Martin Amis is the most condescended-to novelist of his time. He is also one of the most literate, funny, quotable and (this the condescenders never neglect to mention) talented. He is the author of a few clunkers and a very strange book on Stalin, Koba the Dread, but also of two classics of contemporary satire–Money and The Information. “Be more funny!” Homer Simpson yells at the television, and it’s no use. But then, no writer has loused up his fiction with such a transparent misunderstanding of what literature should aspire to in our time.
To have watched Amis these past five years, since approximately the short-story collection Heavy Water, is to have borne uncomfortable witness to a sort of extended creative meltdown. In that time he has published a memoir, Experience, in which some funny and very warm reminiscences of his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, are interspersed with passages of embarrassing, misplaced bathos; Koba, in which some funny and warm reminiscences of Kingsley are interspersed with passages of embarrassing, misplaced historical score-settling; and now Yellow Dog, a novel of embarrassingly transparent and misplaced moral grandstanding in which Kingsley, alas, does not appear.
He is replaced in Yellow Dog by a rogues’ gallery of disappointing predictability. There is Xan Meo, the reformed London roughhouser turned good family man who takes a hard knock on the head and reverts to his old ways; there is Clint Smoker, author of the nasty, rape-cheering “Yellow Dog” column for a sex tabloid, the Morning Lark; King Henry IX, a particularly vapid monarch; and Joseph Andrews, a crusty old criminal overlord. The characters’ trajectories are only loosely, vaguely connected, and their names do not signify (Xan is not Asian, his wife, Russia, not Russian). If the book has a subject it’s the war of the sexes and, loosely, vaguely, what pornography might have to do with it. In any case, it hardly matters. Yellow Dog is shorter than it appears, because it’s written largely in dialogue, and though the first part of it is readable enough, by the second half Amis has resorted to stealing whole sentences from his journalism, and the novel has fallen apart.
What remains is Amis’s disapproval of everyone involved. It’s not enough that Clint Smoker works for an offensive paper: His writing is off-the-charts bad, and he’s also, as his ex-girlfriend informed him, “a crap fuck.” It’s not enough that King Henry is a dullard: We learn that his wife, the queen, is in a coma, and he’s having an affair. Amis does not like pornography, and he believes, rather strenuously, that men should be respectful of women’s rights. Sometimes, momentarily, he unreins his wit, only to harness it again. “Even before the first issue had hit the streets,” we learn of Clint Smoker’s paper, “it was universal practice, at the Morning Lark, to refer to readers as wankers. This applied not only to specific features (Wankers’ Letters, Our Wankers Ask the Questions, and so on), but also in phrases common to any newspapering concern, such as ‘the wanker comes first’ and ‘the wanker’s what it’s all about’ and ‘is this of genuine interest to our wankers?’ The staff had long stopped smiling when anybody said it.”
This is the best joke in the book–and yet note, at the end, the strain of disapproval. Amis’s satire has always had a heckling quality, and too often it’s been directed at his social inferiors; his fiction has always been marred by a streak of misanthropy. In his putative maturity, though, this has been replaced by a sort of taunting, as if these morons, these deviants, these inadequates, were no longer even worth our laughter.
Amis has grown up before. In the wake of Money, his coruscating anti-1980s farce, he became concerned with nuclear weapons, producing a string of essays and then Einstein’s Monsters (1987), a short book of stories all somehow touching on the nuclear threat. This was followed a few years hence by Time’s Arrow, about a Nazi doctor (remember the Nazi doctors?) living in the American suburbs. Amis’s successive enthusiasms can be traced in his father’s letters. Martin “has gone all lefty and of the crappiest neutralist kind,” Kingsley Amis writes in 1986 to his friend Robert Conquest, the great historian of Stalin’s terror, “challenging me to guess how many times over the world can destroy itself…. I suppose you can’t recommend some book?” “Martin is getting het up again over greenhouse effect and all that,” he writes to Conquest in 1990. “Can you recommend a good short book…”
Presumably Kingsley, Communist Party of Great Britain, 1941-56, subsequently a virulent Tory anti-Communist, would have been more tolerant of Koba the Dread, and he wouldn’t have had to solicit bibliographic advice, because Conquest, along with Solzhenitsyn, is the book’s main source. Also Vladimir Nabokov, who, as Amis’s favorite writer, gets to be the historian of record for prerevolutionary Russia. Even in a book as full of misprision as Koba, this is too much: The literary theorist Roman Jakobson is famously said to have objected, when Nabokov was proposed as a potential literature professor for the Harvard faculty, that one did not ask an elephant to teach zoology, but giving Nabokov the last word on the paradise of czarist Russia is like having the elephant teach Russian history. Still, skewed as it is, Koba is revealing of Amis. He simply isn’t interested, as a novelist might be, in the texture, the daily fear, of Soviet life under Stalin, still less in the heartbreak of those whose dream of revolution had been hijacked by the Bolsheviks; he is only interested in the enormous numbers, the gruesome tortures, the twisted torturer himself.
