Martin Amis remarked in an interview that he writes about “low events in a high style,” and this comment gives a clue to the paradox his work embodies. Although the content of his novels is frequently sordid and nihilistic—dictated by the depressing absence in his characters of traditional cultural values—Amis’s rich, ornate, and continually inventive style lifts the novels to a level from which they give delight. “I would certainly sacrifice any psychological or realistic truth for a phrase, for a paragraph that has a spin on it,” Amis has commented. The result is that Amis’s novels, in spite of the fact that they are often uproariously hilarious, do not make easy or quick reading. Indeed, Kingsley Amis has remarked that he is unable to get through his son’s novels because of their ornate style, which he attributes to the influence of Vladimir Nabokov.
The Rachel Papers
Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers, set the tone for most of his subsequent work, although his later novels, beginning with Money, have exhibited greater depth and range, as the force of his satire—his immense comic hyperbole—has steadily increased. Furthermore, one senses a sharp moral awareness in Money and London Fields, although Amis chooses not to offer any solutions to the individual and social ills he identifies so acutely.
The Rachel Papers is a lively but fairly innocuous satire about the turbulent adolescence of Charles Highway, the first-person narrator. Highway is a rather obnoxious young man, a self-absorbed intellectual studying for his Oxford examinations and aspiring to become a literary critic. The action takes place the evening before Highway’s twentieth birthday and is filled out by extensive flashbacks. A substantial portion of Highway’s intellectual and physical energy is devoted to getting his girlfriend, Rachel, into bed and to writing in his diary detailed descriptions of everything that happens when he succeeds. Amis’s hilarious and seemingly infinitely inventive wordplay is never more effectively displayed than when Highway is describing his sexual adventures.
Dead Babies, which chronicles the weekend debaucheries of a group of nine privileged young people, is considerably less successful than Amis’s first novel, and Amis has since declared his own dislike for it. The theme seems to be a warning about what happens when traditional values (the dead babies of the title) are discarded. For the most part, however, the characters are too repulsive, and their indulgence in drugs, sex, alcohol, and violence too excessive, for the reader to care much about their fate.
In Success, Amis chronicles a year in the lives of two contrasting characters. The handsome and conceited Gregory comes from an aristocratic family and appears to have all the worldly success anyone could want. He shares a flat in London with his foster brother Terry, who from every perspective is Gregory’s opposite. Terry comes from the slums, he is physically unattractive and has low self-esteem, and he is stuck in a boring job that he is afraid of losing. The two characters take turns narrating the same events, which they naturally interpret very differently. As the year progresses, there is a change. Gregory is gradually forced to admit that his success is little more than an illusion. He has been fooling himself most of the time, and realization of his true ineptitude and childlike vulnerability causes him to go to pieces. Meanwhile, Terry’s grim persistence finally pays off: He makes money, loses his self-hatred, and finally acquires a respectable girlfriend. For all of his crudity and loutishness, he is more in tune with the tough spirit of the times, in which traditional values are no longer seen to be of any value and those who in theory represent them (like Gregory) have become effete.
Success is a clear indication of Amis’s pessimism about life in London in the 1970’s. Frequently employing extremely coarse language, the novel depicts some of the least attractive sides of human nature, and although this grimness is relieved (as in almost all of Amis’s books) by some ribald humor, on the whole Success is a depressing and superficial book. Indeed, it had to wait nine years after publication in Great Britain before an American publisher would take it on.
