From The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, Faber & Faber, April 2011
As the son of a famous novelist, the late Kingsley Amis, and an ardent reader of Saul Bellow, with whom he became friends, Martin Amis was from the beginning of his career unusually interested in what it means to write fiction in a style that is inimitably and ostentatiously your own. His early preference for writing about low-life in a high style, his blokey banter and cool, languorous wit, and his fascination with porn and junk culture, meant that, for better or worse, he was for a long period the commanding presence of English fiction, the one the new literary lads jostled to imitate, the writer-as-celebrity, the main man.
Conrad famously wrote that any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line. In this sense and this sense only, Amis’s prose has a Conradian urgency: he has always been aggressively competitive, seeking to invent his own idiom and discover daring new ways of writing about the modern world.
‘I don’t want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,’ he once said - and only a writer as anxiously self-evaluating as Amis would have called his book of selected criticism The War Against Cliché, a title that, at once, seeks to elevate (himself) and to challenge (others). Look at my works and despair, he seems to say: you won’t find any ready-made formulation between these hard covers, nothing ordinary, banal or commonplace. So Amis is a warrior of words, in battle against the forces of mediocrity, as represented by the journalist, the genre writer, the hack biographer, all of whom he remorselessly slays, until there is nothing left but their words: bad words, clichéd words.
And Amis wanted to write about the present. Frank Kermode has written that a condition of thinking about the future was that one automatically assumed that one’s own time stood in an extraordinary relation to it: “We think of our own crisis as pre-eminent, more worrying, more interesting than other crises.” There is certainly a sense in Amis’s work of eschatological anxiety, of the pre-eminence of our present, with its impending sense of ecological catastrophe and apocalyptic weapons of destruction.
“The task of the novelist is to interpret the present and the near future, to ask where are we heading, how are we changing?” Amis told me when I visited him at home one July afternoon in 1997. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to write about everyday life; that I wouldn’t write, say, westerns or historical works. I would have been surprised if I’d set anything in the past, unless, as I did in Time’s Arrow, I wanted to explain something about the present. Looking at Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, I ask myself can I read any more pastiche, can I get through another novel that has, as it were, f’s for s’s and spells always a-l-w-a-e-i-s.”
In 1992 Amis published an amusing short story about male narcissism and rivalry called ‘Career Move’. Its turbocharged engines were, for Amis, the familiar ones of ironic inversion and paradox: two writers, a poet and a screenwriter, experience a remarkable reversal in fortune when the poet finds himself being flown first-class to Hollywood, where he is feted by agents and directors compete to make a film of one of his poems, which is titled ‘Sonnet’. Meanwhile, the screenwriter is condemned, as most poets usually are, to submitting his work, wearily and with increasing desperation, to small magazine as he seeks publication. The two writers, once friends, become ever more anguished rivals, especially when the movie of Sonnet opens in 437 theatres and ‘does seventeen million in its first weekend’.
Male rivalry – especially between writers – is a recurrent theme in Amis’s fiction. ‘All writers,’ he once said, ‘if they mean business, if they’re ambitious, have got to think they’re the best. You haven’t got a chance of being the best unless you think you’re best.’
His first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published in 1973 when he was twenty-four. When the novel begins, the 19-year-old narrator, Charles Highway, is preparing to go up to Oxford. He is a verbal exhibitionist: he writes fancily and talks extravagantly. And he is cruel in the way he seduces and then spurns young women. He keeps fastidious records – his “papers” – of his conquests and couplings. He is an auditor of the carnal. The novel has a young man’s dread of and disgust for the old, for what time does to us all. ‘The skin had shrunken over her skull,’ Highway writes of his mother, ‘to accentuate her jaw and commodious collerage for the gloomy pools that were her eyes; her breasts had long forsaken their natural home and now flanked her navel; and her buttocks, when she wore stretch slacks, would dance behind her knees, like punch balls.’
Everything that would define Amis as a novelist and stylist was here in microcosm: the grotesque humour and revolt against pulchritude (‘her breasts had long forsaken their natural home’), the cruelty (who really would talk of their mother in this way?), the ironic knowingness and literary allusions (‘the . . . pools that were her eyes’ – Shakespeare, innit?), the baroque phrase-making.
In The Moronic Inferno and other visits to America, a collection of his journalism and essays published in 1986, Amis argued that Saul Bellow wrote in a style fit for heroes, the High Style.
