up his more fortunate friend’s, by any means necessary.

“He wants to do to Gwyn what Gwyn has done to him. He wants to assassinate his sleep.”

Martin Amis’s 1995 novel The Information orbits this WWE-promo of a premise—an intense plotting-and-scheming between grown-ass men that threatens, just the right amount, to fester into bloody, page-turner murder. Except, these aren’t roid-riddled athletes: they’re balding 40 year-olds, less likely to suplex one another than (fail to) seduce one another’s wives. And, needless to say, they’re both very, very boring. A jealous Tull wages a wacky, one-sided war against his more-successful colleague; nothing really happens, save for the fact that as he continues to fail, his own existential doldrums deepen, shunting him head-first into a Hell of thinning hair and erectile dysfunction. Oh, and there’s the Caribbean hitmen. Amis’s narrative seesaws—sometimes confusingly—between the surface-story of Tull’s pitiful day-to-day, and an ulterior tale of violent stalkers who watch it, then enter it, then refuse to leave it. Tull pays the men to mess with Barry in a variety of ways—physical violence, psychological violence, voyeurism. None of this is satisfactory, because none of it could ever equal perfect revenge: a reversal of time, particularly one that grants our feral fuckup his long-lost youth. “He wants to do to Gwyn what Gwyn has done to him,” Amis writes, early on. “He wants to assassinate his sleep.”

Martin Amis in his Notting Hill flat, London, UK, circa 1986 (Homer Sykes/Alamy Stock Photo)

When I first came across The Information, I was downstairs in the New York Public Library’s shady Muhlenberg location, where wordless librarians judge you until you pick up a book, then judge you based on the book you pick up. Amis is a volatile writer, as are his writerly characters, but the crux of this novel—death, doom, decay—terrified the high-school version of me, a slacker who likely wouldn’t have had the time to finish it in the first place. Within a few pages on the subway ride home, I was stuffing the book back into my bag: “Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing,” it opened, a bleak nugget for the stray eyes staring over my shoulder. “It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that… Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them.” 

For a tale so infatuated with the slow-burn of growing older, it’s fitting that its gloomy outlook finds more familiarity with time. Not long later, that high-school slacker would be an undergraduate slacker—not only crying night tears of his own, but hearing them echo through doomed dormitory halls. Elsewhere, the first musician he ever looked up to as a kid—soon, the first musician he’d ever be this indifferent to—would be doing quite a bit of crying, too. Over the past half-decade, as Kanye West has become less credulous as a human being, his tears have seemed to flow more freely than ever: tears that tatter campaign stages, tears that trickle through Tweets, tears that are tucked beneath desperate claims to relevance. Early last week, I ordered a fresh copy of The Information, something of a Spring-Break mission to redeem my younger, library-sleuthing self. And just as he had been when I was in high school, West was crying again, over a familiar splotch of spilled milk from the Six.

“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.”

Tull and West would get along: two pitiful 40-somethings who feed their dwindling talents into strange delusions, particularly when said delusions pit him against their respective Gwyn Barry’s. Much like Tull’s best-selling frenemy, Drake was once a wide-eyed upstart who looked at his senior and saw something to strive for. In 2011, not long after West released Watch the Throne with Jay-Z, his Canadian understudy hopped on “I’m On One,” a cocky DJ Khaled posse cut that featured Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking,” he rapped, in terms that probably shouldn’t be taken as coincidence. “Watch me take it.” Over the next decade, he’d stake a convincing claim to chiefdom—and, depending on who you ask, maybe even seize it as promised. If you need metrics, look no further than 2021, when the pair released long-anticipated projects days apart: upon release, Certified Lover Boy unseated Donda as the top-selling album in the country, a rare tangible victory in a beef that largely harped on hearsay. It was a cinema-sized note for the rivalry to end on; at the close of a lengthy Cold War, album-sized nukes pointed at one another, one belligerent won, the other lost, and they shook hands. Literally, shook hands: at a highly-publicized benefit concert for Larry Hoover, they staged a chummy joint show, complete with lofty compliments and reassuring hand-clasps. Except, within a year, Drake was back to subbing, and West was back to paranoid throne-defense. In a track from Her Loss, his collab album with 21 Savage, Drake claimed that he’d only done the Hoover benefit for J. Prince, the powerful industry executive who presided over its premises. “I done gave this man his flowers multiple times,” West wrote in an olive-branch tweet, shortly thereafter. “Let’s really see who our real opps are in this music game. Imagine all the rappers on the same side. Love Drake.” It wasn’t long before the post was deleted.

PHOTO: Kanye West/Instagram

West has a long-documented habit of deleting himself, or, at least, versions of himself that belie the person he wants us to believe he is. Underneath his gospel rhetoric, and somewhere behind his positive platforms, there exists something sinister and narcissistic; it peeks through the cracks of his celebrity, regardless of what florid flex-tape he slaps across his flames. In Amis’s prose, Tull is wrought with a similar dichotomy—and, like the late-career West, a similar shortage of ways to hide his stench from the world. For a while, he fears he smells of shit; when he over-showers, over-colognes, over-bathes, he can’t seem to get rid of the reek. Because it isn’t shit, after all: he’s smelling his own death, hanging over him, ruining his relationships and tarnishing the little time he has left. “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,” Amis writes. “For Richard knew he was going to hell: it was just a question of which circle.”

