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Amis, Martin

The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Michael R. Molino

Amis, Martin 

Few reviewers or critics have responded subtly or indifferently to Martin Amis the man or to his writing—with nearly equal numbers praising his writing and denouncing it. Amis's advocates argue that his wordplay, social commentary, and penetrating moral perspective combine to fashion a vigorous, stylistically innovative form of fiction that catalogs the degeneration of modern England. In contrast, Amis's detractors acknowledge such traits but contend that his patriarchal view of women, preoccupation with the grotesque, and self-indulgent preference for style over character and plot results in exquisitely written paragraphs in otherwise structurally flawed novels. The competing views of Amis's literary style, however, can neither exaggerate nor diminish the influence Amis undoubtedly has had on such noteworthy contemporaries as Ian McEwan, Will Self, Julian Barnes, and Zadie Smith. Nonetheless, Amis's much-vaunted literary arrival at the age of twenty-four sparked many reviewers to blur the distinction between biography and fiction in order to suggest that Amis's privileged literary pedigree contributed more than his talent to his success.

The charge of pedigree, at least, is not without merit. Born 25 August 1949 in Oxford, England, to Kingsley William and Hilary (née Bardwell) Amis, Martin Louis Amis was five years old when his father's first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), brought Kingsley financial and critical success. During his formative years, Martin encountered Kingsley's literary friends and lived in South Wales, America, Spain, and the West Indies—attending fourteen schools before entering Exeter College at Oxford University in 1969. During his three years at Oxford, Amis studied with Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendant of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, and the poet Craig Raine.

After graduating with a degree in literature, Amis moved quickly through several staff and editorial positions at respected periodicals. His precociousness, intelligence, savage wit, and sexual escapades brought Amis notoriety as well as criticism. His friendship with avowed socialists Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton at the liberal magazine the New Statesman publicly cemented Amis as politically left of center; his involvement with various writers and his frank reviews marked him as a member of London's literary elite. All this occurred before Amis was twenty-eight years old. His immediate success and ubiquitous presence on the London literary scene made him a target, viewed by many as a child who assumed his birthright rather than a writer who earned his place. After publishing three novels, Amis decided in 1980 to write fiction full-time but continued to publish reviews and essays in England and America.

Literary Fathers

In Experience (2000), a memoir published five years after his father's death in 1995, Amis writes, “I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case—a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son.” Calling Kingsley and Martin Amis a “literary curiosity” does not fully articulate the parallels between father and son. Both received firsts at Oxford, a formal honor for academic excellence, and both won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Prize for their first novels, Kingsley at age thirty-two for Lucky Jim and Martin at just twenty-four for The Rachel Papers (1973). Kingsley was (unwillingly) viewed as a member of the Angry Young Men school of writers who satirized the established order for its pomposity and disingenuousness, voicing disgust over England's social and political malaise. Likewise, Martin was heralded as the vanguard of a new British literary fiction that found late twentieth-century English society hollowed by consumerism and incapable of asking, much less answering, serious moral questions. Both father and son were decried as misogynists, even pornographers, and both followed the success of their first novels with sophomore disappointments, That Vacant Feeling (1955) for Kingsley and Dead Babies (1975) for Martin.

Despite the similarities, Kinsley and Martin Amis differ most strikingly in their literary styles. Kingsley throughout his career favored a form of realism in which the narrative structure of the novel is defined by causality and coherence, populated by individuals who are assumed autonomous and capable of originality, written in an urbane but readable style in which the author disappears into the background in order to foreground the mimetic world of the novel. Martin, in contrast, writes postmodern fiction with elaborate structures propelled by disorder, entropy, or randomness rather than causality. The self in postmodern fiction is not assumed to be individual and unique but a fluid construct of gestures, expressions, and allegiances. The narrative voice in postmodern fiction struggles with such contingencies, aware of the limitations of human consciousness. The Rachel Papers is just such a self-conscious narrative, calling attention to itself as text, as written literary language. The novel's narrator, Charles Highway, a literary critic in training, perceives the world around him as encoded and himself a fiction within it. Highway is convinced that human experience has already been recorded to the extent that everything, his every thought and word, is predigested, a composite of previously articulated experiences. As such, Highway laments not only his failing as a would-be lover to Rachel but his inability to discover any authentic, unmediated, original experience in life.