‘To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work . . . The High Style attempts to speak for the whole of mankind . . . to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten.’
Amis, too, aspired to write in the High Style, to evolve his own exalted voice, and, on the whole, he achieved just that: operating both as a novelist and essayist he published prolifically throughout his twenties and thirties, his novels deepening and hardening in their preoccupation with decay and disaster. He wrote comic novels but without the usual consolations of comedy. He was drawn again and again to the defining crises of our post-war world – to the corruptions of capitalism and excessive individualism (Money, 1984), to the threat of nuclear annihilation (Einstein’s Monsters, 1987, a book of stories about Cold War fears), to the anxieties of millenarianism and visions of apocalypse (London Fields, 1989), to the Nazi catastrophe and the Holocaust of the Jews (Time’s Arrow, 1991), to the loneliness of a godless world (The Information, 1995).
Amis is, wrote John Updike, an ‘atrocity-minded author who demands we look directly at things we would rather overlook’. It was as if in his restlessness and because of his ambition he was seeking subjects worthy of the grandeur of his exalted style, the defining subjects of our time: genocide, nuclear war, environmental degradation. He wanted to write about the whole of society, not only a small part of it. ‘The 19th-century British novel was, if you like, a superpower novel,’ he told the New York Times in 1990. ‘It was 800 pages long, about the whole of society. With [British] decline, the novel has shrunk in confidence, in scope. In its current form, the typical English novel is 225 sanitized pages about the middle classes. You know, “well-made” with the nice color scheme and decor, and matching imagery. I almost try and avoid form. What I’m interested in is trying to get more truthful about what it’s like to be alive now.’
Whether or not he was succeeding in this, he was being read. People were taking notice. His ‘stuff ’, as he refers to his work, was the talk of the town. He was becoming a literary celebrity in the American model: watched, gossiped about, well rewarded, imitated. His mastery of different registers and modes of address, his blokeish banter and sardonic fascination with the tawdry excesses of consumer and popular culture – with porn, and booze, and drugs, and fast women – meant that, for better or worse, he became the novelist most widely imitated in style and voice by any number of younger British writers. You could detect the influence of Amis’s urgent, rhetorical, insistently comic style, his riffs and repetitions, his improbable reversals and playful paradoxes, his inner-city locations, in the first two novels of Zadie Smith.
Yet in the early 1990s something happened to Amis. It was as if he took a wrong turn. Attitudes hardened against him; reviewers traduced him; diarists and columnists eviscerated him. He was still the most influential writer of his generation – or at least he said he was - but this influence was perceived increasingly as baleful.
How did this happen? The answer can be given in two words: The Information. This was no ordinary novel. This was meant to be his superpower novel. Five years in the writing, it was marketed as The Amis Novel, a work of the highest ambition, comparable in reach and achievement to the best of Bellow or Updike or Philip Roth. It was marketed as a novel that would reveal the truth of how it felt to be alive and living in London, the most global city in the world, at the end of the most violent century in human history. “Where were the new rhythms?” he asks in The Information.
Amis certainly gave the impression, before publication, that he had produced something special. His best novel? He had long been preoccupied by how good he was and by his place in the literary scheme of things. ‘People kept saying that I was the most influential novelist of my generation or whatever, and so I wanted to see what I was worth,’ he said at the time.
So, how much was he worth?
His agent Pat Kavanagh, the now sadly deceased wife of his long-time friend and fellow novelist Julian Barnes, was sent out to extract an advance of £500,000 from Jonathan Cape, which is part of the Random House group and had published Amis for more than twenty years. The amount was at the time considered unreasonable even for an author as esteemed as Amis; though widely admired, his books were never bestsellers and he was seldom a contender for the main literary prizes, such as the Booker, which have an exponential impact on sales. Following much anguish and vilification, Amis found himself a new agent, and a new publisher prepared to pay the desired advance, HarperCollins, part of the Murdoch media empire. By the time it was published, in April 1995, The Information was as much a journalistic as a literary event – and was received as such; Amis, perhaps unfairly, found himself under review both as a man and as a writer. His moral character became part of the wider discourse; this was literary criticism as biography. The book was a commercial and critical failure; Amis would soon afterwards return to Jonathan Cape, his reputation diminished.