For someone who likely believes he’s going to Heaven, the modern iteration of West is more hellish—for reasons I won’t dignify by listing here—than most. And part of me wonders whether he knows this, whether each frantic attempt at doubling down is some form of death throes. Like Richard Tull, Kanye West can never again be the hero he once was, all those years ago: he’s a bitter 40-something, no blinged-out grillz or blinged-out girlfriends nearly enough bail for the jail his legacy will live, and slowly starve, in. With the small shelf-life he has left, it’s wearying to watch him take the Tull route: to constantly convince himself that he’s working from behind, that everyone is out to get him, that he must wage restless one-sided revolutions to defend what is no longer defendable. “This was a novel idea: that anyone imagined him,” Amis writes at one point, when Tull is told he isn’t as a stranger pictured him to be. More than ever, West yearns to be imagined. It’s too bad that he’s so far up his own imagination that he’s become unimaginable.


🔆🔆🔆

“Distant youth are the primary dealers of his deify-me drug; as always, the lost children are simply happy to hear from their estranged dad.”

Martin Amis. PHOTO: Getty Images

Interspersed with The Information’s intersecting plot-lines—the schemes of Tull; the freak success of Barry; the looming presence of the Caribbean mobsters—are poignant reflections on astronomy, the sorts that fuel 15-minute YouTube videos with titles like Do you know how small YOU are in the universe??? At one point, Amis describes the Sun as a “doomed despot,” barreling towards its own, and thus our own, brazen bloodbath. “Predictably, somehow (don’t we see this every day?), the great decline will be presaged by increasingly hypermanic activity (look out of the window, at the twanging joggers), by frantic reassertion of once-infinite but now-vanishing powers,” he muses, of our planet-turned-prisoner’s fatal flogging. “The doomed despot wants to leave nothing behind: its policy, then, is scorched Earth.” A painfully compelling facet of this vision, aside from the fact that it means we’re fucked, is its macabre determinism: the Sun knows it’s damned, and so, with its final tinge of sovereignty, it resolves that if it must go to Hell, it’s going to drag us along with it. Which is, distant as the astro-afterlife comparison may seem, a familiar course of action for human has-beens, who recognize that their power is dwindling, and strive to weaponize it in ways more lasting than their lives. Tull himself is more of a was than an is; what he lacks in once-potent literary prowess, he indulges in his quest to make Barry his lifelong bitch. And West, hip-hop’s Tull-in-training, is far removed from being revered on his own merit: his entire shtick, now, depends on there being a person, or outgroup, he can demonize to LARP as a God.

Amis is right—like the Sun, this doomed despot knows he’s going to Hell. And his misery, like West’s and our Sun’s, wants all the company it can get.

When despots like our Sun, Tull, and West know that they are doomed, they often turn their weary faces towards the young—the not-so-doomed—as a means of wresting, or perhaps feigning, cahoots with the ticking clock. Since West released VULTURES 1, his questionable joint album with Ty Dolla $ign, journalists have marked the success of its youth-oriented marketing tactics: a familiar late-career hail-mary, but in this case, one that notched a number-one U.S. debut. “Ye has materially given himself over to a newer generation, selling everything on his website for an affordable $20, tweaking albums based on reception, and gauging fan interest in his unofficially released music for the first time since the weekly G.O.O.D. Fridays drops,” Mano Sundaresan observed, last week. “He’s also basically been co-opting the social language of a SoundCloud rapper, engaging with listeners directly online. In the last few days, he’s had conversations with a popular Ye fan account over DMs about an idea to sell Vultures 2 exclusively on his website. To another, he jokingly said he’d put a hyped-up leak on an upcoming album if people bought it for $200 a pop.” There’s a way of reading this all as desperation: West has spent the past several years scrounging to rekindle outspoken teenagers; it’s no surprise, perhaps, that at his farthest from salvation, he’d try his luck stooping to their level. Yet, success aside, he’ll never be as alien as he purports to be from Tull’s old-man maneuverings—like his literary analog, kids are less a concern than a conduit. Distant youth are the primary dealers of his deify-me drug; as always, the lost children are simply happy to hear from their estranged dad.

