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The Sardonic Inferno

At its best, Amis’s fiction broke open the locked door behind which our culture tries to keep its skeletons hidden.

· 6 min read
The Sardonic Inferno

Maybe one sign of being an important writer is how much attention you receive when you die. Tributes to and remembrances of Martin Amis, who died last week at 73, have been appearing all over the place, like fresh bouquets of sympathy sent to a funeral. I almost found myself lazily inserting the phrase “after a long battle with cancer” to specify the conditions of his demise, but since Amis was famously at war with cliches, this would not do. Amis refused to hide his taste, his opinions, and above all, his style under a bushel, and this is why people loved him on both sides of the Atlantic.

Having Kingsley Amis as a father would be a blessing and a curse for anyone, though Amis generally chose to emphasize the former in his memoirs. “Kingers” was a bumptious, boozy, brazen comic wit whose books can still scandalize today. Lucky Jim’s perfectly pitched mockery of pompous academics, shrill neurotics, and general sad sacks pontificating to one another disparaged such frauds and fools with one hand while lighting a resentful cheap cigarette with the other—despite the sarcasm those idiots were nevertheless in charge. Some of this attitude seems to have rubbed off on the young Amis, as did the influence of Amis’s two great prose heroes: the darkly elegant yet humane Vladimir Nabokov and the bustling and streetwise yet erudite Saul Bellow.

Understandably, Amis tended to bristle when he was accused of riding his father’s considerable coattails. Writing is already hard enough, though it must be immeasurably more difficult when your dad is already famous, and even infamous, for it. Kingers was apparently appalled when Martin inserted a fictional version of himself into the story, but this probably reveals more about generational attitudes to postmodernism than the legitimacy of such a literary move. Amis said (probably with Kingers in mind) that he wanted to be thought of as someone who kept the comic novel going for a few generations. And this he certainly did, though his sardonic idea of what was funny in an increasingly hysterical age cut a distinct figure.

I’ve always admired the importance that Amis placed on humor, not only in good literature but also as a metric for a human being. Bypassing his father’s prankster-like sensibility, he had little patience for the humorless person, “by which I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.” This is the dialectical point from which the scales of Amis’s legendary humor were suspended: if you can’t be funny, then you can’t be serious, and vice versa. Perceiving the human condition with anything close to accuracy often means beholding the ridiculous and the sublime; an intently furrowed brow can’t take you as far and as deep into the human condition as a knowing cackle.

The line is quoted in a review of Amis’s excellent memoir Experience by his late, great friend Christopher Hitchens, who had spent years commiserating with Amis at the office, the bar, the podium, and eventually the deathbed. Hitchens never wrote fiction but he wrote quite a lot about it, and he surrounded himself with the top rank of novelists in a “Friday lunch group” consisting of Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and others (a story that hopefully someone will tell in full one day). The mischievous word games they played are worth the price of admission. Only McEwan and Rushdie, wounded but unbowed, are left. As Amis once put it, in a remark that hints at why he was called an enfant terrible well into middle age, “as a non-reclusive man of letters from the British Isles, I could not but have encyclopedic experience of the effects of alcohol.”

It’s also remarkable, and a sweet relief in these fractious times, to recall that Hitchens and Amis’s friendship survived deep disagreements about important topics, including Hitchens’s withering critique of Amis’s odd book about Soviet Russia, Koba the Dread. I’ve always appreciated how someone as erudite and cosmopolitan as Hitchens admitted that he needed his best friend to wordlessly correct a manuscript’s “pepper-shaker punctuation.” This is perhaps why their friendship endured: mutual respect is, unlike emotional sensitivity or tactful tolerance, an earned proposition.

When Amis dumped the wife of his longtime friend Julian Barnes as an agent and engaged a notoriously ferocious one instead, he scored a huge advance, much of which he then spent correcting his miserable teeth. This controversy was the talk of the chattering classes for a while. Gossip is always and ever merely gossip, but why can’t important writers live, as it were, out loud? We should have more writers making headlines these days, provided of course that they have the body of work to back up all the brouhaha.

