Martin Amis Long Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 4,140 words.)