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When second novels go bad

DeathMartin Amis

I'm having a love affair with "bad" second novels. Not "Rabbit, Run." Not "The Crying of Lot 49." Many writers do knock it out of the park on their second try -- and good for them. But those aren't the novels I mean.

I mean the misfires, the disappointments, the ugly ducklings. Three in particular I've recently curled up with: Martin Amis's slightly feral "Dead Babies," Joy Williams' drunken, reeling "The Changeling" and Zadie Smith's wry, laddy "The Autograph Man." None were much liked by critics, none became bestsellers -- and these are only two reasons I'm smitten. They also share an adolescent unruliness I can't get enough of, a go-for-broke spirit. Can a novel be unembarrassed by itself? That's the way these seem to me.

See, I'm writing my own second novel -- and is there anything worse than writing a second novel? It's a standoff between creative depletion and rising ambition, the desire to attain more combined with the creeping fear that everything you had went into that first book. It's exhausting.

Writing my first wasn't easy either, but No. 2 (three years and counting) is making No. 1 seem like a triumphant jog around the bases.

"Three years?" That would be Michael Chabon calling from the peanut gallery; he spent nearly five years piling up a 1,500-page shipwreck of a second novel called "Fountain City." His publisher hated it, so he stuffed the manuscript in his drawer and wrote "Wonder Boys" instead. Jeffrey Eugenides and Donna Tartt toiled nine and 10 years, respectively, on "Middlesex" and "The Little Friend."

Why are these things so thorny? A friend of mine wrote a brilliant first novel and eventually cried uncle beneath the weight of her unfinished second; another friend finished hers but confided to me that she hated it. "Don't read it," she whispered. "Read my first."

"Second novels! Such accursed children!" Rick Moody writes in his introduction to the recently reissued "The Changeling." Amen, but, really, what does Moody know? A mere two years passed between "Garden State" and "The Ice Storm."

And anyway, "The Ice Storm" is not a "bad" second novel; in fact, it's something of a contemporary classic. The same cannot be said for "Dead Babies," generally considered a minor entry in the Amis oeuvre. Upon its publication in 1976, the New York Times's Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote: "The babies are already dead at the beginning, and there's nothing for them to get but deader."

Baloney. To me, "Dead Babies" is thrashingly alive. Set at a country house stuffed with louche aristos who booze and do drugs while menaced by very scary character named Johnny, it's P.G. Wodehouse crossed with "A Clockwork Orange." It's gutsy and over the top, invigoratingly so. Take my word for it -- or don't. I once pushed my copy on a friend who made it to Page 100. Yuck, he said, giving it back.

Writers know the letdown of finishing a novel: This? This is all I was doing all this time? I'd bet the farm Amis didn't ask himself that at the end of "Dead Babies." It's a gloriously un-cautious second book -- and caution, as I inch along at my writing desk, feels like the Enemy. My first novel was written on nothing-ventured-nothing-gained fuel; now, having gained something by seeing it published, I seem to be riding the brakes.

Williams surely cut her brake lines to write "The Changeling." Anatole Broyard reviewed it so harshly in 1978 ("startlingly bad," "an arbitrary muddle") that the book never made it to paperback. Reviewers can be cruel -- and notoriously impatient. Certainly "The Changeling" requires patience. There's an alcoholic young mother trapped on an island with a family of mean-spirited blue bloods and bunch of half-savage children. But the language is so richly connotative, that's it hard to know exactly what is going on most of the time.

I love the novel's free mood, its doped-up enigmas and crazy blind turns. I love how sure of herself Williams seems even as she loses her moorings. When, late in the book, a little girl unaccountably morphs into a deer -- "Her face swung out flat and her nose turned black and became part of a soft, dark muzzle" -- I think, go, go, go.

A second novel can tarnish a writer. Smith's wisecracking and not-widely-liked "The Autograph Man" had something of that effect. It's smaller, less panoramic than her first book, "White Teeth," but also funnier. I like its youthful mood, its stoned Londoners adrift in their 20s -- so much so that when I was up for a job at a Book Review not long ago, and Smith came up, I told the editor I preferred "The Autograph Man" to "White Teeth." He peered at me over his glasses, and the room's atmosphere shifted.

"You do?" he asked.

I didn't get the job.

Failure is commonplace in the career of a writer, and a second novel is the beginning of a writer's career. That's what I'm telling myself as I inch along. I'm telling myself that I'll make plenty of mistakes and missteps, but hopefully they're interesting ones -- as interesting as those in Amis et al.

My second book certainly feels more interesting than my first -- riskier too, which perhaps is a good sign. A first novel is a circus stunt, a nice trick, but I'm not sure it makes you a writer. How does a writer become a writer? By writing a second novel.

I'm getting there.

Antrim is the author of the novel "The Headmaster Ritual."

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