Amis's postmodern fiction also reveals the breakdown of traditional genres, blurring the boundaries between literary forms and the once-definitive distinctions between high and low culture, fact and fiction. Martin Amis's promiscuous use of literary styles reflects the collapse of structures that once ordered both society and literature. In such fiction, elevated literary diction vies with street-smart slang in the same paragraph, allowing the narrator a vast linguistic palette from which to draw. Moreover, the author can transgress the border between life and art to appear in the novel. In Money (1984), the narrator, John Self, who ironically lacks any form of coherent self, meets Martin Amis, with whom he plays a game of chess, as well as Martin's female twin, Martina Twain. Even the names of characters in an Amis novel are textually weighted. John Self, Nicola Six, and Clint Smoker are not the names of characters designed to blend into the ordinary world of the novel. They are characters with half-Dickensian monikers, like Thomas Gradgrind or Stephen Blackpool from Hard Times, that bridge the character's internal and external existence and half linguistically provocative icons, like Oedipa Maas or Mike Fallopian in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Amis's energetic, eclectic prose style, rich with literary and commonplace references and his use of doubling finds precedence in two influential American novelists, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov.

In Bellow, Amis found an author with a hyperactive prose style who explored the way materialism, violence, and cultural emptiness contribute to a comfortable form of nihilism in which people structure their lives around commonplace activities. For Bellow, the author is a visionary or prophet whose fiction calls attention to transcendent truths, seeking the human soul in an inhospitable world, redeeming the formlessness of human existence. Amis is disinclined toward such talk of the soul and finds an agnostic kinsman in Nabokov, who proclaims the author a godlike figure who not only reorders but re-creates experience, all the while breaking the mimetic illusion of the text. Both authors believe that human beings have a compulsion to fictionalize in an effort to impose order on the chaos of experience. The influence of Bellow and Nabokov are most evident in Money, perhaps Amis's best novel, in which the central character—the grotesque, self-indulgent, amoral John Self—is so “addicted to the twentieth century” that he has no existence at all without the pornography, drugs, consumerism, and travel that fill his life. Self's encounter with Martin Amis begins with a game of chess, then provides the moral perspective so lacking in Self's existence, and finally facilitates the novel's conclusion.

Amis captured the excesses of the 1970s so thoroughly in Dead Babies that his publisher retitled the paperback version Dark Secrets to make the novel seem more appealing. Undeterred, Amis portrayed the same decadent world in his third novel, Success (1978), which is told through dual narrative voices—two brothers, Gregory Riding and Terence Service, separated by adoption and class, who engage in a wild array of debauched behavior. The use of doubles, a fixture in Nabokov's fiction, recurs in Amis's fourth novel, Other People (1981), in which the central character is Mary Lamb, an amnesia sufferer, who only vaguely recalls her life as her opposite, Amy Hide. The novel's conclusion acts as a return of sorts, not to a stable or certain point of origin, but to a position from which a second or subsequent look can begin. The Information (1995) tells the story of Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry, two friends who become rivals, the first a best-selling author of vapid utopian fiction and the latter a failed author of unreadable literary novels. One character becomes his own double in Amis's tenth novel, Yellow Dog (2003), when the respectable family man Xan Meo becomes a sadistic, sex-driven lout after he is assaulted outside a London pub. Whether the setting is the upscale world of publishing or the decidedly downscale world of tabloid journalism, Amis's characters are rooted in the rough and vulgar side of contemporary British life.

Writing and Politics

Early in his career, Amis wrote fiction depicting self-indulgent, ahistorical characters with no apparent moral connection to or political awareness of the world around them. As Amis approached his fortieth birthday, however, he began to ask how the world of the late twentieth century found itself in such a state, and such questions have since kindled his fiction and nonfiction. Amis began to look backward and forward in time in an effort to diagnose the ongoing apocalypse the world has faced since 1945. His collection of short stories titled Einstein's Monsters (1987) and his novel London Fields (1989) both look forward in time to the turn of the twenty-first century, when the destructive potential of nuclear weapons has outlived its creators and shaped the world of their offspring.

Einstein's Monsters, based on Amis's reading of both scientific nonfiction and science fiction, explores the postnuclear age and the godlike power of humans to uncreate the world. In London Fields, Amis writes a murder mystery of sorts in which the murder victim, Nicola Six, knows that she will be murdered on her thirty-fifth birthday. The story, which Nicola then partially controls, follows her increasingly self-destructive efforts to control her own death. For Amis, history has not progressed since 1945; destructive agents or threats—Hitler, Stalin, nuclear proliferation—have paralyzed humanity with grief or fear, resulting in only the appearance of control as humanity awaits its end.

