[an analysis by Lexi Oliveras]
Martin Amis’ “Immortals” is a post-apocalyptic reflection on the extinction of mankind. Amis tackles big questions like the meaning of life and geo-politics but keeps the story flowing with a witty narrator. “Immortals” is ultimately about self-perception and delusion. Amis’ hook: the narrator believes he is the lone immortal survivor of the human race. Struggling to continue living after a devastating nuclear holocaust, the narrator huddles with the last group of surviving humans, reflecting on his multi-millennia long life-span. We eventually discover that the surviving humans believe themselves immortal, and the narrator takes on another level of unreliability.
The narrator is set up as unreliable from the opening paragraph. The sense of an unbalanced narrator is confirmed in the ending scenes when he claims the remaining humans delude themselves into believe they also are immortal. The narrator’s unreliability creates a sense of tension that would otherwise rest on the imminent death of the humans, a rather depressing and inevitable storyline. The narrator is unreliable because a) his facts don’t line up and b) he reveals that he, too, has doubts. The narrator as a character is confused, therefore he becomes unreliable. He just can’t seem to get his story straight.
A narrator becomes “unreliable” when his narration become suspect or his credibility is in question. This can occur any number of ways, sometimes it is as simple as the narrator thinking too much of himself. “Immortals” begins in this way. The narrator immediately begins making these grand statements about himself. Then he speaks condescendingly of the other humans. We begin to see elements of crazy within the narrator as a character. You can usually tell the crazy ones by the way they go around calling everyone else crazy. In the opening paragraph, the narrator makes a blanket statement towards his companions: “They all suffer from diseases and delusions.” He then hints at what these delusions are but leaves the real denouncements for later, saying, “They all believe that they are. . .But let the poor bastards be.” Amis pulls out the ellipses to build suspense; now he has the reader wondering what these “poor bastards” think they are. Just as the wheels start turning, the narrator makes his grand confession: “I am the Immortal.” At first it seems like a run of the mill dramatic entrance. By Amis’ the use of syntax, however, we see the narrator making a critical distinction. In effect he says, “I am the Immortal here, the rest of you are not.” Initially, the narrator just seems pompous like any god-like humanoid would be. If you are an especially smart reader, maybe the immediate connections jump out at you and the rest of the story is obvious. I became lost in the prospect living outside of time and for a moment I forgot how unreliable this narrator could be. That is until the cracks began to re-materialize around his narrative.
The narrator has no clue what his origins are or how he managed to attain immortality: “I was born, or I appeared or materialized or beamed down. . .I think I must have been a dud god or something; conceivably I came from another planet which ticked to a different clock.” For someone with an immortal memory, it would follow that he or she would know a thing or two about their origins. Or at least a better origin story than “I must have been a dud god or something.” As the story progresses, though, we see how the narrator is just that kind of guy. For me, the reliability of the narrator completely fell apart when the insane delusions of the other humans are revealed. It is most curious, very coincidental, that “They all believe that they are—that they are eternal, that they are immoral.” To make is even worse, the narrator adds, “They didn’t get the idea from me. I’ve kept my mouth shut, as always.” Reality comes crashing down when the narrators admits “I have a delusion also . . . that I am just a second-rate New Zealand schoolmaster. . .But I soon snap out of it.” The narrator reaffirms that he is “the Immortal,” a “tragic fact.” The narrator makes every effort to convince the reader that he is “the Immortal.” It is through this desperate need to convince us, the readers, that we realized how unreliable and false the narrator’s sense of reality is.