Martin Amis

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Martin Amis Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4140

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

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.

Success

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.

Other People

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.

Money

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.”

London Fields

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 day at the betting shop. Keith is not totally bad but wishes that he were: He regards his redeeming qualities as his tragic flaw. Obsessed with darts and television (which for him is the real world), he is driven by his ambition to reach the televised finals of an interpub darts competition. The miracle of the novel is that Amis succeeds, as with John Self in Money, in making such a pathetic character almost likable.

The second possible murderer is Guy Clinch. Clinch is quite different from Keith Talent. He is a rich, upper-class innocent “who wanted for nothing and lacked everything.” One of the things he lacks is a peaceful home life, after his wife, Hope, gives birth to Marmaduke, a ferocious infant who almost from the day he is born is capable of acts of quite stunning malice and violence. (The only nurses who can cope with him are those who have been fired from lunatic asylums.) Once more the comedy is irresistible.

The convoluted plot, with its surprise ending, is narrated by a terminally ill American writer named Samson Young, who is in London on a house swap with the famous writer Mark Asprey. That the absent Asprey’s initials are the same as those of Martin Amis is perhaps no coincidence. Young is in a sense the author’s proxy, since he is himself gathering the material and writing the story of London Fields for an American publisher. To make matters even more subtle, a character named Martin Amis also makes an appearance in the novel, just as there is a Martin Amis character in Money. Deconstructing his own fictions in this manner, Amis reminds the reader that in the manipulative world he depicts, he himself is the chief manipulator, but his own novel is only one fiction in a world of fictions.

The setting of London Fields is integral to the plot. The London of the near “future” (which 1999 was at the time of the novel’s publication in 1989) possesses an oppressive, almost Blakean apocalyptic atmosphere. Not only has urban prosperity evaporated—parts of the city have sunk back into squalor—but the natural environment is in rapid decay also. Everyone is talking about the weather, but it is no longer simply small talk. Weather patterns are violently unstable; the sun seems to hang perpetually low in the sky, and rumors of impending cosmic catastrophe abound. The threat of a nuclear holocaust remains. When Nicola Six was a child, she invented two imaginary companions and called them Enola Gay and Little Boy. Enola Gay is the name of the airplane that dropped the first atom bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, on Hiroshima in 1945. Yet Samson Young, the narrator, calls nuclear weapons “dinosaurs” when compared to the environmental disasters that now threaten the earth. Eventually Young refers to the situation simply as “The Crisis,” a term that also well describes the human world that Amis ruthlessly exposes, in which love, decency, and genuine feeling have been superseded by violence, greed, and lust. Microcosm and macrocosm are joined in a kind of horrible, frenzied dance of death. The world of London Fields, in which people and planet hurtle helplessly toward disaster, is where all Amis’s fiction has been leading.

Time’s Arrow

Time’s Arrow is an unusual departure for Amis. Not only does this most contemporary of writers deal with the past, but he also does so with a less realistic and more overtly moralistic approach than in his other novels. A Nazi doctor’s life is told in reverse order from his death in the United States to his birth in Germany, though his true identity is not apparent until more than halfway through thenarrative. While many of Amis’s narrators may not be completely reliable, the narrator of Time’s Arrow is relatively innocent. The physician’s reverse life is told by his alter ego, who stands outside the action until finally merging with the protagonist near the end.

Time’s Arrow also deals with the question of identity in the twentieth century, as Tod Friendly progresses from an elderly, rather anonymous man into a Massachusetts physician; into another physician, this time in New York City, named John Young; into an exile in Portugal named Hamilton de Souza; into his true identity as Odilo Unverdorben, a concentration camp doctor and protégé of the ominous Auschwitz monster he calls Uncle Pepi. In telling Friendly’s increasingly complicated tale, Amis tries to encompass much of the history of the twentieth century, with particular attention to the Vietnam War era and the Cold War.

