Appealing and not-so appealing
If Martin Amis isn’t entertaining you on every page, then what’s the point of him?
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Remember Martin Amis? He used to be big, and still clears media space wherever he goes — witness his prime spot in this column — but only the delusional would deny his fiction has peaked. His novels from the mid-80s to the late ’90s are unimprovable examples of a particular kind of burnished, superprecise comic prose.
What changed? In 2000 he published his much-loved memoir Experience, the Martin Amis book for people who don’t really like Martin Amis. A year later came 9/11, which inspired him to devise the term “horrorism”, a coinage which — to put it one way — has not been widely spent.
Something happened. On 12 September 2001 he felt that the part of him that produced fiction “was shutting down forever”, a common feeling among novelists that day, but he might have been right. His best fiction this century has been fact-based: the gulag novel House of Meetings, the Holocaust novel The Zone of Interest. By comparison, his recent comic fiction has offered diminishing returns.
Inside Story, which is published as Amis turns 71, is “almost certainly my last long novel”. But is it a novel? Amis-watchers will recall that in 2006 he was working on a “blindingly autobiographical” novel featuring Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, three trusty points of triangulation for Amis’s life and writing.
But it became clear that that book, “provisionally and pretentiously titled Life, and coyly subtitled A Novel… was dead”. He filleted the best bits and expanded those into 2010’s The Pregnant Widow — a rescue mission of debatable value — and here, now, is Life: New and Improved, aka Inside Story, with only the echo of The Pregnant Widow’s subtitle (Inside History) to mark their common ancestor.
Inside Story is Experience 2: More Experienced. It’s not a novel, despite Amis’s vacillations on the point: he settles at one stage on “novelised autobiography”, which seems right. (Of course most autobiographies, with their selected material, their conversations from decades earlier, their glaring omissions, are “novelised”.) It rises in three themes: his famous pals — yep, Larkin, Bellow and “The Hitch” — his onetime lover “Phoebe Phelps”, and his advice to the gentle reader on how to write (“A few words about paragraph size…”).
The parts are not all equal. Some of the writing tips are chipped from his essays and reviews, though there’s much that’s useful and true, such as how good writers are funny “because life is funny” despite “the intellectual glamour of gloom”. Well, what a writer really knows about, after all, is writing: and Amis is best kept away from other stuff like geopolitics, and not just for fear of another “horrorism” (Israel in particular inspires great stretches of oleaginous bullshit). But bring literature into the mix — such as the many writers in the Soviet Union “whose last decision was suicide” — and he shines.
If Experience was about opening and closing — the arrivals of his children, the deaths of his father and cousin Lucy Partington — then Inside Story is all about closing: closing down. Everyone must go. Aside from the half-seen death of his mother and the decline of Kurt Vonnegut, “an effervescently affable man who, in his final decade, lost all his mirth”, Amis offers us “the only end of age” for Larkin, Bellow and Hitchens.
Larkin, whose life, as Andrew Motion understatedly put it, was not “much diversified by event”, whose terror of death inspired his great poem “Aubade”, found himself facing the old enemy at the age of 63, his life shrunken further than ever, before “his body went over the waterfall”.
For Bellow, one of the great stylists of the last century, whatever you think of his novels (and who doesn’t), and Amis’s father figure after the death of Kingsley, his formidable brain was scattered to the winds by dementia, just as Iris Murdoch’s was before him. (Murdoch wound up watching Teletubbies “on a good day”; for Bellow, in one of the most affecting scenes in Inside Story, it was daily, sometimes twice-daily, viewings of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean.)
Inevitably, the best — meaning worst — death in the book is that of Amis’s best friend Christopher Hitchens, who died of what Vonnegut in better humour called “cancer of the everything”. The long walk through what Amis dubs Tumortown inspires his best writing, not just stylistically but in the love — a noun seldom associated with Amis — it evokes, from his need to fill in more of their companionable conversations as Hitchens’s condition worsens, to “making a spectacle of myself” in hospital when Hitchens’s dyspnoea makes Amis panic. These sections, and the Bellow scenes, are as good as anything I’ve read this year.
