The Amis Obsession

How Martin Amis expanded the possibilities of English prose—including my own

He's run with no bulls, head-butted no Gore Vidals, repented for no fake memoirs. So what accounts for his peculiar fame? (Mike McGregor/Contour by Getty)

The fame of Martin Amis is peculiar—by which I mean peculiar to Martin Amis. It’s not a broad, old-school writerly fame, a Rider Haggard fame, whereby they’re naming glaciers after you in Canada. Amis sells too few books for that. (He might merit a small pub: the Martin Amis.) It’s not a bitchy, tinnital modern fame, some species of celebrity. Nor is it literary notoriety, exactly—Amis has run with no bulls, head-butted no Gore Vidals, repented for no fake memoirs, staggered blotto from no White Horse Taverns. He has never been carted off to Bellevue, or made a radio broadcast on behalf of an enemy power. He has not committed suicide. Now 63, he has led a writer’s life, sedentary and doggedly productive, the crowning scandal of his career being his failure (so far) to win the Booker Prize. True, now and again from his nicotine cloister he’ll pad forth—moon-rock brow, kippery color—to say something languidly provocative on Charlie Rose. But all the other writers do that too. And yes, he has a second wife. But so do all the other writers. So what is it about Amis? Why is he—rather than, say, A. N. Wilson—the sport and quarry of a feverish commentariat, such that when he goes to the dentist, or leaves his agent, or moves (as he recently did) to Brooklyn, you read about it in Slate, Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Times again, and the silver-haired Smithsonian? Is it possible—can it be—that he is famous just for writing?

Well, it’s no good asking me. Or perhaps it is, if I can be taken as a sort of pathological literary specimen. For I have borne the mark of Amis—his aesthetic and perceptual stamp, right on my forehead—since a copy of The Rachel Papers first landed, drug-like, in my teenage hands. “Don’t I ever do anything else but take soulful walks down the Bayswater Road, I thought, as I walked soulfully down the Bayswater Road.” This brittle, mordant, self-inspecting consciousness, floating supremely on its saucer of style like the little green Mekon in Dan Dare—how it spoke to me, or seemed to speak for me. I was in. I was down. I was maimed for life.

Has he been a bad influence? Too late to worry about that now. Just look at the state of my opening paragraph: “doggedly productive,” “languidly provocative”—not for Amis (or his inheritors), the American writer’s Protestant horror of the adverb. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” warns Stephen King. Elmore Leonard calls their excessive use “a mortal sin.” I’m not sure Raymond Carver could even spell adverb. But in Amis-prose, the adverb is a moral necessity—it lets you sense the author, feel the steady pressure of his mind, ironic and lunar, half an inch behind the text. “As the horses now nobly loomed …” That’s from his new novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Paragraphs could be written about the poetic function of the adverb here—its Tennysonian aroma, its contribution to the total, ludicrous euphony of the line, this satire on the dignity of horses. Nine pages later, we find an old Mini not parked but “cravenly slumped” next to a Bentley, the adverb now operating in the service of what John Ruskin called “the pathetic fallacy”—the attribution of feelings to things. Although with Amis there is no pathetic fallacy; there is only the confident, sexy, pheromone-producing fallacy.

Video: In a 2010 conversation with his old friend Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis discusses Philip Roth's tin ear for British English and other topics.

In prose, he has his acknowledged American masters: he’ll mince and prance like Nabokov; he’ll descend (less often, and less easily) into the great-souled rumble of Saul Bellow. But there’s something else behind his sentences—a bonkers ambition, like that of Keats, to be “among the English poets.” That Philip Larkin happened to be his father’s best friend seems, at this point, a mere coincidence: Larkin is one of Amis’s modes. Larkinizing, he soars to a grubby sublimity, sings with a lyrical snarl. From 1984’s Money: “The quenched light of this joke June, in the shape of a sail or a breast, swells its camber across the room.” And what a turn-on to discover the sensory voltage of Ted Hughes running through his lines, the shocked-awake imagery and dazzling, riveted close-ups. From 2010’s The Pregnant Widow:

And great drunken bees, throbbing orbs that seemed to carry their own electrical resonance; when they collided with something solid—tree bole, statuary, flowerpot—they twanged back and away, the positive charge repelled by the positive.

Pure Hughes. A charged world—charged not, as Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it, with the grandeur of God, but with blind, shuddering bee-electricity.

In Amis-prose, the adverb is a moral necessity—it lets you sense the author, feel the steady pressure of his mind, ironic and lunar, half an inch behind the text.

Unfresh usage upsets Amis. (That sounds like a crossword clue.) “Herd writing, herd thinking.” Be vigilant, young word-slinger. Be moral. The journo-clunker, the stale mandarinism—root them out! In this regard, I have to say, I think he has improved me. He’s the reason I won’t write woefully inadequate or use any form of the verb limn; why I will never describe a person as drug-addled, a biography as magisterial, or a piece of high-tempo music as hyperkinetic.

Here’s the thing, though. The refusal to use drug-addled brings with it—entrains, as Amis would say—an obligation to come up with something else, something better. Drug-demented? Drug-bespattered? Burning heretically on his/her pyre of drugs? For me, a non-genius, this obligation is something of a strain. I tend to think in lumps, not in language. I have to translate my thoughts. And this word isn’t good enough, and that word isn’t good enough, and round and round we go … In this state, it can be hazardous to read Martin Amis—to suffer the thrills of envy (I want it!), larceny (Can I steal it?), resentment (Bastard!), all leading where? Ah, you know where: into a writer’s dark night, the meat-locker chill of professional despair. The ego, inverted. I might as well give up. Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton, watching Jimi Hendrix at The Scotch of St James in London, were (according to Townshend) so harrowed with fear and wonder that they found themselves meekly holding hands. The apprentice writer reads Martin Amis, and whose hand can he hold but his own? A circuit, a misery loop—down you go, in sobbing spirals. You’ll never be able to write “As the horses now nobly loomed …”

One might of course console oneself, rather cheaply, with his inevitable deficits—the crap bits. The first 20 pages of The Information, before it settles down; certain weirdo segments of the memoir Experience. His great vice is seriousness, as all Amis-heads know. On religion, on death, on evil, on infinite space, he goes out of tune. “Belief is otiose,” he drones in a postmillennial essay called “The Voice of the Lonely Crowd.” “Cosmology will tell you that the universe ... is far more bizarre, prodigious and chillingly grand than any doctrine, and that spiritual needs can be met by its contemplation.” (Can they really? The language here is holding its nose, not at all happy with the idea of “spiritual needs.”) Moving from the comic to the terribly important has a degrading effect on his style: remembering, for example, the “unblinking trance of punctuality” in which tiny Alistair presents himself at a long-awaited editorial meeting in the 1992 short story “Career Move,” an Amis fan reads sadly of the “tranced surety” of the jihadist in the 2006 short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” Then there’s his Russian period: Koba the Dread (2002), a nonfictional romp through Stalinism, and the subsequent novel House of Meetings (2006). Both have their good bits, and their very good bits, but also that burned-hair, brainstorm smell.

But you don’t go to Amis for prophecy, or world-historical insight, or indeed for a sacramental vision. You go to him for prose like this: “After a while, marriage is a sibling relationship—marked by occasional, and rather regrettable, episodes of incest.” And this: “The air itself was thick. Thick and weak, as if the room was about to faint.” There, it’s happened: I’ve collapsed, uncritically, into quotation. So be it.