“Possibly the most fully engaged writer of our time”
- The Times
Martin Amis (born 1949) is one of the best known English novelists of the late-twentieth / early-twenty-first centuries. His work belongs to the satirical tradition that includes great English writers like Henry Fielding and Jane Austen, but he is very much a transatlantic writer, whose personal influences include Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. His penchant for the Grotesque and his fascination with London also lead to easy comparisons with Charles Dickens being drawn.
Amis has spent his whole life surrounded by creative endeavour. His father, Kingsley Amis, was a prominent comic novelist of the mid-twentieth century and his step-mother Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist, nurtured an interest in books, which prepared him for study at Exeter College, Oxford, where he met lifetime friend Christopher Hitchens. Later, when writing at the New Statesman, Amis’s set included not only Hitchens (with whom he only became proper friends with after Oxford) but Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Julian Barnes (who Amis would later, very publicly, fall out with), and Ian McEwan, amongst others.
Much of Amis’s writing satirises Western capitalist society, and deals with masculinity in the modern world, the reality of the nuclear age, and sexual politics. During the twenty-first century, Amis has been vocal on the subject of Islamism and terrorism in the post-9/11 world, but even before this his writing took on big subjects like the Holocaust, and the Gulag.
As well as having 16 fiction titles to his name, Amis is also a prolific journalist, and has released 6 non-fiction books including collections of his essays, as well as his memoir, Experience. He’s lived in both England and the USA throughout his life (as well as a spell in Uruguay), and taught at University of Manchester between 2007 and 2011.
Seen as somewhat of a playboy novelist in his early years, Amis went on to step out of his father’s shadow and become one of the most important English novelists of his time, tackling many of the Big Issues in his own vibrant, comic style, and influencing a new generation of engaged British writers.
Three Books You Should Read
In a career that has already spanned over four decades, it might seem strange that the three books I have picked are from a seven year period. However, this was, I think most people would agree, Amis's strongest creative period. While I enjoy his early fiction, and his later, more technically sound, novels - perhaps not entirely in tune with popular opinion here - I still find the verve of his writing during the 1980s to be the most seductive, the most pleasing overall.
1. Money: A Suicide Note (1984)
"Money doesn't mind if we say it's evil, it goes from strength to strength. It's a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy.”
Money is Amis’s best-known novel and, arguably, signalled the start of his richest creative period. The novel follows the story of chain-smoking, booze-filled lout and director of (semi-pornographic) advertisements, John Self, as he tries to launch himself into the big-time by putting together a blockbuster movie. Splitting his time between Old London and the gleaming promise land of America, Self, without culture or serious money, is out of his depth, and his attempts to impress women, placate minor Hollywood stars, and generally have a good time are hilariously written. As a satire on 80s excess and the de-intellectualisation of the masses, Money is the perfect vehicle for Amis’s inimitable style and ranks as one of the best novels of and on the period. [Read my full review of Money]
“Oh Christ, the exhaustion of not knowing anything. It's so tiring and hard on the nerves. It really takes it out of you, not knowing anything. You're given comedy and miss all the jokes. Every hour you get weaker. Sometimes, as I sit alone in my flat in London and stare at the window, I think how dismal it is, how heavy, to watch the rain and not know why it falls.”
“You never can tell, though, with suicide notes, can you? In the planetary aggregate of all life, there are many more suicide notes than there are suicides. They're like poems in that respect, suicide notes: nearly everyone tries their hand at them some time, with or without the talent.”
“Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it's a full-time job looking the other way.”
Along with Money (1984) and The Information (1995), London Fields is part of Amis’s unofficial London trilogy. Told from the perspective of dying American author, Samson Young, who meets the characters on a trip to London, London Fields is a murder mystery, in reverse. After having a premonition about her own death, sexually savvy Nichola Six – a willing murderee – seeks out her murderer, striking up relationships with the yobbish Keith Talent, a petty criminal and darts enthusiast, and the affluent but weak Guy Clinch. What starts as a comment on the nuclear age – Nichola a stand-in for mother Earth – soon becomes a metaphor for writing, and Amis’s wonderful prose creates a London full of colloquial personality in which his characters’ stories are unfurled. [Read my full review of London Fields]
“So in his own way Guy Clinch confronted the central question of his time, a question you saw being asked and answered everywhere you looked, in every headline and haircut: if, at any moment, nothing might matter, then who said that nothing didn't matter already?”