I read The Information shortly after publication, and recall being exhilarated and frustrated in equal measure. I’d long admired Amis, especially the literary journalism. His profiles of American writers collected in The Moronic Inferno were one of the main reasons why, in my early twenties, I’d wanted to be a journalist; those essays delighted me with their disciplined intelligence, their empathy, reach and invention, as much as if not more so than his fiction. I always thought something important was missing from the fiction, especially the early novels: heart, warmth, fellow feeling. I enjoyed the manic comedy and the extravagant style, but seldom felt the urge to return to these books. It was Amis’s journalism and literary criticism that mattered most to me, when he was writing well to deadline, about any number of subjects from literature to sport to pornography to celebrity culture. It is not that he has no hierarchy of taste: he is an unashamed elitist, dedicated to the great works of the Western canon. Rather, what made him such a good journalist is his curiosity. He seemed open to all possibilities.
The Information was about a mid-life crisis; Amis, who was forty-five in 1995, certainly seemed to be living through multiple crises of his own during the writing and publication of it: his long-time marriage was ending; he was having expensive surgery on his troublesome teeth, which had turned unfairly him into a figure of fun; and the intimate details of his pursuit of a talent-affirming advance (“I wanted to see what I was worth”) was being reported in the newspapers as if it were a story of national significance, like the announcement of bad economic data or the fall of a government minister. The media frenzy seems, in retrospect, absurd but for Amis The Information marked the end of the era. After its publication, his reputation was diminished. He ceased to be the most influential novelist of his generation.
Instead, in the following years, writers such as Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro achieved the kind of career-defining commercial and critical success that Amis, above all literary novelists of that time, had once seemed destined to enjoy. He has written nothing exceptional since The Information, turning away from grand, 500-page state-of-the-nation-style novels as he experiments instead with other forms: nourish crime (Night Train, 1997), memoir (Experience, 2000), political narrative (Koba the Dread, 2002, a book about the crimes of Stalin and why the left for too long stayed silent about communist oppression), the novella (The House of Meetings, 2006) and the autobiographical novel (The Pregnant Widow, 2009).
There was one short novel, Yellow Dog (2003), which features the usual desolate inner-London setting; the usual comic cast of preposterously named grotesques, such as a tabloid-reporter called Clint Smoker (Amis evidently likes the name – a character called Smoker appears in The Information as well); the usual supercharged prose style, mixing the vernacular of the street with a more refined literariness. Unfortunately, Yellow Dog, as Michiko Kakutani, a longstanding admirer of Amis, wrote in the New York Times, ‘reads like a sendup of a Martin Amis novel written by someone intent on sabotaging his reputation’. It need not detain us here.
So, what of The Information? It certainly reads as if it were the culmination of an entire fictional project. All the old obsessions are here: male rivalry, inevitably; literary envy; the allure of dirty money; the unknowability and mystery of women; the impossibility of love; the fear of time’s irreversibility; metaphysical terror. The Information is a comedy of cosmic humiliation; the strivings of two writers, who both live in west London and turn forty as the novel begins, are set in the context of a godless and pitilessly indifferent universe. Throughout the book the omniscient narrator stands apart, mocking and commenting on the struggles of his characters, reminding us of the futility of artistic ambition, indeed of all ambition. We are hard-wired, the novel tells us, to seek meaning in a universe in which there is none.This is the real information that comes to us in the night, that comes to us when we least expect and want to think about it.
The Information begins well enough, with Richard Tull at home in west London and in bed with his wife, Gina; it is the middle of the night and he is weeping. The first sentence is lovely – ‘Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing.’
Who is the speaker here? Is this to be another first-person confession, in the style of Money, which was narrated by the junk-food-addicted, coke-sniffing John Self, or London Fields, narrated by Samson Young, an American in London who is dying from an unnamed wasting disease, possibly Aids? Not quite. The ‘I’ of this first sentence turns out to be the omniscient narrator, a distinct, self-conscious character all his own.
His initials are MA, as you would expect, and he directly enters the narrative when he meets Richard in a park, just as John Self in one of Money’s best set-pieces meets a writer named Martin Amis in a pub, observing how the writer is ‘small, compact, wears his rug fairly long’. This time, the role of Amis-as-narrator is much more directly controlling and interpretative. He is at once complicit in his characters’ miseries and at an ironic remove from them. Again and again he interrupts the story to apostrophise and pontificate, like a puppet master breaking the spell of performance directly to address his audience. “Here are the strings,” he seems to be saying, “through which I exert my control.” This serves merely to remind us of the artificiality of the entire exercise.