And this gets to the heart, I think, of Amis’s trouble, and all that condescension he is subject to: He still doesn’t know what his subject is. So he goes in desperate search of the really ultra-super-real. In The Information, a book about literary envy and the humiliations of middle age, both encapsulated with awesome precision in the characterization of failed novelist Richard Tull–“he was forty tomorrow, and reviewed books”–there are entire sections, by far the book’s weakest and enough of them to pull the novel off its center of gravity, devoted to the London petty-criminal world. Also brief digressions on the size of the universe–how tremendously big it is. In the wildly uneven memoir Experience, a book about Kingsley, and, magnificently at times, about aging (“Youth can perhaps be defined as the illusion of your own durability. The final evaporation of this illusion parches the skin beneath the eyes and makes your hair crackle to the brush. It was over. There would be hell to pay”), there are long passages about Martin’s cousin Lucy, who
was murdered by a famous serial killer in the early 1970s. The trouble is that Amis hardly knew his cousin, and so these parts read like an awkward, very general funeral oration by someone only glancingly acquainted with the deceased.
But Amis thinks this is the stuff. Crime, nuclear war, Holocaust, the gulag, universe expanding, petty crime, hard-boiled lumpen London–Yellow Dog is especially full of the latter–all of these seem infinitely more real to Amis than literature and middle age and money. Is Amis ever better than when looking at the social stratification of New York, “the most violent thing that men had ever done to a stretch of land”? The hungover John Self in Money:
I wondered, as I burped up Broadway, I wondered how this town ever got put together. Some guy was dreaming big all right. Starting down in Wall Street and nosing ever upward into the ruins of the old West Side, Broadway snakes through the island, the only curve in this world of grids. Somehow Broadway always contrives to be just that little bit shittier than the zones through which it bends. Look at the East Village: Broadway’s shittier than that. Look uptown, look at Columbus: Broadway’s shittier.
A fine observation on the construction of the metropolis, on its insistent, compulsive geographic class-marking. Sadly, you sense that Amis thinks this isn’t important enough, and will soon be reaching again for his lumpens. Money includes an entirely superfluous subplot about John Self’s father, who owns a bar, and his young stepmother, who poses nude for magazines.
This is known as a crisis of confidence in one’s material, and Amis seems to suffer one in every book he writes. Part of the crisis is generational: No one has been in a better position to feel his contemporaries’ inadequacies vis-à-vis their fathers than the son of Kingsley Amis, head of the postimperial grouch brigade. “Dad,” asks young Martin in Experience, “are we nouveau riche?” “Very nouveau,” answers Kingsley. “And not at all riche.” “What’s it like,” asks adult Martin, “being mildly anti-Semitic?” “It’s all right,” answers Kingsley. (“No,” earnest Martin clarifies, “I mean what’s it feel like?”) I cannot imagine Martin Amis answering any such questions with Kingsley’s genial certainty. He is a far more displaced and fidgety figure. Also a diminished one. The empire is gone, long gone, and it’s not easy being a major contemporary writer if you don’t believe you live in a major contemporary culture.
Or even that you practice a major contemporary art. “Like all writers,” Amis tells us in The Information of Richard Tull, “Richard wanted to live in some hut on some crag somewhere, every couple of years folding a page into a bottle and dropping it limply into the spume. Like all writers, Richard wanted, and expected, the reverence due, say, to the Warrior Christ an hour before Armageddon.” Instead, he is a complete loser, and in the way that you can tell what an author thinks of an idea by the characters he assigns to believe in it, Richard Tull represents Amis’s secret suspicion that literature is doomed.
