Martin Amis: Emergency Speech

August 1997 / Prospect, Issue 22

How good is Martin Amis? As recently as the spring of 1995, before the farrago over him demanding (and receiving) a £500,000 advance for his poorly received novel about literary envy, The Information, he was considered very good indeed. “The most influential writer of his generation”-to adopt the argot of his publishing blurb. In the looking glass world of literary London, he was the man the new literary lads jostled to imitate. His mode of writing about low life in a high style, his combination of blokeishness and intellectualism and his ironic interest in porn and junk culture resonated with a generation for whom the book was becoming too slow a form. Will Self, Richard Rayner, Tibor Fischer, Hugh Barnes, DJ Taylor: all write with the irresistible beat of Amis’s prose ringing in their ears.

There is a reason for this homage: Amis is, as the critic James Wood points out, almost alone among his generation of English novelists in speaking with a voice which is authentically his own. It is a finger-clickingly contemporary voice: swaggering, arch, wry, exaggerated: as catchy as a good pop song. Amis plays an enormous register of notes lurching up and down the scale, depending on what or about whom he is writing, without any apparent incongruity. He distorts and parodies as reality is heightened and pulled out of shape by comedy. “I am a comic writer,” he says. “You have to submit to the huge power of the genre you are in. Genre really does twist and mangle things and determine outcomes.”

And yet there is a growing feeling among critics that he is a one-track stylist, a monovocal showman, the synthetic master of the dazzling phrase for whom the world will always be represented in caricature-distorted, leering. Certainly his journalism, the medium in which much of his best work is done, is all voice: laddish, boisterous, clever; as is his new novel, Night Train, a short, perplexing thriller, narrated by a female American cop, Mike Hoolihan (giving her a male name is a typical Amis wheeze). This is the first time he has written as a woman. It shows: she sounds disconcertingly like… well, Martin Amis. She shares his passion for stylised repetition, for waggish italics and his fascination with epistemology and science. There are mini-essays on cosmology, astronomy and linguistic puzzles: all set against a backdrop of dead babies being scooped out of trash cans and the discovery of murdered rent boys. In short: a typical Amis novel, but without the usual redeeming comedy.

Apart from his originality as a stylist, Amis’s great virtue is his eagerness to grapple with modernity. “Where were the new rhythms?” he asks in The Information. Unlike so many English writers who hanker after the past, tiresomely indulging their passion for ventriloquism and pastiche, Amis is not in flight from the contemporary. Learning from his American mentor and friend, Saul Bellow, he engages with how we live today. Amis revels in catastrophe and obscenity; he submerges himself in the violent discontinuities of the street. He has an ear for the rough imprecision and unintentional comedy of ordinary speech-its fragmentariness, its vigour. He listens hard. His big themes-Aids, the Holocaust, millennarian catastrophe, the nuclear threat-are played out in small settings: usually the dead end streets of his own west London (which he has now abandoned for north London). His vision of England, although fiendishly cynical, is an inclusive one: he leaves out little, from black culture to high culture. His conversation is, entertainingly, a similar mix of the high and low: idiomatic and ornate. He refers to his own oeuvre as his “stuff” while speaking in slow sentences of remarkable precision and grace.

George Walden, the former Conservative MP and cultural pessimist, admires Amis’s modernist daring. “Being so clever he is deeply resented. I know the arguments against him: that his work is superficial and there’s nothing inside,” Walden says. “But at least he tries to do the present when everyone else is doing the past. The other thing true of him is that, particularly in London Fields and The Information, he writes about ordinary people without any politically correct reverence-the same applies to blacks. He gives it to you straight. There are very few writers in this country who take something straight on; he’s learnt this from Saul Bellow.”

As a writer of scope and ambition, Amis is locked in a restless quest for novelty. He wants to invent his own idiom, to be first with a new way of writing about modern life. “I don’t want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,” he once told an interviewer-echoing Conrad’s declaration that any “work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line.”

David Sexton, a literary editor, has written disparagingly of Amis’s desire to mark out his words as his alone. “Whatever their apparent subject, Martin Amis’s novels all revolve around a single question: who’s the writer here? Who’s in charge?” Amis, according to Sexton, “believes that’s how it should be, that ‘human interest’ is a fallacy, that only the author matters. But only books that live independently of their authors can live after them: if you don’t give life to your characters, they can’t give it back to you. Amis is trapped in his own book, its sole inhabitant.”

