Among the writers responsible for a revitalization of prose fiction in the British Isles during the last decades of the twentieth century, Martin Amis holds a special place due both to his abilities and to circumstances that intermingle aspects of a semi-celebrity culture with literary achievement. The son of a prominent and influential writer of the mid-twentieth century (Kingsley Amis) and the subject of considerable resentful carping about significant contractual advances, extravagant expenditures (thirty thousand dollars’ worth of dental repairs), and supposed betrayals of friendship (the result of his modeling characters after close friends), Amis is also the most conventionally “British” of the authors in the generation notably characterized as “The Empire Writes Back.” His male peers, in particular Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Roddy Doyle, and James Kelman, are all British writers with origins outside England, and while it is clear that Amis’s novels are certainly worth comparison with their works, Amis is the only one whose several books did not receive the prestigious Booker Prize. Amis’s candor about his position in the literary cosmos, even if delivered with an obvious awareness of saying the unspeakable, is not calculated to appease critics and commentators understandably uneasy before the force of his daunting intellectual power. In a Paris Review interview, Amis remarked that “novelists have two ways of talking about themselves: one in which they do a very good job of pretending to be reasonably modest individuals,” and the other an expression of their “inner egomaniac” whose “immediate contemporaries are just blind worms in a ditch, slithering pointlessly around, getting nowhere.” These novelists “bestride the whole generation” with their “formidability.”
The stories collected in Heavy Water—one published in 1976, one in 1981, the title story written in 1978 but revised in 1997, and the remaining six from the 1990’s, all published in The New Yorker—are a convincing demonstration of just how formidable Amis is. They are not especially useful as points of comparison with other writers, however, since one of Amis’s greatest strengths is his singular imagination and ability to create a language strikingly suitable to the focus of the narrative.
One measure of Amis’s power and singularity is the drastic difference of opinion regarding the quality of his writing. Reviewers in the British Isles strongly disagreed about the merits of Heavy Water, and many chose the same story, “State of England,” as an example of Amis at his best and at his weakest. Amis himself told an interviewer that “State of England’ is my favorite story in the book, and I think it’s the best thirty pages I’ve ever written,” but even those critics who essentially agreed with this assessment found its strengths in radically different areas. For Adam Mars-Jones of the United Kingdom, the story is “cut from the same soiled and spangled cloth as Amis’s thrilling and frustrating London trilogy,” while A. O. Scott of the United States claims that the story presents “a suburban London that might as well be—Chicago.” This divergence of opinion is a measure of Amis’s ability to deal with inescapable and unsettling aspects of the contemporary world, and the reactions of readers tend to reveal nearly as much about their own perceptions as about Amis’s presentation.
The one component of Amis’s work that has impressed every serious commentator is the dazzlingly brilliant manipulation of language to shape and control the psychological tone, combined with an often nasty, profane wit that can leave even those delighted with its destructive energy somewhat uneasy about its dangerous, uncontainable menace. The stories that depend on a reversal, such as “Career Move” and “Straight Fiction,” or a conceivable premise that is carried to and beyond absurdity, such as “Let Me Count the Times,” are so well done that their origin in the age-old tradition of British (public) schoolboy ultracleverness does not diminish their effect. These stories are examples of a conceit refined and perfected so that the comic surrealism of their wildly improbable situations—poetry prized for its commercial viability and screenwriting belittled as the province of idealistic aesthetes in “Career Move”; homosexuality as the norm and heterosexuality as the hidden, forbidden minority preference in “Straight Fiction”—becomes convincingly plausible and consistently engaging. Amis uses the intricate designs of a subculture with such assurance that a mood of conviction is established in each story, the dense texture of detail contributing to an ethos of authenticity.
What separates some of Amis’s best stories from the ones that are primarily impressive for their effect, however, is the employment of his incisive intelligence and stylistic invention in conjunction with a rather traditional interest in and concern for the characters. It is not surprising that the poetry-production people in “Career Move”...
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