Once Richard is up and about the next morning we discover what it is he has to cry about. He is a novelist who no longer publishes novels. He is a father of disruptive twin boys, from whom he seeks to escape even as they turn the family home into a battleground. He is impotent, naturally. His marriage is moribund – Gina was once his ‘sexual obsession’, which was why he married her, but that was a long time ago. He has no money. He has just turned forty, and has a cyst on the back of his neck, which he disguises by growing long what is left of his hair. Worst of all, his closest friend, Gwyn Barry, is a successful novelist: a bestseller, a prize-winner. The writers are in continuous competition. They compete in the snooker hall, at the chess board and on the tennis court – as well as, naturally, in the shower, where Richard furtively watches Gwyn ‘toweling his humid bush’ while speculating on how ‘nice’ it would be ‘to have had a big one’. Richard beats Gwyn at chess, at snooker, at tennis. None of this matters to him because, when it comes to writing, to the literary high stakes, Gwyn is winning. Gwyn has everything that Richard wants: wealth, a readership, Hollywood interest in his work and a beautiful young aristocratic wife he adores and fucks as often as he can. As if this weren’t enough, as the novel opens, Gwyn discovers that he is on the shortlist for a prize, the nicely named Profundity Requital – which, if he wins, will provide him with an income for the rest of his life. Good work if you can get it.
Amis enjoys taking us through the routine of Richard’s days, contrasting his calamities and woes with Gwyn’s triumphs. Richard dresses ridiculously in bright waistcoats, reviews literary biographies, edits the arts pages of The Little Magazine, sells scraps of literary gossip to the papers and moves without purpose through the degraded streets and sordid parks of west London, the familiar Amis territory intersecting Holland Park, Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, his fictional patch, his manor.
At night, Richard retreats to his study to work on his latest novel, Untitled, a novel so opaque that it induces a migraine in whoever attempts to read it. We have been here before in the company of Amis, most obviously in the early novel Success (1981), an engaging caper in which two foster brothers are set against each other in perpetual competition, especially over women, with one more successful than the other, until their fortunes are reversed, as in the story about the poet and the screenwriter, ‘Career Move’. The rivalry between the writers in The Information is darker and far more treacherous than in these earlier fictions, at one with the unremitting bleakness of the urban setting – and there is to be no dramatic reversal for Richard. If anything, his luck is destined to run out altogether, especially once he decides that he can escape the prison of his envy only through destroying Barry, through ‘fucking him up’ once and for all. This becomes his consuming mission. What sustains him in his unhappiness and envy, what keeps him going as he trips and stumbles in his various attempts to destroy Barry, is the knowledge that his rival’s novels are worthless. ‘Gwyn’s success was rather amusingly – no, in fact completely hilariously – accidental,’ he tells himself. ‘And transitory. Above all transitory. If not in real time then, failing that, certainly in literary time. Enthusiasm for Gwyn’s work, Richard felt sure, would cool quicker than his corpse. Or else the universe was a joke. And a contemptible joke.’
To smooth his mission Richard enlists the help of a street thug he meets one afternoon by chance. His name is Steven Cousins (aka Scozzy) and, together with his two black sidekicks, a driving instructor called – wait for it – Crash, and 13, a man who answers not to a name but a number, and an unlucky one at that, certainly for Richard, as it turns out. Amis, like Bellow before him, likes to introduce low life criminals into the mix with writers and aristocrats. He likes the comic possibilities this creates and slippage and he enjoys experimenting with different modes of speech. Here is 13, complaining about the enhanced powers of the police in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain:
‘The titheads . . . is like a gang. The Old Bill is like a gang. Hired by the government. When did it happen? It happened when they upped the pay. 1980 or whatever. They saying: It’s gonna get rough. Unemployment is it. Riots or whatever. You keep a lid on it and we pay you extra. Where’s the money come from? No worries. We’ll fine the fuckers.’
This amusing passage is evidence of Amis’s fine gift for listening and then for attempting to replicate the multiracial patois of the inner city. The trouble is: he is seldom prepared to loosen the reins of narrative control; he is always insistently and tiresomely present, pre-empting the reader. So, 13’s riff about the police is prefaced thus: ‘13 drew breath: he was about to give voice – and in the high style. His intention, plainly, was to speak not just for himself but for all men and all women, in all places, in all times – to remind the human heart of what it had once known and had now long forgotten.’
Haven’t we heard something like this before? ‘The High Style,’ wrote Amis of Bellow, ‘attempts to speak for the whole of mankind . . . to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten . . .’