That leaves Phoebe Phelps, Amis’s girlfriend in the 1970s. About her parts, the words “too much” seem not quite enough and reminded me about Terence Blacker’s novel Kill Your Darlings which featured a jealous writer obsessed with Amis and whether his bedroom technique matched his prose: “the hectic, self-absorbed preening, the stuttering tough-guy swagger”.
Well, wonder no longer, with the full lowdown on the young Amis’s amatory enthusiasm (“short men try harder,” argues the “titch-in-chief”), his premature ejaculations, and Phoebe’s masturbatory technique; though with the proviso that these are the parts of this fictionalised autobiography which are most clearly fictional. (Phoebe speaks in Amis-isms, for one thing.)
Oh, it doesn’t half go on: the relationship lasted five years, and it feels like real time; then she returns briefly the day after 9/11 (of course!) to throw a Philip Larkin-shaped grenade into the plot, and once again in her old age, to cap off the mortality theme.
Aside from being boring — and if Amis isn’t entertaining you on every page, then what is the point of him? — the Phoebe stuff fits precisely the criticism Amis has had for his writing on women since two Booker judges vetoed London Fields from the shortlist in 1989.
Phoebe, a “mad chick”, is a former escort and nude model; her body is “tits on a stick”; walking behind her reminds Amis how “even the slenderest girls held untold power in their back saddles” (their whatnow?). She is Selina Street and Nicola Six: a male sex fantasy.
But so are other women in Inside Story: even his wife inspires rhapsodies: “behold the moist brown flesh, the graceful power of the legs … [the] porno sneer …” Amis is self-satirising here, sallying with what he calls a “smirk novel … a novel of self-congratulation”, but what are we to make of his division of his daughters’ schoolfriends into “appealing” and “not so appealing”?
I suppose this is the counterpunch to Amis’s conviction — surely correct — that “writing insists on freedom, absolute freedom, including freedom from all ideology”. Or perhaps it’s just a set-up for the unintended punchline where he tells us that it was Gloria Steinem who made him a “true believer” in feminism — in a short footnote, at the bottom of page 134.
Barry England sounds like a Martin Amis character to go along with Clint Smoker or Keith Talent, but his debut novel Figures in a Landscape was shortlisted for the first Booker Prize in 1969 and is now reissued by Vintage Classics. Thrillers are increasingly being accorded classic status — Household’s Rogue Male, Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights — and this is a thriller as pure as they come: two men, thrown together as prisoners of a regime, evade their captors and try to escape to the neighbouring country. We know nothing about them or their enemies — think Spielberg’s Duel — and the action proceeds by long set pieces: a helicopter pursuit, a race through a burning field.
Everything focuses on the physicality of the ordeal, with very little internal monologue (aptly for a novelist who was primarily a playwright), and the unbroken text pulls the reader through the story. You could treat it at face value, or see it, like Golding’s Pincher Martin, as an analogue for something bigger. At times the book feels like the experience it describes — somewhere between tiresome and essential — but it grows in depth as the heroes’ plight becomes more desperate, and ends with real resonance, not to mention sheer emotional exhaustion.
Matthew Sperling is not the new Martin Amis — I suspect he would hate the comparison — but his new novel Viral feels as splendidly now-ish as Money did in its day. It begins as a satire on tech start-ups, with The Thing Factory making social media waves in Berlin and getting into sticky stuff when its boss Ned decides to “Uberise” the sex industry with an app called Gliss.
Sperling is very astute on how the way we communicate informs the way we think and act, and how hip start-ups aren’t very different from the old corporate world. Everything is just so: the conversational tics, the distinguishability of characters in a crowded setting, the seriousness with which the book takes the business of being funny. If the implausibility of the thriller it turns into crunches a bit against the plausibility of the satire it began as, then it hardly matters against the pace, precision and pure pleasure that Viral delivers from start to finish.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe