Written after his father’s passing, Martin Amis’s memoir Experience highlighted my project in the first chapter in the second footnote:
When you review a film, or appraise a film-director, you do not make a ten-minute short about it or him (or her). When you write about a painter, you do not produce a sketch. When you write about a composer, you do not reach for your violin. And even when a poet is under consideration, the reviewer or profilist does not (unless deeply committed to presumption and tedium) produce a poem. But when you write about a novelist, an exponent of prose narrative, then you write a prose narrative.
So, when a reviewer drafts a poor review, he or she is subject to the following question, “And was that the extent of your hopes for your prose—bookchat, interviews, gossip?” Answering his own question, Amis writes, “Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for you to say that this is envy.”
Amis is a British novelist and essayist, who, unlike other writers, has a Booker prize winning father, Kingsley Amis. The two wrote and published concurrently, which, as Martin remarked in an interview, “never happens.” Detailed in Experience, Martin Amis is an adolescent chain-smoker, a short man with measured ferocity, a sharp mind slicing dull minds, constantly between toothaches, and a caring father of six. But, most accurately, he is a writer. Following every chapter in Amis’s memoir are letters he wrote during his late teens and early 20s, often titled “Letter From Home” or “Letter from School” and addressed to his novelist father Kingsley Amis and novelist stepmother Elizabeth Jane Howard. Each began with the business casual, “Dearest Dad and Jane.”
Here you will find the common collegiate lede, “Fucking thanks for the lunch Dad,” and the sly P.S. that documents the money spent on coffee, tips, and dry cleaning for which Amis is hoping to be reimbursed. The letters are preserved in grammar and content; thus, making them rife with misspelt words, absent commas, apostrophes, and colons. Published in 2000, Experience furnished the pattern for his most recent 2020 work, Inside Story: A Novel. Despite the book’s subtitle—it leaves the reader with a mistaken view of the book’s content, for Amis considers it “life writing” and toggles between the first and third person—Inside Story is an autobiography. In a similar fashion to the “Letters” in Experience, Amis splices brief essays entitled “Guideline” and “How to Write” for young, wishful writers. Perhaps Amis felt compelled to instruct upcoming writers to ensure the mistakes embedded in the “Letters” stayed put.
Amis, however, refrains from teaching an important subject. Which suggests the subject is not open to be taught—irony. Amis’s ability to craft a perfect timed sentence and scene, derived invariably from his inner P.G. Wodehouse, is unmatched. Journalist and satirist Clive James famously wrote that humor is “common sense operating at a different speed,” and the variation, “humor is common sense dancing.” Amis has professional ballet common sense. Champion racehorse common sense. Expert Viennese waltz common sense. Olympic sprinter common sense. You should read Amis for his contemplated prose, vulgar wit, and test-your-gut humor. He will make you pause in admiration, grieve when he’s grieving, and laugh at instantly unforgettable phrases like “tuxed fucks” and “no sinister balls.”
Satire in the text
The deep-rooted irony, which mocks masculinity without cheapening its strengths, is born in the first lines of Amis’s first novel The Rachel Papers: “My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me. It’s such a rangy, well-traveled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these.” Commenting on his early novels at a 2013 public reading with Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, Amis was asked if he would be willing to introduce any edits into his past works if he were offered the opportunity to do so. Amis unreservedly claimed to dislike his first four books—The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, Other People—but hesitated to endorse revisions. As a reader, I found this surprising. Anyone who dislikes these novels, especially The Rachel Papers, is either illiterate, boring, humorless, or—the most likely culprit—a cocktail of all three.
Charles Highway is a bookish, clever, sex crazed college-aged neurotic who exhausts himself trying to seduce Rachel Noyes. Highway’s faux high-brow persona is prone to sizing Rachel up as, “her character is as high powered as her syntax.” Amis admits the novel is largely autobiographical, leaving the reader to wonder about Amis’s pre-date rituals. For instance, Highway attended movies by himself to prepare sharp remarks when Rachel joined him. I imagine if Amis indulged in the same habits he would be reluctant to disclose them.
The profanity that seeps into Amis’s work is not that of a Boston comedian wishing for celebrity status. It is a concentrated prose that doesn’t apologize because its offense isn’t intended to offend. At a speaking event with his (and my) hero Saul Bellow, Amis disclosed that the humorless should, “not be trusted with anything.” An absent sense of humor makes someone boring, but it also forbids them from knowing what is serious. In Experience, Amis regards the novelist James Buchan “humourless,” and then adds that “by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.” Being unequipped with humor is, according to Amis, “an emotional dyslexia,” and one should “always help these people across the road.” Parents should never “trust them with their children.”
The tacit morality found in Amis’s account of his first purchase of Steradent—a dental cleanser, named by the clever combination of “sterilize” and “dentures”—summoned the indelible memory of his first purchase of a male contraceptive. Tracing, as it were, the rules for buying:
(1) You will try to make sure that the chemist who serves you is a man and not a woman and certainly not a young woman. (2) You will hang around for a long time staring at hairsprays and deodorants until the chemist’s is empty, but, in both cases, as you commit yourself to the till, a coachload of silent eighteen-year-old girls will come through the door. (3) You will of course buy something else too, as a (ridiculous) diversionary tactic. Products altogether unrelated to the contraband you seek. No Vaseline or Philisan (which, Kingsley used to say fiftified the over-forties). Innocent things like shampoo or vitamin C (but not E). (4) You will endeavour to give the impression that these articles are not for your own use: you are the mere errandboy of a shadowy satyromaniac or nonagenarian. You may even brandish a list, and mutter, or consider muttering, something about the indolence of your older brother or the forgetfulness (and immobility) of your poor old gran. (5) Whatever happens, you will leave the shop with your face burning.
His father, Kingsley, wrote that Amis’s work “reeks of the lamp,” as coined by lexicographer Samuel Johnson. The prose felt too worked upon, rewritten, reorganized, reformatted. I disagree. Quite brilliantly, Amis untangles the satire in the deadbeat stepfather, the young stepmother, the manic depressive brother-in-law. Take, for instance, the alcoholic narrator of Money, John Self, unloading on a “veteran entertainer” he sees on a variety television show:
His Latin rug sweats with vitamins. His falsy ears are sharp and succulent. When I make all the money I’m due to make and go off to California for that well-earned body transplant I’ve promised myself, I’ll mention the name of old green eyes here, and tell the medics, as I go under, There. That’s how I want it. Give me one just like that… But now this aged android starts bringing on a string of even older guys, also spruce and dazzlingly metallic, a chorus of tuxed fucks called things like Mr. Music and Entertainment Himself.
Money was written in 1984, and only multiple decades later does the reader unearth the origins of “tuxed fucks,” in Inside Story. It is unsurprising that the phrase was parented by Christopher Hitchens and Amis while working together at the New Statesman. The phrase indicates, as the reader knew decades prior, those snobs who wander from dinner party to dinner party looking to impress with snide remarks, and, most horribly, add to the chorus of fake laughter. This is why one should read Amis—his phraseology is precision itself. Money was also lobbed across the room by Kingsley. He considered it a disgrace that a novelist would insert himself into the novel. For in Money “Martin Amis” appears on the cover and in its pages. This is John Self stumbling upon Amis in a bar:
“Hey,” I said. “When you, do you sort of make it up, or is it just, you know, like what happens?”
“Autobiographical,” I said. “I haven’t read any of your books. There’s, I don’t really get that much time for reading.”
“Fancy,” he said. He started reading again.
“Hey,” I said. “Your dad, he’s a writer too, isn’t he? Bet that made it easier.”
“Oh, sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub.”
The “family pub” gives a sarcastic nod to those who suppose that Kingsley simply passed on literary talent and stamina to his son. That he hurled Money across the room is evidence of their differences. Kingsley simply could not betray his stance of keeping the author out of the pages. Martin, however, could get away with putting himself in his own novel, for he does not self-flatter or self-pity. He is capable of stunning the reader with brilliant prose even when the subject is himself.
Saul Bellow competes with Franz Kafka for the best opening to a novel. Bellow in Herzog: “If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” Kafka in Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” In time, Amis will find Money on the list of Best Openings with: “This is a suicide note.” Perhaps the ingredients to a masterful beginning are one part simplicity and a heavy splash of urgency.
Amis often refers to Bellow as his literary father. Who wouldn’t want to be the child of the genius behind Herzog?
When a man’s breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown—he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty words, his anger, his afflictions, and his sins.
Who wouldn’t want to be taught by the author of A Silver Dish, the short-story narrated by the grieving Woody Selbst?
But on this Sunday, at peace as soon as the bells stopped banging, this velvet autumn day when the grass was finest and thickest, silky green: before the first frost, and the blood in your lungs is redder than summer air can make it and smarts with oxygen, as if the iron in your system was hungry for it, and the chill was sticking it to you in every breath—Pop, six feet under, would never feel this blissful sting again. The last of the bells still had the bright air streaming with vibrations.
Amis wrote an entire third of his book Inside Story about his relationship with Bellow. The most amusing account of the two, however, comes from Experience. Amis brought Hitchens along to a dinner at Bellow’s home in Vermont. Upon the road trip to the Bellow residence, Amis demanded “no sinister balls,” and Hitchens nodded in agreement. The phrase means no far-Left discussion or debate, which invariably and unfortunately, Hitchens required for his merlot veins. In other words, there were plentiful sinister balls. Oceans of sinister balls. Continents of sinister balls. Amis writes:
And Saul, packed down over the table, shoulders forward, legs tensed beneath his chair, became more laconic in his contributions, steadily submitting to a cataract of pure reason, matter-of-fact chapter and verse, with its interjected historical precedents, its high-decibel statistics, its fortissimo fine distinctions—Christopher’s cerebral stampede.
“Cerebral stampede” is genius. It’s Bellovian. There are several instances where Amis maneuvers through English with supernatural force, capable of degrading my journalistic confidence almost to extinction. For instance, occupying the leverage of the Empire State, Amis recalled his adolescence:
I stared out and down at Manhattan with a sense of boundless privilege and achievement. That this glittering immensity inspired only terror in my father seemed to me painfully discrepant. I was sorry for him, and also generally bewildered, because I thought all adults lived beyond the reach of fear.
Amis can summon childhood with Dickensian spirit, and fortify his seriousness in a simple and damning description of divorce, “Divorce: the incredibly violent thing. What parent, involved in it, has not wished for the death of the once-loved one? This is universal.” He continues, “And this is why your heart feels gangrenous inside your chest. This is why (as I put it to myself) you want men in white to come and take you away and wash your blood.” Amis was undoubtedly influenced by Kipling’s famous description of tribalism as “thinking with the blood.”
Humor does not discount the prose’s weight or moral prerogatives. Amis is proof. The deadly prose on every page is rejuvenating, it refreshes the mind and dispels of cliché and over-beaten phrases—“bitter cold” or “stiflingly hot.” These descriptions, Amis says, “have been going steady for so long, they’re begging to be divorced.” He will not indulge in regurgitations. His readers will not encounter a shock described as a “deer in front of the headlights,” or a linked plot point flushed out by “everything happens for a reason,” or summer pavement that is “hot as hell.” Instead, one finds lines such as, “Youth can perhaps be defined as the illusion of your own durability.” Or Amis at the beach: “…sea salt in my throat was continuously succumbing to the taste of ice cream.”
Amis is in love with English, and the marriage is a healthy one. The writer’s inner ear, attuned to the clockwork behind words and the rhythm in between the white pages, is almost otherworldly with Amis. He has perfected the craft, and his work sprouts the resumé. Some people are funny, but only one person is Martin Amis.
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