Adam Mars-Jones argues much the same thing in his pamphlet on Amis, Venus Envy. In particular, he complains of the aggressiveness of Amis’s style, of how he bullies the reader into finding his world impressive, of how every sentence must carry the stamp of a manufacturer’s logo. “Amis’s progress has been not so much a career as an escalation, the persona increasingly truculent, the style ever more bristling. His very method is overkill.”

Amis, Mars-Jones also suggests, cannot write convincingly about women; because he has no interest in narrative, psychology, motivation or agency his characters tend to be little more than cartoons. Objections such as these are thought to underpin his repeated failure to make the Booker prize shortlist (he has made it only once with his least characteristic novel Time’s Arrow). He was most notoriously excluded in 1989 when the feminist writers Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil organised a blockade of London Fields. They were especially offended by the character of Nicola Six, a vampish, sexually reckless young woman who organises her own murder.

George Walden, a Booker chairman in 1995, recalls the dispute. “What happened, I am told, is that the then chairman David Lodge, who liked London Fields, swung against Amis after being influenced by the women on the panel. The judges had been three to two in favour of the book until then, but Lodge went home and swung the other way. If this is true it does sound like the most appalling example of caving in to feminism. What made things worse was that the prize was then won by that vapid and vacuous book about butlers.” He is referring, of course, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day.

Amis’s search for a new way of writing holds the key to understanding his aggressive competitiveness and his obsession with posterity. Few writers spend as much time musing on the value of their future stock. For Amis, envy among writers is “infinite, boundless.” But it is only after death that the worth of a writer is truly evaluated. So the writer is trapped in a cruel paradox: he can never know what matters most to him, namely, whether his work will outlive him. “I think 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 the best.” As I found when I visited him in July at the north London home he shares with the American writer Isabel Fonseca, Amis clearly thinks he is the best, not just the best of his generation, but better than that: a writer who will form an enduring part of the canon. This unshakeable belief in his own talent is what sustains him in times of famine. It is what enables him to shrug off (although they hurt) the ad hominem attacks on his character which intensify with each new book.

The Information, full of astronomical speculation, is his most autobiographical novel. Written while he was going through what he calls “my mid-life crisis” and the break-up of his marriage, it concerns two rivalrous novelists, one a worthless success, the other an obscure failure. At times it reads like a checklist of all the old Amis obsessions: male rivalry (the subject of his third novel, Success), the glamour and tug of dirty money (both Money, his satire of 1980s greed and consumerism, and his debut, The Rachel Papers), the unknowability of women (his entire backlist), the irreversibility of time (both Time’s Arrow, his time-reversing Holocaust narrative, and London Fields) and metaphysical terror (Other People; and everything he has written since he turned 40). The novel is a comedy of cosmic humiliation-the small struggles of the writers are set in the context of a pitilessly indifferent universe. You sense that the planet is on the edge of collapse.

There is, too, a sense of imminent apocalypse in London Fields (1989), his impressive work of millennial despair. The characters-satirical archetypes but none the less memorable for that-move in a degraded world of diminished aspiration and narrowed horizons. Time is out of joint: the weather has gone wrong, and London is a place of grotesque inversions. “So late in the century, so late in the goddamned day,” complains Samson Young, the American narrator, who is dying from an unnamed virus. His exhaustion mirrors that of the planet for which catastrophe looms. Again, in The Information there is a sense of lassitude, of used-upness; and its hero, Richard Tull, is a sexually impotent, blocked writer. What most disgusts the impecunious Tull, who schemes to ruin his more successful rival, Gwyn Barry, is the fear that Barry’s books might be read and thought worthy after his death. This, muses Tull, “could not happen, or else the universe was a joke.”

Martin Amis greets you at the door of his large house holding his baby daughter, Fernanda (with whom he was recently photographed in The Times: a final attempt to shed his reputation as a roué and literary bad boy?). Fit and tanned, he leads you into the huge open spaces of his drawing room, where he checks on the latest tennis action. It is Wimbledon fortnight and he is hawking articles on tennis to the highest bidder. His footsteps echo on the hard, stripped wooden floor of the room, with its high white walls and huge television. Later, reclining in a canvas chair in his study, Amis exudes an air of worldly assurance; the blue smoke from his permanent cigarette (he rolls his own) spirals and curls.

He listens patiently to criticism of his work: that his books are full of verbal pyrotechnics and surface glitter but lack substance and real human feeling; that in the words of the critic Peter Kemp, he “cannot structure a long novel and his lowlife characters are unconvincing,” little more than motiveless cyphers; that, as his father said, his books “sniff of the lamp,” by which he meant that they are too worked on; that his attraction to big themes compensates for the shallowness of his vision. Frank Kermode once wrote 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 says, through a haze of cigarette smoke. “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.”