Because this is an Amis novel it must necessarily follow that Cousins – and 13 and Crash – shall be a comic grotesque, rather than a comic surprise. It follows that he must conform to (stereo) type, even though he introduces himself to Richard as ‘an autodidact’, in a way that is against type. This interests Richard and, for once, he stops thinking about himself and thinks instead about Cousins. ‘Autodidact – that’s a tough call,’ Richard says.
‘You’re always playing catch-up, and it’s never wholly that you love learning. It’s always for yourself.’
This is one of the more poignant observations in the book, because true, but Amis never takes it anywhere. He never attempts to enlarge Cousins as a character or explore the possibilities of his quest for knowledge as, say, E. M. Forster did with the culturally ambitious working class suburban clerk Leonard Bast in Howard’s End or Zadie Smith did in the character of a young black American rapper in On Beauty, her homage to Howard’s End. This is, above all, a failure of imagination and of empathy: a failure that extends most problematically to Richard’s wife, Gina. We are told that Richard is impotent. Indeed, Amis riffs on the theme of impotence. Richard, he writes, was ‘impotent with her [Gina] every other night and, at weekends, in the mornings too . . . Nor did the bedroom mark the boundary of their erotic play. In the last month alone, he had been impotent with her on the stairs, on the sofa in the sitting room and on the kitchen table.’
Later, he returns to the subject:
After each display, after each proof of his impotence, it was into his excuses that Richard poured his creative powers . . . In the early weeks they explored the themes of tiredness; and then re-explored it . . . There they lay together, yawning and rubbing their eyes, night after night, working their way through the thesaurus of fatigue: bushed, whacked, shattered, knackered, zonked, zapped, pooped . . . As excuses went, tiredness was clearly a goer, amazingly versatile and athletic; but tiredness couldn’t be expected to soldier on indefinitely. Before very long, tiredness made a natural transition to the sister theme of overwork, and then struck out for the light and space of pressure, stress and anxiety.
All of this is tolerably amusing, but it is also unbelievable, especially in the context of the marriage as depicted in the novel. Amis insists on telling rather than showing the details of Richard and Gina’s sexual difficulties. When on the few occasions they are shown together, fretting over unpaid bills or discussing Richard’s chances of finding a publisher for his unreadable novel, their encounters are fraught. This marriage is cold and deathly. Richard and Gina are emphatically not portrayed as being a couple who, when chance would have it, are attempting to have sex on the stairs or kitchen table, heady and reckless with mutual intoxication. Nor does Richard and, by implication, his puppet master Amis pause to reflect on how this repeated rejection may be affecting Gina.
For Martin Amis prose style is not mere decoration; it reveals moral character. ‘When I read someone’s prose I reckon to get a sense of their moral life,’ he wrote in Koba the Dread. What of his own moral life? If you read Amis’s prose against itself you find an empty space where once the consolations of faith and belief might have been for the nineteenth-century novelist, where for later writers, perhaps, a political programme would have been, and where now love ought to be, however tangentially expressed. Many of Amis’s best non-fiction pieces are enriched by love – the love he feels for his father and siblings and children and for the writers and books that mean most to him. There is no love in his fiction, certainly for or between characters. There is only a love of style, something that precedes and is anterior to the fiction. The very act of writing for Amis must be an act of love, even if he is repeatedly drawn to what is most morbid and debased in the human story. His achievement, as Adam Mars-Jones observes, has been “to separate beauty from the cause it traditionally served… to detach lyrical language from the lyrical impulse”.
Amis inhabits a resolutely post-religious world, in which everything is perishable and there is no redemption. The universe, he keeps telling us in The Information, is not, emphatically, “about us” or interested us. This was a theme he also explored in the novella Night Train, which is narrated by a tough, lonely Irish-American female cop with a man’s name (Mike Hoolihan). Night Train is, like The Information, un livre sur rien – a book about nothing. Or, rather, about being and nothingness.
Mike Hoolihan is investigating the death of a young woman, the well-named Jennifer Rockwell, who has been shot in the head. But this is a detective novel without a murderer because it becomes apparent that Jennifer, a family friend of Hoolihan’s, was not murdered. She killed herself as she sat one day alone in her apartment – but why? We learn much about Jennifer during the course of Hoolihan’s sad investigation, most pressingly, and oddly, that she was happy enough before her death and largely fulfilled in her life.