This is actually an odd form of humility. When Amis rather grandly titles his (very smart) collection of book reviews The War Against Cliché, he does not mean what Orwell or, in a certain reading, Nabokov would have meant–a war against the euphemisms that lend cover to murder. Amis’s understanding appears to be closer to a private morality of entertainment. Keep it interesting, keep it moving. Don’t use the same word twice. When in doubt, make it un-literary.
But Amis was born into a peculiar situation–one in which his writerly self-consciousness was mirrored, anticipated, swallowed up by his father’s writerly self-consciousness…and his step-mother’s, and his father’s friends’. In Experience, there is an incredible passage in which Amis analyzes his father’s divorce from the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, with the (dubious) help of Kingsley’s first biographer, Eric Jacobs, whose prose Amis calls “mysteriously repetitive.” You could go crazy untangling all the writerly distortions. Or there is this footnote, about Kingsley and The Concise Oxford Dictionary: “How he loved that dictionary–as I too love it. My current edition has just snapped in half and will have to be replaced. When it was near by and he was praising it (‘This, this is the one’), he would sometimes pat and even stroke the squat black book, as if it were one of his cats.”
Kingsley is Amis’s greatest character, his most complex and comic, by about a mile; nowhere, not in his letters, or interviews, or biographies, or even maybe his own books, is Kingsley this funny or likable. “My father once told Christopher Hitchens and me to fuck off after we took him to Leicester Square to see Beverly Hills Cop. No: he liked it and we didn’t. And I think we must have curled our lips at him. Most uncharacteristically he walked away on his own and had to be coaxed into the next pub or cab.”
Would Amis be a worse writer if he simply surrendered to his fate–to be a major chronicler of modern civilization as experienced by a hypereducated and marginalized literary elite? It’s difficult to escape the impression that part of the reason Kingsley is such a fine character is that Amis cannot pretend that he is other than he is, a littérateur. How should one write when one’s greatest tenderness is reserved for a man whose greatest tenderness is reserved for his copy of the COD? Perhaps, rather than writing like this, as in Yellow Dog, relating one thug’s intimidation of a hot-dog vendor:
“Look, you don’t want your face on that grill, do you, you don’t want this trolley down on you and them onions in your hair. And a squirt of ketchup up one ear. And a squirt of mustard up the fucking other.”
one ought to write like this, as in The Information when Richard takes the vacuum cleaner to get fixed:
By the time he got the vacuum cleaner out of the apartment and onto the stairs Richard was wondering if he had ever suffered so. This, surely, is how we account for the darkness and the helpless melancholy of twentieth-century literature. These writers, these dreamers and seekers, stood huddled like shivering foundlings on the cliffs of a strange new world: one with no servants in it.
Here is the disappointment, almost even the fury. At moments like these Amis is simply the finest contemporary novelist of cultural manners, of the status that civilization has in our society, and he is capable, when necessary, of taking it a step further. “By a certain age, everyone has the face he deserves,” thinks Richard Tull. “Looking in the mirror on the morning of his fortieth birthday, Richard felt that no one deserved the face he had. No one in the history of the planet.” And better still, in Money, the book whose themes Yellow Dog picks up but travesties, John Self looks at the fictional “Martin Amis”: “If I stare into his face
I can make out the areas of waste and fatigue, the moonspots and bone-shadow you’re bound to get if you hang out in the twentieth century.”
That is Amis’s twentieth century. In Koba the Dread, he quotes voluminously from another’s twentieth century, The Gulag Archipelago–indeed, it’s part of the silliness of that book that he so insistently tries to share page-time with Solzhenitsyn. But I wonder how well he understood the dissident writer. For although Amis is correct to insist that the Soviet labor camps were effectively death camps, Solzhenitsyn’s book is necessarily about those millions who made it out–and how unnaturally old they’d become, how badly their teeth had rotted. When Amis is at his best, the twentieth century becomes a place where those without money are left with the wrinkles and the broken vacuum cleaners: a forbidding century, and one that Solzhenitsyn, with a little prompting, would have recognized as his own. And if he hadn’t recognized it, if he’d dismissed as frivolous an observation like John Self’s in the wake of his financial ruin–“Manhattan, JFK, you know these are suddenly very different places when you have no money. You change, but they change too. Even the air changes”–then so much the worse for Solzhenitsyn. A truly grown-up Amis would realize this, and in doing so would realize, too, how fine a writer he has sometimes been.