Each letter is recited with the immaculate precision of an actor delivering a favourite line of poetry. For a short man (he is not much more than 5ft 6ins) Amis has a remarkably big voice, a rich, timbrous, tobacco-scorched drawl. Its distinctive mid-Atlantic twang reminds you of his interaction with American culture and of the period he spent in New Jersey as a child while his late father, Kingsley Amis, was a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Andrew Marr, the editor of the Independent, is not a fan. He feels that the two Amises embody what he calls “the worst of England” and that Martin owes much of his success to the fact that we live in a culture of notoriety, in which certain writers become “commoditised and marketed like pop stars.” Amis, Marr says, is especially culpable: “He has willingly played up to his bad boy image by posing for all those moody, sneering photographs, doing exactly what his dad did 25 years earlier, so that he has become a kind of negative icon. I have wrestled with Amis’s work and feel there are many writers around who are doing much more interesting things but who are getting only a fraction of the attention. It’s fine to say he is a brilliant stylist, but you need to be more interested in other people than he is to become a great novelist. His books are all surface glitter. In any event, it’s not always the case that the figure most admired by his or her generation is the one who lasts. I think Will Self, for instance, has a lot going for him but won’t do anything interesting until he has fought his way out of the Amis influence.”

Marr has stumbled on a difficult truth. For Amis is treated differently from other writers-just how differently became apparent when he went in pursuit of the perfect publishing advance: a move which did nothing for his reputation and which is now seen as a parable of the ills of modern publishing. In the spring of 1995, shortly after completing his eighth novel, The Information, Amis instructed his then agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of his old friend Julian Barnes, to extract an advance of £500,000 from Jonathan Cape, the imprint to which he had been attached for more than 20 years. “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,” Amis said at the time-an unexpected remark for a man who used to boast of never opening his bank statements. The amount was deemed unreasonable for an author who, although critically admired, was not a guaranteed bestseller. In the end, after much anguish and public vilification, Amis found himself a new agent, Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie, and a new publisher, HarperCollins, foolish enough to pay him his desired advance.

The Information was not the success that either Amis or HarperCollins had hoped. According to Stephe Butler of Bookwatch, which compiles the bestseller lists, it sold fewer than 40,000 copies in paperback; its highest placing on the bestseller list was eleventh. Since Bookwatch monitors sales manually, not electronically, the definitive figure remains elusive, although sources close to HarperCollins claim that the Bookwatch figure may be an over-estimation. “Part of the problem,” says the publishing analyst Christopher Gasson, “was that HarperCollins had no idea how to sell Amis. Martin Amis is a brand name, one of the few literary novelists that most people have heard of. And what did they do? They didn’t even put his name or the title of the book on the cover of the paperback. They simply had a small “i” on the cover. Ridiculous.” Late last year, Martin Amis returned to Jonathan Cape as part of a four-book contract thought to be worth more than £1m. Although he never said so, Amis was thought to be unhappy at the way HarperCollins had marketed The Information, though presumably not at what they had paid for it.

The literary agent Michael Sissons says there have been great efforts to disguise the reality of his return to Random House [parent company of Jonathan Cape]. “The whole Amis saga is an egregious mess,” he says. “Amis went to HarperCollins on a deal worth just short of £500,000. I know that at least £350,000 of that advance is unearned. If you are a publisher you look at these figures, you look at Amis’s track record, and you work out that his books are never going to earn more than £150,000. So what do you offer him for his next book? Well, if you are Random House you offer him exactly the same amount as HarperCollins. What better explains the unreality and the malaise in British publishing?”

Amis, now 47, professes to be weary of the endless speculation about his personal life (he famously said that, in the US, his advance would have merited no more than a business paragraph). He is mystified as to why people are so nasty about him, concluding that it must have something to do with his father. “We were the only father and son pair that had a body of work out there at the same time,” he says. “I now realise what a dreamy, sentimental guy I had been before all this stuff happened. I knew London, I knew the literary world; but what I didn’t know was what a skanky town it had become. There is a kind of mean-spiritedness of which I am the focus. I think it must be to do with my dad: I’ve exhausted all other possibilities. One of the things about being my father’s son is that it feels like I was born in 1922 and published my first book in 1954 [the year of his father’s debut, Lucky Jim]. We’ve been around for a long time. You outstay your welcome.”

