Considering Martin Amis

Revisiting the literary legacy of a gadfly and provocateur

The numerous articles, obituaries, and tributes occasioned by Martin Amis’s May 19 death call him one of the most influential postwar British writers, widely admired for his wit, style, and bold experimentation with the novel. 

It’s no surprise that Amis was a close friend of fellow gadfly and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens. The two were contrarians with complementary personae, one a novelist whose views on political topics came across here and there in asides and random passages, and the other a highly engaged journalist and commentator who wrote about literature now and then. 

The pair was brash, but Amis’s friends also included writers with quite different personalities, namely Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. Rushdie has already weighed in with an appreciation in The New Yorker, and James Parker in The Atlantic took on the challenging task of trying to envision what A World Without Martin Amis will be like. 

Amis’s fictional output is substantial, and his wit and style will endear him to generations of readers in the years and decades to come. 

Literary lion Martin Amis died May 19 at age 73.
Prolific Output

In novels like London Fields, Time’s Arrow, Money, The Information, and Dead Babies, Amis put to use a nimble style, a restless inventiveness, and a wit so protean that you could spend hours breaking down and analyzing every sentence, page after page. His short stories aren’t bad, either. Just spend some time with Heavy Water and Other Stories and try to decide which tale is the most darkly subversive of the lot. 

In Parker’s essay, we find an anecdote about a guest at a reading in Boston who did not know that Martin Amis was the son of novelist Kingsley Amis. It may be hard for some to believe. With his cleverness, humor, and taste for the seditious, Martin was obviously a literary descendant of the author of that brilliant satire of academic life, Lucky Jim

Yet maybe we should forgive the reader in Parker’s anecdote for not seeing the connection. For all their ribaldry, charm, and humor, Martin and Kingsley manifest pretty blatant generational differences. Martin tried hard, maybe a little too hard, to be hip and of the moment. Dead Babies is not a badly written novel, but with its accounts of extreme partying and debauchery, some may find it a relentless and often gratuitous assault on good taste. Even Kingsley, a novelist who satirized the staid and hidebound, would not have envisioned such a book. 

It is no surprise that father and son were different in crucial ways. One of Martin’s concerns as a fiction writer was the evolution of artistic forms and the ways that new generations of creatives buck trends and cast off conventions. In the story State of England, Amis narrates the troubled life of Big Mal, a man with a failing marriage, an extramarital relationship, and an alienated son, Jet. 

The first lines of the story are memorable. Mal stands 50 yards away from his wife, close enough for her to see an injury he got during a night of debauchery. Close enough to talk, probably, but what they end up doing is whipping out their cell phones and pursuing a discussion that way. It is telling that the cliché about how newer technologies edge out and occlude real human interaction finds expression in the opening of a story whose title evokes the state of England. But Mal’s real difficulty is trying to relate to the boy, Jet, who adopts fashion choices that put him directly at odds with his father. 

This is the way of things, Amis tells us. A new generation will do what the one preceding it would never contemplate, and then find itself just as aghast at the choices of the generation to follow. Here Amis describes his relationship to his own father, and his pursuit and enlargement of the theater of satire using forms, idioms, language, and techniques that the novelists of the 1950s, Kingsley Amis most prominent among them, would not have considered. 

Another story in this vein is Career Move, about a screenwriter manqué meeting frustrations in his efforts to sell his work. In one passage, a group of fathers sit around stating the ages at which their sons first called them a certain expletive. The youngest one to do so, we find out, was just three years old. 

To Boldly Go Where Some Have Gone Before

Martin was an innovator, but a zest for telling off older, more hidebound generations, or for showing that you can write more ribald satire, does not a great writer make. Gratuitous, gleeful reveling in filth can become its own type of conformity.