In Amis’s fourth novel, Other People: A Mystery Story, he appears to have been trying to write something with more philosophical and existential depth than the satires that came before. This time theprotagonist is a young woman who suffers from total amnesia. Released from the hospital, she wanders alone through alien city streets, viewing other people as a separate species and virtually unable to distinguish between animate and inanimate things. Taking the name Mary Lamb, she experiences life in complete innocence, having to relearn everything that being alive involves—not only who she is but also the purpose of everyday things such as shoes and money. She mixes with a range of people, from drunks and down-and-outs to upper-class degenerates, at the same time edging closer to a discovery of her real identity. It transpires that her real name is Amy Hide and that everyone thinks she had died after being brutally attacked by a man. Adding to the surreal atmosphere of the novel is a mysterious character called Prince, whom Mary/Amy keeps encountering. Prince seems to fulfill many roles: He is a policeman, perhaps also the man who attacked her, and a kind of tutelary spirit, an awakener, under whose guidance she discovers her own identity.
Other People was written according to what is known in Great Britain as the Martian school of poetry, a point of view in which no knowledge about human life and society is assumed. This technique is intended to allow the most mundane things to be examined in a fresh light. Although Amis achieves some success in this area, the novel is spoiled by excessive obscurity. The novelist has simply not left enough clues to his intention, and the reader is left to grasp at bits of a puzzle without being able to construct an intelligible whole. Realizing that few people had grasped his meaning, Amis explained in an interview what his intention had been the following: Why should we expect death to be any less complicated than life? Nothing about life suggests that death will just be a silence. Life is very witty and cruel and pointed, and let us suppose that death is like that too. The novel is the girl’s death, and her death is a sort of witty parody of her life.
This may not be of much help to readers who are especially puzzled by the novel’s concluding pages. Perhaps the most rewarding parts of the novel are Amis’s depictions of the characters Mary encounters; their physical and mental deformities are captured with merciless wit.
In Money: A Suicide Note, Amis continues to devote attention to what he undoubtedly depicts best: people who have been deformed, who have failed to reach their full human growth, by the shallow materialism of the age. The scope of Money is far wider and more impressive than anything Amis had produced before, however: Not only is it much longer, but it also fairly rocks with vulgar energy. Clearly, at this point in his career Amis has finished his writing apprenticeship and is moving into top gear.
The protagonist of Money is John Self, a wealthy, early-middle-aged maker of television commercials who is visiting New York to direct what he hopes will be his first big motion picture. The project runs into every difficulty imaginable, and after a series of humiliating experiences Self ends up back in London with nothing. The problem with Self is that although he is wealthy, he is uneducated and lacks all culture. He lives at a fast pace but spends his money and his time entirely on worthless things—junk food, alcohol, pornography, television. Satisfying pleasures continually elude him. Amis has commented on Self: “The world of culture is there as a sort of taunting presence in his life, and he wants it but he doesn’t know how to get it, and all his responses are being blunted by living in the money world.”
Amis’s attack on the “money world” continues in London Fields, although Amis’s finest novel is far more than that. It is at once a comic murder mystery and a wonderfully rich and varied evocation of the decline of civilization at the end of the millennium. Many of the comic scenes are worthy of Charles Dickens, and the plot is acted out against a cosmic, apocalyptic background, as the planet itself seems to be on the brink of disintegration.
Set in post-Thatcherite London in 1999, the plot centers on three main characters. The first is the antiheroine Nicola Six. Nicola has a gift for seeing the future, and she has a premonition that on her next birthday, which happens to be her thirty-fifth, she will be murdered by one of two men she meets at a London pub called the Black Cross. She sets out to avenge herself in advance by using her sexual power to entice both men and draw them to ruin. Nicola is a temptress of the first magnitude, and Amis employs comic hyperbole (as he does throughout the novel) to describe her: “Family men abandoned sick children to wait in the rain outside her flat. Semi-literate builders and bankers sent her sonnet sequences.”
The second character, one of the possible murderers, is Keith Talent. Talent is probably Amis’s finest creation, a larger-than-life character who might have stepped out of the pages of Dickens. He is a petty criminal, compulsive adulterer, wife beater, and darts fanatic. He makes a living by cheating people, whether it be by selling fake perfume, running an outrageously expensive taxi service, or doing botched household repair jobs. He earns more money than the prime minister but never has any, because he loses it each...
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