Throughout The Information, Tull’s children are happy to hear from him, too: a shame, given that most times, all he can muster are groggy demands and half-assed scoldings. West cares for his fans so long as they can stroke his ego; Tull cares for his kids so long as they can confirm, even if falsely, that his fears of aging (and dying) are misplaced. In one of the novel’s lengthiest stretches of father-son dialogue, Tull orders Marius to meet him in the bathroom, still reeling from a knock-knock joke he’d told earlier. (“Knock knock”; “Who’s there?”; “I dunnop”; “I dunnop who?”; “Ooh, you smelly phing!”) Stuck at the height of his deathly stench, the one that hangs solely over his head, he’s offended—and somewhat terrified—by the idea that he reeks to the outside world, that someone other than him knows that he is decomposing, both as a writer and as a decent human being. His chat with Marco is less a conversation than an interrogation: “Two days ago,” he starts, “the day before yesterday you said something very hurtful to me. And I want to know what you meant by it. It was the most hurtful thing you’ve ever said to me. Ever.” It doesn’t take long for Marco to clear things up, but regardless of the moment’s inconsequentiality, it’s helplessly pitiful: in what little remains of his pathetic life, Tull’s sole salvation lies in (1) the subjugation of innocent children, and (2) the sabotage of someone he’s only pretending to be friends with. Amis is right—like the Sun, this doomed despot knows he’s going to Hell. And his misery, like West’s and our Sun’s, wants all the company it can get.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Drake and West are fighting, at any given moment, but as of right now, the answer loosely has something to do with Vultures 1’s rollout. A few weeks ago, the Playboi Carti-featuring single “Carnival” topped the Billboard hot 100; in a celebratory—or, more accurately, inflammatory—Instagram tirade, West lobbed a lengthy list of fuck yous to his enemies: Adidas (for trying to “destroy me”), the fake dude he saw in the lobby at the Ritz (one of several “pussys” who “dont stand for shit”), so-called Christians, so-called friends, Daily Mail, fashion houses, Vogue editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, Hailey Beiber, and, finally, Drake, for “taking” Lil Durk (on tour, presumably) just when he needed him for his own theatrics. While it’s unlikely that Drake made this choice purely to piss off his longtime frenemy, West is at a point where, much like any other person or group he’s demonized, he’ll invent a way to interpret each of his foe’s actions as an affront. Regardless of whether they meant harm or not, any semblance of malice is his life-force: without an opponent to justify his feverish offense, his work, and maybe even his being, is hopelessly void.

Let’s imagine you’re a spider. You’re a spider, and you’ve just had your first serious date. You’re limping away from that now, and you’re looking over your shoulder, and there’s your girlfriend, eating one of your legs like it was a chicken drumstick.

Gwyn Barry is guilty of the crime of being successful—specifically, more successful than his spiteful peer—which means that Tull must punish him. He and West aren’t alone in seeking faults in their competitors; pettiness is primal, especially when said pettiness exists between people in close proximity. Had Barry been a successful anything else—bank teller, public speaker, undergraduate admissions counselor—it’s likely that Tull wouldn’t be so intent on his sabotage, let alone the “assassination” of his sleep. But Barry is a writer, one who shares Tull’s alma mater, rolodex, resources, social class: everything, it seems, but his failure. And so, like a biased cop cadging for ghost charges, the ruffled wretch must reach, relentlessly, for red herrings. He despises Barry for looking at objects with childlike, faux-innocuous curiosity; he hates the way he shows affection to his wife; he’s convinced that his writing, his best-selling writing, is “rather amusingly—no, in fact, completely hilariously—accidental.” Because one fuckup finds that he can never be enough, he decides that his fixation can never be enough, either.

Martin Amis in 1995. PHOTO: David Levenson/Getty Images.

Tull is a man of few words, both verbally and authorially: he hasn’t published a novel in over a decade, and in the rare spots where he speaks, he’s either scolding his children or apologizing to his wife. But there’s one moment in The Information where he looks, almost uncannily, like Kanye West, and it comes pretty early. The close of chapter two finds him sitting, begrudgingly, at Barry’s 40th birthday dinner, surrounded by a literati that recognizes his friend—not him. He thinks his magazine job might be courting him for a promotion; this dream shrivels as he stews, silent, unaddressed, unnoticed. At one point, he somehow finds himself in a spirited conversation about gendered reading dynamics—who do men prefer to read, and who do women prefer to read?—that leads to awkward silences, poorly thought-out blurtings to fill said silences, and tense back-and-forths to debrief said blurtings. Tull, like West, finds himself being called a misogynist. Tull, like West, is indeed a misogynist. And Tull, like West, lashes out at the first person to score morality-points on his head: “I find I never think in terms of men,” Barry says, to oohs and aahs. “(Or) In terms of women. I think in terms of… people.”

A very low-level remark, if I may say so. Hey, Gwyn. You know what you remind me of. A quiz in a color magazine—you know, Are You Cut Out to Be a Teacher? Final question: Would you rather teach (a) history, or (b) geography, or (c)… children. Well, you don’t get a choice about teaching children. But there is a choice, and a difference, between history and geography. It must make you feel nice and young to say that being a man means nothing and being a woman means nothing and what matters is being a… person. How about being a spider, Gwyn. Let’s imagine you’re a spider. You’re a spider, and you’ve just had your first serious date. You’re limping away from that now, and you’re looking over your shoulder, and there’s your girlfriend, eating one of your legs like it was a chicken drumstick. What would you say? I know. You’d say: I find I never think in terms of male spiders or female spiders. I find I always think in terms of… spiders. – Martin Amis, The Information

No one responds, because no one cares.

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