One of Amis’s most celebrated novels, 1991’s Time’s Arrow, may be a bit overrated. For a novel praised for its bold invention, Time’s Arrow presents the reader with a dismaying number of derivative aspects. It is the story of a German doctor posted at Auschwitz during the most awful days of the Holocaust. The narrative moves backward in time, taking us from the doctor’s days living in quiet anonymity in America, through his voyage to Portugal, Italy, and Poland, to his time at the notorious concentration camp. It serves well as an illustration of the shock and incomprehension that people in the present face as we look back at the horrors of the last century and ask how the world could ever have let them occur. 

But you don’t need to be a professional literary critic to see problems here. As a highly astute reader on Goodreads points out, the concept of a story narrated in reverse, from age to at least relative youth, has many antecedents, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” prominent among them. 

Amis may have thought he did something original in choosing to narrate the novel from the point of view of one of history’s monsters, but, again, it’s been done. In 1952, almost four decades before Time’s Arrow, French historical novelist Robert Merle published La mort est mon métier, a powerful and disturbing account of the life and times of one of the most evil and loathsome personages in history, Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hess. In the novel, this fiend’s name is Rudolf Lang. 

Merle is interested in the question of how a cultivated man could have become complicit in unspeakable crimes, or how, as the title has it, death becomes his trade. He gets deep into the psychology of human evil. As a character study and a historical chronicle, Time’s Arrow is not superior to La mort est mon métier. 

A Front-Line Journalist Speaks 

The one person who might be most hostile to this assessment of the comparative worth of Merle’s novel is Amis himself. Geoff Dyer, the author of an Amis eulogy in the Guardian, quoted Amis in another context when writing about bestselling author Sebastian Junger’s war reportage.

In a June 11, 2010, Guardian essay, Dyer quotes an Amis essay in the collection The Moronic Inferno, denigrating the merits of historical and contemporary chronicles in novelistic form, or as some call them, nonfiction novels. Such books, Amis claimed, do not possess “moral imagination.” 

“The facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point. There can be no art without moral point. When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply, with murder—and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death,” Amis wrote. 

Book and Film Globe reached out directly to Junger for comment on Amis’s blunt dismissal of the role of fact-based novels. 

“Well, I think it’s provocative silliness. Surely, the idea that facts don’t illuminate truth can be found only on Fox News and at the end of a long night of literary drinking,” Junger wrote in an email. 

“Hitchens was such a bright comet, everyone else looks dull in comparison. He built his entire career around revealing the truth through actual facts. I think the deep insecurity of the novelist shows through in what Amis said,” Junger continued.

“I was in high school geometry class with (Amis’s wife) Isabel Fonseca, though. Amis clearly did something right,” he added.

Failure of Nerve

Amis’s dismissal of the nonfiction novel in that essay seems even stranger in light of the “fictional autobiography” Inside Story, which came out in October 2020. Here was a sensational book aimed at having it both ways—offering up an insider’s wild and purportedly true stories and anecdotes about the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Ian McEwan, John Updike, and other authors, while shielding Amis and publisher from any action with a curious claim that the book is fiction.

Longtime friends Amis and Christopher Hitchens

What is really curious is the decision to write Inside Story at all. It is an unfocused, self-indulgent, only intermittently witty and funny account of a literary circle’s foibles and faux pas, right down to their drinking habits and money worries. He tops it off with a scurrilous suggestion that the poet Philip Larkin may have been Martin Amis’s father. 

If any readers take offense because this article criticizes the recently dead, it is well to note that Amis himself was not shy about doing so. Describing a 1987 visit to a hospital where people milled around getting information about private healthcare plans, Amis recalls with distaste the “shameful spectacle” of Americans expressing aversion to public healthcare. He reserves his nastiest venom for John Updike, stating that what emerged on that occasion was “the lumpen bohunk Updike.” You know, the redneck rube. 

Some will protest that if Amis had not written Inside Story, there is so much we would never have learned about the famous authors involved. But if that is the argument, then one does have to wonder why Amis and the book’s publishers insisted on classifying it as fiction. 

For all his flaws and late-career indiscretions, the literary world will be a much poorer place without Martin Amis. It is tempting to say that Amis and Hitchens are having a blast hanging out in heaven, except that might not go over so well with Hitchens, a fervent atheist.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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