Time's Arrow (1991) employs a literary technique to present the post-Holocaust years as a time filled with activities that make little sense at all. Amis's dual central characters experience life backward; Dr. Tod T. Friendly awakes from a heart attack and proceeds through his life in reverse order while the unnamed narrator, perhaps Friendly's soul or conscience, asks “when the world is going to make sense.” The reverse narrative follows Friendly back to Nazi Germany, where he becomes a death camp physician, revivifying countless Jews, creating life out of utter destruction. Amis offers no new insights into the horrors of the Holocaust; nonetheless, the conceit of the reverse narrative calls attention to the incomprehensible fact that ordinary life coexisted with and continued long after the horrors of Nazi Germany.

The cold war brought the anxiety of an age of deterrence, when people acquiesced to the prospect of annihilation. In Experience, looking back to his childhood, Amis bristles over such passivity as well as the ridiculously inadequate responses to the potential for nuclear destruction. The end of the cold war brought an end to deterrence as a strategy but not an end to nuclear weapons. The nuclear age survived the cold war only to enter into a new age of proliferation in which many possess the atom's destructive power and cold war weapons find their way into the hands of those who view destruction as a means of survival. Koba the Dread (2002) blends historical analysis with personal recollection, with Amis punctuating his list of atrocities perpetrated by Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky with deliberations on the refusal of liberals to acknowledge such atrocities. Amis reproaches H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other early Communist supporters; 1940s and 1950s advocates like Kingsley Amis; and contemporaries, such his friend Christopher Hitchens, all of whom Amis believes have no justification for delusions. Amis asks why people can joke about Stalin, the Soviet state, and their youthful exuberance for Communism while no one can imagine corresponding playful forgiveness for Hilter or National Socialist Germany—why one atrocity casts a shadow over the entire century while another, quantitatively worse, finds a comfortable place in the liberal conscience.

The political side of Martin Amis is not separate from the literary side. Amis depicts the excesses of a wealthy, self-satisfied consumer society so relentlessly, blending grotesque description with biting wit, that the reader cannot help but long for a moralist's vantage point. Likewise, Amis's political and apocalyptic writing unwaveringly exposes the horrors of late-twentieth-century life, making the political personal by revealing the collusion of humanity in its own destructive tendencies. Martin Amis does not expect subtle or indifferent responses from his readers; the world he depicts in his writing can ill afford them.

See also Angry Young Men and Kingsley Amis.

Selected Works

The Rachel Papers (1973)Find this resource:

    Dead Babies (1975)Find this resource:

      Success (1978)Find this resource:

        Other People: A Mystery Story (1981)Find this resource:

          Invasion of the Space Invaders (1982)Find this resource:

            Money: A Suicide Note (1984)Find this resource:

              The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986)Find this resource:

                Einstein's Monsters (1987)Find this resource:

                  London Fields (1989)Find this resource:

                    Time's Arrow; or, The Nature of the Offence (1991)Find this resource:

                      Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (1993)Find this resource:

                        The Information (1995)Find this resource:

                          Night Train (1997)Find this resource:

                            Heavy Water and Other Stories (1999)Find this resource:

                              Experience (2000)Find this resource:

                                The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971–2000 (2001)Find this resource:

                                  Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002)Find this resource:

                                    Yellow Dog (2003)Find this resource:

                                      Further Reading

                                      Dern, John A. Martians, Monsters, and Madonna: Fiction and Form in the World of Martin Amis. New York, 1999. Presents Amis as a postmodernist writer whose work reveals the decay of traditional fictional practices.Find this resource:

                                        Diedrick, James. Understanding Martin Amis. Columbia, SC, 1995. Provides a good introduction to Amis's early career, novels, short stories, and nonfiction and juxtaposes Amis's satiric and aesthetic sidesFind this resource:

                                          Edmondson, Elie A. “Martin Amis Writes Postmodern Man.” Critique 42 (2001): 145–154. Argues that Amis's postmodern style—fictions within fictions, confounding uncertainty, willfully unreflective narrators—is the story itself.Find this resource:

                                            Keulks, Gavin. Father and Son: Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, and the British Novel since 1950. Madison, WI, 2003. Presents the relationship between father and son as both a personal relationship as well as a debate between competing aesthetic practices that reveal trends in British fiction.Find this resource:

                                              Stokes, Peter. “Martin Amis and the Postmodern Suicide: Tracing the Postnuclear Narrative at the Fin de Millennium.” Critique 38 (1997): 300–311. Presents Amis's postmodernism as one that accepts indeterminacy as an effect that does not invariably undermine all attempts to confront the serious problems of modern existence.Find this resource:

                                                Tredell, Nicolas, ed. The Fiction of Martin Amis. Hampshire, U.K., 2002. A reader's guide that presents reviews, essays, interviews, and previously uncollected pieces and examines dominant themes in Amis's fiction.Find this resource:

                                                  Michael R. Molino