So why did she do it? There is a clue to the mystery of her death in the work she did. Jennifer Rockwell was an astronomer; it was her professional duty to study emptiness and voids. Pascal wrote that ‘man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed’. Not so with Jennifer Rockwell. She, Amis suggests – and the reader must accept, because nothing else in her fine bright life of achievement and opportunity indicates that she would have killed herself – evidently saw into the nothingness of Pascal’s ‘immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me’. She could not live with this knowledge of the futility of human endeavour, with this mounting terror of the infinite void, and so she took her own life.
A terror of the void is also what keeps disturbing Richard Tull in his sleep, awakening him to the reality of his failures. When Amis is not pushing these fears on to the hapless Richard, he stands apart from the narrative, taking time out, as it were, to talk about time – and space. Long passages of the novel are given over to astronomical equations and calculations.
‘Out there, in the universe, the kilometer definitively has it over the mile. If the universe likes roundness. Which it seems to do. The speed of light is 186,282 mps, but it is very close to 300,000 kps. One light hour is 670,000,000 miles but it is very close to 1,000,000,000 kilometres . . .’
Even the characters think of themselves in cosmological terms. “If people were planets, Richard thinks, he would be Pluto, and Charon his art. Pluto was the smallest of the planets, so far away from the sun. How would he feel now, all these years later, to discover that Pluto is no longer even categorised as a planet; in 2006 it was downgraded to the status of ‘dwarf planet’?
The universe’s first appearance as a major character in an Amis novel was in London Fields, published in 1989 but set a decade later, on the eve of the new millennium. Despite the title, this is an anti-pastoral, a study in urban psychosis and alienation. The sense of crisis is acute: time is out of joint, London’s streets are polluted, crowded and violent; the weather has gone wrong (in 1989, Amis knew all about the heat waves to come) and the threat of nuclear and environmental catastrophe is omnipresent. Samson Young, the narrator, alone in his flat, and dying, writes, ‘We have all known days of sun and storm that make us feel what it is to live on a planet. But the recent convulsions have taken this further. They make us feel what it is to live in a solar system, a galaxy. They make us feel – and I’m on the edge of nausea as I write these words – what it is to live in a universe. Particularly the winds. They tear through the city, they tear through the island, as if softening it up for exponentially greater violence.’
Many scenes take place in a west London pub called the Black Cross, where a promiscuous woman of thirty-four called Nicola Six (or should that be Sex!) is searching for a murderer – her own. She ends up meeting Keith Talent, a wife-beating, small-time crook and darts player, and perhaps Amis’s most energetic low-life creation. (Keith – he has no talent at all, of course. Ha ha.) London Fields is sprawling and fragmentary, a novel about writing, full of intertextual jokes and self-references – Samsom Young is staying in the flat of an absent writer, one Mark Asprey, who may or may not be the same ‘MA’ who, in Nicola’s diary, is referenced as her most accomplished lover. MA – get it? The plot, such as it is, is incoherent. Nicola knows that she is to be murdered and when, on her next birthday – when she will be thirty-five, such a resonant age in literature (the age at which Dante enters the inferno, halfway through the journey of his life) – but not by whom. How she comes to know this is never properly explained, as Amis is no major realist, with minors in psychology, motivation and agency. The suspense turns on who is to be the murderer. Is it to be low-lifer Keith Talent, over whom Nicola exerts considerable sexual control, or high-born Guy Clinch, the naive and gullible posh boy with the demanding wife and demented child, who Nicola teases and torments?
It doesn’t really matter in the end who the murderer is, though the murder takes place all the same, because Nicola, Keith and Guy have all the garish unreality of cartoon characters. We are encouraged to care little or nothing for them. What we are encouraged to care for – and we do - is the big picture: the language, the artifice, the art. To read London Fields is, in many ways, to encounter a writer with too much talent. Amis wants to try everything – anything – because he can, and more often than not it comes off. Look at me, he seems to be saying, I can juggle with all the balls in the air.
Shortly after the publication of London Fields, Amis was interviewed in the New York Times. At the age of forty, he had begun to feel old. ‘It’s a little death, middle age. Romantic possibility . . . changes. It’s calmer waters now, windless seas – if not the doldrums. You always thought it was a hilarious secret that while everyone else got old, you weren’t. But children redefine everything for you. A lot of the self is lost, thank God; the internal gibber of wants and need dies down.’
