From the start of his career—launched surprisingly early and with great success—Martin Amis has occupied a central position within his generation of English writers. He began as a tricky prose stylist, displaying in his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), all the smarty-boots flair of an exceedingly clever Oxford undergraduate, which in fact he was at the time. There was more than a touch of his father, Kingsley Amis, in the comic high jinks and linguistic virtuosity of this early work. (Fittingly, father and son both won the Somerset Maugham Award for their literary debuts.) Amis père, whose notoriously famous first novel,Lucky Jim (1954), was partly responsible for putting the “Angry Young Man” on the literary map of postwar England, made a reputation for himself out of puncturing pomposity with a lethally irreverent wit that bubbled up through his precisely inscribed sentences. When it came time for Amis fils to take over the family pub, as he put it, he seemed more than up to the task, being similarly gifted with a pitch-perfect ear for the music of black comedy. However, whereas Kingsley, his scathing satiric sense intact, lumbered further and further to the right over the course of his career, Martin, no less scabrously witty, made a concerted dash to the left. Their differences were not just political, either: Kingsley remained a committed realist who worked and reworked the territory of comedy staked out by Henry Fielding in the eighteenth century, while Martin, a galloping postmodernist, mined the grotesque ironies of late twentieth century history and culture with a cool relish his father could not always understand or sanction. These divergences of style and intent obviously left a gap that provided plenty of room for edgy but, on the whole, affectionate sniping over the years. There they stood for the better part of two decades: Kingsley, the Colonel Blimp of English letters, a bloated Thatcherite teetering perilously on the brink of an outright misogyny that soured his comic vision; and Martin, the modish bad boy of literature, a pyrotechnical wizard slashing and burning his way through literary genres and onto the best-seller lists. However, as this memoir makes clear, their political and professional differences aside, father and son maintained a close and rewarding personal relationship throughout the twists and turns of their complicatedly interconnected lives.
One turn in Martin’s path was the runaway success of Money: A Suicide Note (1984), a novel that, in giving a distinctively acerbic voice to the times, signaled the fulfillment of his early promise and spawned a host of word-crazed “New Lad” imitators. Martin Amis had unquestionably arrived. From that point he went on to write the brace of complex and innovative novels that have ensured his position as a literary risk taker and a wordsmith in the Vladimir Nabokov mold. London Fields (1989), an apocalyptic murder mystery of startling intensity and positively Dickensian vitality, was followed by Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offense (1991), a dizzyingly original Holocaust novel in which Amis dared to run the narrative of Nazism backward, an imaginative coup that won him a Booker Prize nomination. This string of triumphs brought not only celebrity but also its predictable accompaniment, celebrity bashing. What the media giveth, the media taketh away, and at a certain point they began to take away with a vengeance. For a good ten years the press had a field day with Amis, tut-tutting his seemingly ubiquitous presence, mocking his madly competitive passion for tennis, chronicling the comings and goings of his chums Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens, and Clive James—London’s new young literary mafiosi. However, nothing the media wrote before 1994 amounted to much more than mildly bitchy literary gossip compared to the all-out assault it launched over the next two years. In that brief period Amis left his wife and two young sons, quickly remarrying and starting a new family; he began a painful and painfully expensive series of dental surgeries characterized in the press as purely cosmetic; he brokered a huge advance, denounced in the press as unseemly, which effectively ended his relationship with longtime agent Pat Kavanagh and her husband, longtime friend Julian Barnes; he discovered that he was the father of a teenage daughter from an earlier affair; he learned that his cousin Lucy, who had disappeared in 1973, was in fact one of the victims of England’s infamous serial killer Frederick West. On top of all that, he commenced the long, messy process of watching his father die. It was not a good time, obviously, and it did not help that he was widely portrayed during this grueling interval as a vain, unfeeling, ruthlessly ambitious, money-grubbing little ingrate who had turned his back on family and country.
After all this, one might have expected the reflections in Experience to be shot through with a sense of score-settling: A much-traduced writer finally gets to savage the critics who had for so long gleefully attacked his life and work. However, one of the many agreeable...
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