Other Writers Seem Asleep by Comparison

After Martin Amis’s death, Jennifer Egan reflects on his influence and his humor.

Martin Amis laughing
Writer Pictures / Graham Jepson / AP

I learned how to be funny from Martin Amis.

I don’t mean in person—I’m not funny in person, and I don’t know if Amis was, either. Although our paths crossed a couple of times after he moved to Brooklyn, I never spoke with him for long enough to learn whether the caustic hilarity of his 20th-century novels—which I devoured in the 1990s and then studied, trying to understand how their humor worked—was a feature of Amis’s social persona or just his writing.

Amis’s approach to literary comedy is characterized, above all, by excess: Push the action to an extreme, then push it further, then further still, until events tip into a sublime synthesis of slapstick, stand-up, and cartoon. I try this often; it feels like improvisation. A brief description from Money displays the strategy:

I showered and changed and arrived in good time. I ordered a bottle of champagne. I drank it. She didn’t show. I ordered a bottle of champagne. I drank it. She didn’t show. So I thought what the fuck and decided I might as well get loaded … And, once that was accomplished, I’m afraid I have to tell you that I threw caution to the wind.

By most readers’ lights, the narrator threw a bit of caution to the wind when he drank the first bottle. The punch line lands when, after several more bottles, and who knows what else, the debauchery is finally set to begin.

The same comic approach underlies one of my all-time favorite Amis scenes, from The Information: Two rival writers are passengers on a small plane that proves too heavy to ascend above a raging thunderstorm. A red emergency light has gone on. Amis ends the chapter, “Above their heads the cabin lights dimmed and flickered and dimmed again.” He begins the next chapter:

It was when the patch of shit appeared on the pilot’s cream rump that Richard knew for certain that all was not well. This patch of shit started life as an islet, a Martha’s Vineyard that soon became a Cuba, then a Madagascar, then a dreadful Australia of brown. But that was five minutes ago, and no one gave a shit about it now. Not a single passenger, true, had interpreted the state of the pilot’s pants as a favorable sign, but that was five minutes ago, that was history, and no one gave a shit about it now, not even the pilot, who was hollering into the microphone, hollering into a world of neighing metal and squaking rivets, hollering into the very language of the storm—its fricatives, its atrocious plosives.

What might have been an end point has already been superseded, buoying us to a crescendo (the pilot sobbing out requests for a “voidance apron”—which the passengers hear as “avoidance apron”—to hide the stain on his pants) involving scatology, rhetoric, and wildly inventive language. I’d call it classic Amis.

Excess serves as more than an aesthetic in Money and The Information; it is also the novels’ subject. Their protagonists—along with those of Success and London Fields—indulge supersize appetites for sex, wealth, status, porn, or some combination thereof—in terms likely to offend some 2023 sensibilities. But sanitizing Amis, à la Roald Dahl, would be impossible; let’s hope no one tries. Although the nauseating edge of his provocations may read more sharply now, it was always present. There is an underside to Amis’s comic excesses, and that is anxiety over a culture trending inexorably toward the superficial and the mediocre. Our collective lust for wealth and status occurs, in Amis’s novels, at the expense of his own great passion, which was language: the power of words on a page. Amis wielded that power with brio, poking and twisting and squeezing language to exceed its limits. The sheer kinesis of his prose makes most other writers’ seem asleep by comparison.

Amis’s vocabulary was apparently limitless. A quick scan of words I marked in his books includes emeried, voulu, monorchism, and mephitic, to name just a fraction. Such usages might seem gratuitous if Amis didn’t pay even more attention to the sensory qualities of language—its existence as pure sound. Consider this passage from Money, in which the protagonist reflects on the voice of a young actor named Spunk: “His voice—he had a certain valve or muscle working on it. I recognized that strain. I talked the same way at his age, fighting my rogue aitches and glottal stops. Glottal itself I delivered in only one syllable, with a kind of gulp or gag half way through. Spunk here was trying to tame his bronco word-endings and his slippery vowels.”

Even as Amis’s novels revel and rampage in linguistic excess, they harbor a refrain of loss—a lament that people are turning away from literature. Richard Tull, the protagonist of The Information, is a novelist of high standards whose books don’t sell. “His third novel wasn’t published anywhere,” Amis writes. “Neither was his fourth. Neither was his fifth. In those three brief sentences we adumbrate a Mahabharata of pain.” Later, Tull makes a voyage from the coach section of an overseas flight, where he’s been jammed into a middle seat, to first class, where his friend, a writer of glib best sellers, is seated:

Richard looked to see what everyone was reading, and found that his progress through the plane described a diagonal of shocking decline. In Coach the laptop literature was pluralistic, liberal, and humane: Daniel Deronda, trigonometry, Lebanon, World War I, Homer, Diderot, Anna Karenina … And then he pitched up in the intellectual slum of First Class, among all its drugged tycoons, and the few books lying unregarded on softly swelling stomachs were jacketed with hunting scenes or ripe young couples in mid swirl or swoon … Nobody was reading anything—except for a lone seeker who gazed, with a frown of mature skepticism, at a perfume catalogue.

The Information was published in 1995, when the word laptop was still usable outside the realm of personal computing. Nowadays, Richard might traverse an entire airplane without seeing a single book. Amis’s funniest fiction anticipates these changes, but it’s no surprise that, after 2000, his work inclined darker.

One scene I’d marked in Money involves Amis’s first-person protagonist visiting an old friend in jail. “Alec Llewellyn wore the low colour of fear on his face,” Amis writes. “The eyes themselves (once moist, gland-bright, almost fizzy) were the eyes of a trapped interior being, living inside my friend and staring into the distance, to see if it would ever be safe to come out.” Llewellyn’s gripes are not about being in jail, but about the misuse of language in jail: “Listen. It says ‘Lights Out At Nine’. L-i-g-h-t-apostrophe-s. Apostrophe-s! It says ‘One Cup of Tea or “Coffee”’—coffee in inverted commas. Why? Why? In the library, the library, it says ‘You can NOT Spit’—cannot two words and not in capitals. It’s a mistake, a mistake.

“‘Okay,’ I said uneasily, ‘so the place isn’t run by a lot of bookworms. Or grammarians. Christ, get a grip.’”

I marked that passage in the ’90s because I found it hilarious. Now I find it haunting. Another lesson from Martin Amis: The two are never all that far apart.