Ah, calm seas, the doldrums . . . as it turned out, Amis could not have been more wrong, because he would soon find himself adrift in turbulent waters indeed. If The Information is a book about a mid-life crisis it was written, as Amis told me when I interviewed him at home in north London one evening in the summer of 1997, at the end of what he called his own ‘cataclysmic midlife crisis’. In retrospect, the entire book reads like an extended crisis – of ambition, of confidence, of over-reach. In the last instance, it is an exercise in heroic decline, the monumental work towards which Amis had long been moving as each novel became longer and more multi-layered, as each novel strove to be truly novel: new, urgent. A superpower novel!
Yet approaching the final 100-page stretch of The Information, once the two writers have returned from a protracted and hysterically rendered book promotional tour of the US, the structure begins to mimic that of its central character. It atrophies. It begins slowly to collapse in on itself. The strain becomes palpable. In the fourth and final part of the book, Amis starts closing each discrete section with a ruled line, a technicality introduced for no apparent reason. He begins to shift points of view and, intermittently, we have access to Gwyn Barry’s thoughts. The weather becomes more extreme (‘All the rumours of the wind now gathered themselves, in riptide’) and the astronomical musings more overwrought, as if it is not only Richard Tull who feels he is running out of time:
‘The Man in the Moon is getting younger every year. Your watch knows exactly what time is doing to you: tsk, tsk, it says, every second of every day. Every morning we leave more in bed, more of ourselves, as our bodies make their own preparations for reunion with the cosmos . . . The planesaw whines, whining for its planesaw mummy. And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night.’
During that meeting at his house in 1997, I was baffled as to why the experience of ageing should have been so traumatic for Martin Amis. The complacency of youth, no doubt. Now, having reread The Information all these years later, I understand how the real subject of the novel is not literary envy or male rivalry, the ordinary motors of his earlier comedies. It is the fear of death, a fear that can come upon us suddenly, nightmarishly, in early middle-age.
‘During a mid-life crisis you feel stupefied,’ Amis told me. ‘You are living in a land you no longer recognise. You don’t know the language anymore. You feel lost. Women have a biological change; men don’t. It’s a pity because the whole thing might be understood more if they did. A mid-life crisis is really about reaching an accommodation with death.’
For Amis, more than most, the passing of youth must have been painful. He’d always achieved so much so young. He was the writer with the high-energy style and the cool, street-smart persona: the writer who once told me his mission was to go in search “of the new rhythms”. The young Martin Amis glistened with promise, and he kept on improving: each new book seemed at the time to be an advance on the one before. Until, that was, he wrote The Information, and revealed how increasingly over-reliant he had become on the same effects and satirical conceits, the same tropes,and how destined he was to repeat himself, like poor Pincher Martin scrambling for survival on his blasted rock.
Like Woody Allen, Amis is a comedian who yearns to be a catastrophist. Updike was right when he called him atrocity-minded. This may explain why no matter how much he labours to import seriousness into his fiction – through writing about the threat of nuclear war, the Holocaust, Stalin’s gulags or, more recently, Islamism and the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 – his novels never really move me or, I think, succeed in conveying the textures of felt experience. There is something powerfully ersatz about them. They never transport us to the heart of the human muddle in the way that his non-fiction can. Largely this is because his characters remain trapped within the matrix of his style. They are ghosts orbiting, forever lost, in the monotonous sublime of caricature. You struggle to believe in them because their creator does not bestow upon them the gift of autonomous life nor does he want you to believe in them, and if you cannot really believe in them, you cannot care.
‘All writers,’ Amis once said, as noted, ‘if they mean business, if they’re ambitious, have got to think they’re the best. You haven’t got a chance of being the best unless you think you’re best.’
Does Amis still think he’s the best? Much of his writing is about artistic rivalries, even if his ambition is to write about very big issues, not just middle-class mores. Yet this preoccupation with artistic rivalry, and the possibility of defeat in such rivalry, is intensely personal and rather parochial, echoing his own experiences in the smart, young literary London set in which he moved in the 1970s. As a subject, it isn’t really the stuff of literature, hence the need for all that additional heavy-duty intellectual support – for the scaffolding of metaphysics and astronomy.
But an essential loneliness underscores Martin Amis’s quest for absolute originality. So much of what he says and does is motivated by the same questions: What am I worth? How good am I? And one wonders what it has cost him, this relentless striving to be the best?