In Amis’s Hobbesian universe of brutal competition and rivalrous striving, writers are playing poker for the highest stakes: nothing less than literary immortality, the dream that their work will have a luminous afterlife. “When we read the best 19th century and 20th century novelists,” writes Saul Bellow, explaining why some writers are read long after their death, “we soon realise that they are trying in a variety of ways to establish a definition of human nature.” Amis, in his own noisy way, is stumbling towards his own definition of human nature; but it is one steeped in cynicism and sterility, founded not on love, but on the impossibility of love; not in illusion, but in disillusionment. “Style can be a great indicator of morality,” he has said of Nabokov’s elegant paedophile Humbert Humbert. And clearly in his own work there is a nagging, insistent morality, the engine of which is a satirical disgust at the grotesque perversions and excesses of late 20th century capitalism: the greed, the squalor, the terminal boredom. Yet his books have none of the redemptive mysticism, the flights of fancy, the metaphysical verve that so characterises the novels of Bellow, who unfashionably believes in the soul and for whom empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. This other reality, Bellow writes, is always sending us hints which, without art, we cannot receive.

Although Amis imaginatively roams the infinity of the cosmos, as he muses on the futility of ambition in the face of certain annihilation, his characters are resolutely earth-bound, poking around in dark places, never lifting their heads to look at the stars. For they are trapped in the genre of the comic novel, forever destined to be lost in the monotonous sublime of caricature, mere puppets controlled by a master in thrall to artifice and games, a master who never allows you to forget that you are in the grip of his controlling intelligence. Amis even has a walk on part in Money, a hilarious scene in which the drug-addled anti-hero, John Self, observes that his creator “wears his rug long” before drawing him into a conversation about his father.

Yet part of the appeal of his books is that Amis is half in love with the world he seeks to condemn. Money and vulgarity delight him. He writes of the gross infelicities of his characters-of Keith Talent masturbating as he wears a pair of women’s knickers on his head, of an ashen, exhausted planet-with a thrilled ardour. 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.” This is a considerable, fittingly contemporary achievement.

If future readers turn to him, as they surely must, it will be for his language and humour, for the skewed, neurotic insight he offers into what it is like to live in London at the end of the 20th century at a time of exponential scientific and technological advance. But for insight into the larger mysteries of existence and for an intricate understanding of the human heart (one of the traditional pleasures of fiction) they will surely look elsewhere. Perhaps even to his journalism-in particular, to his superb collection, The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, where Amis writes of genuine people in a real society with all the style and invention that make his fiction such a verbal treat, but with an added economy and formal discipline absent from his more recent novels, and without the heartlessness and self-enthroning showmanship of his fiction.

Meanwhile, amis is hard at work on another novel, one which will require him to trawl his new neighbourhoods of Camden Town and Kentish Town as he once again goes in search of all the new rhythms. “Part of the purpose of literature is to offend your elders,” he says. “And that becomes harder with each new generation.” He defiantly believes his best work lies ahead of him like a huge turbulent sea of imagining. “It becomes a tauter challenge as you get older, your craft is much improved even though your music is sort of dying. My father is a great invisible cheerleader for me: he wrote his best book, The Old Devils, when he was in his late 60s, and another fine book, The Folks That Live on the Hill, when he was 70. No other novelist has ever been in the position to say, as I can, that my dad wrote a good novel at the age of 70…”

His voice trails away; it is late and the light is fading in his study. Amis lifts his head, peers towards the open window, his expression becoming momentarily lost and dreamy. He draws the fire from another roll-up. “I have achieved more than I thought I ever would,” he says. “I feel I’ve made a contribution. Of course, you’re disappointed that you’re not Joyce; but there’s still a chance you might do something. I feel full of beans and full of words.” The Germans have a word for this, MachtgefÜhl: the conviction that you have the power to do great things.

Amis is working out a strange literary destiny in the crowded streets of London. Tied by a quirk of birth to the writing life, he is unusually interested in being a novelist, of what it means to dare to cover the world in language. There is, though, a loneliness in his quest, the loneliness of the ambitious. So much of what he does and says is motivated by the same question: what am I worth? Such restlessness betrays an underlying insecurity. He may claim that he is still full of words, but he also concedes that the canon is “largely the work of writers in early middle age,” a period he is now passing out of. How ironic, then, if, to echo Samson Young, it was already too late in the century, too late in the goddamned day for Martin Amis; too late to turn his dreams of achievement into anything more than precisely that: dreams. We shall see.