Amis tended to stumble when he tackled Big Important Topics like Stalinism, the Holocaust, nuclear war, and terrorism. His diabolically obtuse post-911 statements about the necessity of curtailing the rights of Muslims until the community “gets its house in order” produced an outcry and were rapidly retracted by Amis himself, which makes one wonder why he made them in the first place. Was an increasingly bellicose Hitchens putting a bug in his ear? I found Time’s Arrow, which told a Holocaust-themed story backwards, to be gimmicky and distracting. The Zone of Interest, a “love” story set in a concentration camp between a guard and an inmate, was narratively weak and conceptually a little outrageous. Apparently, there’s a new film version, which has gotten some applause at Cannes. One wonders.

When he wasn’t writing fiction, Amis was an ace literary and social critic. His sensitive appraisals of Austen, Lolita, Joyce, DeLillo, Mailer, Vonnegut, Burgess, and a host of others are all first-rate examples of how criticism can be just as painstaking and illuminating as poetry. When diagnosing what Bellow once called “the moronic inferno” (which Amis used as the title of one of his books), Amis upheld the tradition of English emigres able to perceive in the New World what its citizens could not. Amis was by no means a reflexive America hater, but he wasn’t afraid to point out the absurdities of his adopted country, either. He wrote perceptively about Trump’s “three false smiles: the golf-pro smirk, revealing the golf-champ teeth; the one in which he bites down on his sucked-in lower lip (this isn’t a smile so much as an imitation of a regular guy) and, arguably the most dreadful of all, the flat sneer of Ozymandian hauteur that widens out almost from ear to ear, like a comic mask.”

No tribute to Amis would be complete without citing some of his most memorable lines. Amis was an expert at what James Wood, who recently wrote appreciably about him, calls “serious noticing.” Plotting was to Amis ultimately the stuff of thrillers—finding out who-done-it ran a distant second to sketching grotesqueries and trying to depict the febrile world anew. At his best, you could revel in his focus on the subject or object at hand, however mundane. After all these years, I still haven’t forgotten phrases like “the religion of sleep” or his description of a swatted housefly as an “armored survivalist with gas-mask face” or his comparison of London to a cobweb or the scrawny, horny teenager Charles Highway’s self-deprecating remark on the incongruities of his “rangy, well-traveled, big-cocked name” on the first page of his first novel, The Rachel Papers.

Money (subtitled “A Suicide Note”) is arguably the apex of Amis’s art. John Self, the perpetually bloated, loaded, and toasted narrator informs us of the evil genies that float around the gusty exits of New York City subway stations. Self instructs us that “unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette” and murmurs to himself like a woozy Miltonic devil that “money be thou my good.” Amis keeps that antic sozzled pace going for hundreds of pages, as his willfully vulgar antihero piles fresh debauchery upon debauchery, riffing on the dissatisfaction of everything being endlessly available. Runner-up The Information, about the turbulent inner world of male literary jealousy, could be read as dealing with the opposite problem: of having nothing much and knowing it while everything seems to be happening right next door.

Money might have been a little more shocking to readers when it was first published in 1984—an infamous year in the middle of a decade in denial about its own ambitions. But the idea of a character being so casually and consistently glutted on a perpetual conveyor belt of maxed-out credit cards, junk food, booze, porn, and reality TV really doesn’t sound out of place on this side of the Millennium. At its best, Amis’s fiction broke open the locked door behind which our culture tries to keep its skeletons hidden. This is one of the ways that comedy can work its subversive magic. It’s not often that you find someone who can write as beautifully about ugly things.

The casual mastery of prose unexpectedly made the reader feel welcomed, and Amis liked to compare style to a host. As a number of commenters have pointed out, whenever he used his precise, imaginative, curled-lip tone, he somehow made the reader feel like they were in on the action too. People were in awe of him: I’ve heard too many accounts for it not to be mentioned. That palpable devotion to the art and craft of writing was evidently rigorous until his final days, spent with the collected works of Edith Wharton and disappointed by his inability to hold a pencil. It bestowed upon him the all-important gift of the reader’s trust. In one scene in his moving final novel/memoir/essay Inside Story, Amis remembers being 18 and looking up at a random London window at night and seeing a light blazing, someone sitting alone, reading intently. “That would be enough,” he vowed, “even if I never write, complete, publish anything at all, ever, that would be enough. Then I’d be a part of it.” And so, all these years later, he is.

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