Early in The Information, as the narrator digresses to speculate on a future in which ‘the polar icecaps have melted and Norway enjoys the climate of North Africa’, he teasingly suggests future readers can ‘check’ the accuracy of ‘these words against personal experience’. His wager against mortality is that he believes his work – this novel – will live on and have a radiant afterlife. It’s a good joke. Will future generations read Amis? The final irony for him – indeed for all of us, including the hapless, tormented Richard Tull – is that as Amis puts it ‘only time shall tell, if not real time then, failing that, certainly literary time’. And Amis, like all of us, is skewered on time’s arrow and heading only in one direction.
In the way that all actors want to play Hamlet or Willy Loman, critics seem to have an innate desire to hurl themselves against Amis. Most want to knock the imaginary chip off his shoulder.
His scowling face — he seems to be sniffing his own sulfur — is, as the Twitter kids like to put it, strangely punchable. Critics like to write about Smith because it allows them to sagaciously read the tea leaves of fiction and society.
I’m here to do neither of these things; not primarily, at any rate. Amis’s new book, like the collections that preceded it, is the product of a ferocious yet sensitive mind. Even when he is considering writers he’s assessed many times before (Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, John Updike, Christopher Hitchens), his aim is so unerring that he resembles a figure out of Greek myth, firing arrows through ax-heads lined up in a row.
He also visits a porn set in Los Angeles (disgusted, he leaves before the money shot), plays in the World Series of Poker, and considers book tours, tennis, terrorism, Princess Diana and the era of Donald J. Trump, about whom he writes: “There’s nothing there. No shame, no honor, no conscience, no knowledge, no curiosity, no decorum, no imagination, no wit, no grip and no nous.”
Smith’s “Feel Free” is a gentler ride. If Amis’s book is like hurtling down a black-diamond ski run, hers is more like a brisk day on the cross-country trails. She writes a good deal about art and gardens and travel, and about non-controversial — at least for her New York Review of Books readers — topics like libraries (good) and global warming (bad).
In the best of these pieces, however, Smith presses down hard as a cultural critic, and the rewards are outsize. Who else would deliver an observation quite like this one, from her profile of Jay-Z?:
“Asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form.”
Smith prints two shrewd pieces about Jordan Peele, one before and one after his success as the director of the indie horror movie “Get Out.” Here she is on the compendium of black fears that Peele’s movie illuminates:
“Banjos. Crazy younger brothers. Crazy younger brothers who play banjos.” And: “Well-meaning conversations about basketball. Spontaneous arm-wrestling, spontaneous touching of one’s biceps or hair. Lifestyle cults, actual cults. Houses with no other houses anywhere near them. Fondness for woods. The game Bingo!”
Trump figures only slightly in Smith’s essays, which were written almost entirely before his presidency. But in a bitter piece about Brexit composed for The New York Review of Books, she takes aim at its spiritual fathers, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
About them, she declares: “‘Conservative’ is not the right term for either of them anymore: that word has at least an implication of care and the preservation of legacy. ‘Arsonist’ feels like the more accurate term.”
For six months, Smith was a book critic for Harper’s Magazine, and the results are printed here. These reviews are a mixed bag, mostly because the titles seem random and often infra dig.
She’s penetrative, however, on the Mitfords and Edward St. Aubyn and Paula Fox and the essayist Geoff Dyer, about whom she notes, perfectly, “Dyer seems always to be questing to comprehend somebody else’s quest.”
The topic of aging surfaces frequently in Smith’s essays. She’s 42, no longer the whiz kid, and she’s considering how to be in middle age. Aging is the upfront obsession, from the title onward, of Amis’s essays.
“Writers die twice,” he observes in an essay on Nabokov. “Once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” Can we pinpoint when a writer’s talent begins to fail?
Amis posits that Nabokov’s prose started to lose velocity with the novel “Ada.” The last good novel from his father, Kingsley Amis, he suggests, was “The Old Devils,” though he went on to write five more.
Updike’s final collection of stories, “My Father’s Tears,” Amis reviews posthumously and finds to be “perhaps his least distinguished,” the stories “products of nothing more than professional habit.”
It’s an assessment Amis hates to commit to print. He wouldn’t have done so, he writes, were Updike, whom he elsewhere called “a NORAD of data gathering and microinspection,” still alive.
How many strong books does Amis, who will be 70 next year, have left in him? “We are all of us held together by words,” he writes here. “And when words go, nothing much remains.”Continue reading the main story