“And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”
“We used to live and die without any sense of the planet getting older, of mother earth getting older, living and dying. We used to live outside history. But now we're all coterminous. We're inside history now all right, on its leading edge, with the wind ripping past our ears. Hard to love, when you're bracing yourself for impact. And maybe love can't bear it either, and flees all planets when they reach this condition, when they get to the end of their twentieth centuries.”
3. Time's Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offence (1991)
“Human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change.”
Written between London Fields and The Information, Time’s Arrow breaks Amis’s creative direction during the period when he was writing his London trilogy and is, for me, a refreshing technical experiment. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Time’s Arrow is a unique and controversial novel about the life of a Nazi doctor who served at Auschwitz. Told backwards, the narrative picks up as the central character, Tod T. Friendly, wakes from death and follows him backwards towards birth, in an ambitious and disorienting style. The narrator, a part of Tod’s personality, struggles to understand the world that plays out around him, and the reader is hauled through odd juxtapositions with the narrator, ranging from the comical to the sinister. Tod has no free will in this world, no choice over the course his life takes as he is dragged back through it; he, like the reader, is a passenger, helplessly witnessing the atrocities, powerless to intervene. Amis is not always at his best when tackling the Big Issues, but here he deals with the Holocaust in a unique and engaging way. For me, Time’s Arrow also signals the start of a period in Amis’s career where his plots slackened and his fiction became too reliant on his style to carry the ideas he wanted to explore. With its unusual narrative, Time’s Arrow just about escapes the necessity for a strong plot, and that’s why I’d recommend it to readers ahead of The Information – admittedly a good book, but certainly at the weaker end of Amis’s strongest period. [Read my full review of Time's Arrow]
“People are free then, then, they are generally free, then are they? Well they don't look free. Tipping, staggering, with croaked or choking voices, blundering backward along lines seemingly already crossed, already mapped… Never watching where they are going, the people move through something prearranged, armed with lies. They're always looking forward to going places they've just come back from, or regretting doing things they haven't yet done. They say hello when they mean goodbye.”
As I alluded to above, The Information is certainly worth reading. As a satire of the publishing industry and a comic look at the pitfalls of the aging male (novelist), there is plenty of very funny material in the final book of Amis’s London trilogy, even if the plot is significantly less trim than it could be. [Read my review of The Information]
I can also highly recommend Amis’s memoir Experience – a brilliant and sensitively written record of a life overflowing with, well, experience. Beyond the famous father and his circle of literary friends, Amis’s life has been filled with engaging liaisons, intellectual and physical, but there is sadness too: his parents’ divorce, the suicide of his sister, an estranged daughter, and the murder of his cousin at the hands of Fred West. As an author whose life is discussed in the gossip columns more than just about any other in England, a chance to read about the quieter, more intimate side of Amis’s life is invaluable.
If, like Amis’s father, you are not a fan of books that “bugger about with the reader” (which Kingsley reportedly claimed Money did) you might try his first novel, The Rachel Papers, which, while written in the embryonic form of Amis’s familiar style, is a far more traditional narrative of a young man’s relationship with the eponymous Rachel. This won the Somerset Maugham award and set Amis up as a serious novelist in his own right – a significant step, when your father was as well recognised as Martin’s. [Read my review of The Rachel Papers]
Amis’s non-fiction offers some interesting thoughts too – but his writing and temperament are best suited to the novel form, I think, and consequently his essays are more sporadically successful, and his collections harder to recommend.
And then there is Invasion of the Space Invaders, Amis’s book about the classic arcade game… yes, seriously. In fact, I’m lucky enough to own a first edition (not sure if there was a second!), so can vouch for its existence. I think I read somewhere that good old Mart asked for this not to be included in lists of his titles at one point, but I don’t know why: it’s fun and different. Novelists can’t be properly serious all the time, can they?