By telling the story backward, Amis also explores such themes as the banality of human communication, exemplified by conversations appearing with the sentences in reverse order—answers coming before questions. Amis gets considerable comic mileage out of the horrifying images of such acts as eating and excreting depicted backward. In this ironic, perverse universe, suffering brings about joy. The narrator, one of several Amis doppelgängers, is alternately irritated and disgusted by Friendly’s behavior, particularly his crude treatment of his longtime American lover, Irene. The narrator also professes his affection for and admiration of Jews before finally admitting that he and Unverdorben are one, a highly ironic means of accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

Many critics have dismissed Time’s Arrow as a narrative stunt. In an afterword, Amis acknowledges that other writers have also employed reverse narratives, mentioning the famous account of a bomb traveling backward to its origins underground in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969) as a particular influence. Time’s Arrow is most notable for Amis’s less subtle presentation of his moral concerns, which have often been compared to those of Saul Bellow.

The Information

With The Information, Amis returns to more typical themes. Two writers, best friends, are contrasted by their success, fame, and sex lives. Richard Tull, author of two little-read novels, edits The Little Magazine, a minor literary journal, serves as director of a vanity press, and writes reviews of biographies of minor writers. Gwyn Barry, on the other hand, has published a best seller and is a major media figure. Married, with twin sons, Richard lusts after Lady Demeter, Gwyn’s glamorous wife. Richard is not jealous of Gwyn’s success so much as resentful that Gwyn’s book is so universally beloved when it is completely without literary merit, an assessment with which both their wives agree. All of Richard’s plans for revenge backfire, including hiring Steve Cousins, a mysterious criminal known as Scozzy, to assault Gwyn.

In addition to addressing his usual topics—sex, violence, greed, and chaos—Amis presents a satirical view of literary infighting and pretensions. Richard creates primarily because of his need for love and attention. He perceives the world as an artist would, but he is unable to transform his vision into accessible literature: When editors read his latest effort, they become ill. Only the psychotic Scozzy seems to understand what he is trying to say. Richard cannot give up writing, however, because then he would be left with nothing but the tedium of everyday life. Gwyn is equally ridiculous. Obsessed by his fame, he reads newspaper and magazine articles about all subjects in hopes of seeing his name. The two writers are like a comic pair of mismatched twins.

The Information is also a typical Amis work in that it is highly self-conscious. The narrator who explains the warped workings of Scozzy’s mind makes occasional appearances, first as “I,” then as “M. A.,” and finally as “Mart,” yet another of Amis’s cameo roles in his fiction. The narrator seems, as when he tries to explain that he cannot control Scozzy, to call attention to the artifice of the novel and to force the reader, as a willing participant in this satire, to share responsibility for the world’s chaos.

Night Train

For his next novel, Night Train, Amis appropriates the form of the hard-boiled detective novel, although his aim seems more that of undermining the genre than of paying tribute to it. Detective Mike Hoolihan, the policewoman narrator, speaks with an almost unremittingly harsh voice that is as masculine as her first name. Hoolihan once suffered from alcoholism to the point of nearly dying, and much of her hardness, and of her unwillingness to show emotional reaction, arises from her fight against her old self. Perhaps because of this hardness, within the department she is called out for no-win cases, such as the one she now accepts: to investigate the suicide of the chief’s daughter. The chief is a father figure to Hoolihan, since he saw her through her alcoholic crisis, and the now-dead daughter had sat at Hoolihan’s side. The case is, as she knows from the beginning, the worst of her career.

Amis unfolds his subversion of the detective novel gradually. Hoolihan studies the facts of the suicide, investigating it as possible murder, then closes the case in the negative. New leads force her to reconsider, however, with each new lead pointing a new direction. The dead woman, a brilliant astronomer, made a massive mistake at her job just before her death—perhaps intentionally. A traveling businessman calls, saying he has a date with the deceased, on the sole date after her suicide marked in the dead woman’s date book. She had given the man not her own phone number, however, but the detective’s.

By the end of her investigations, Hoolihan sees all the clues as red herrings—intentional ones, and directed at herself. Rather than being the one who finds meaning within disparate, seemingly unrelated facts, the detective is instead confronted with a void bereft of meaning. Hoolihan takes this to heart in a way that makes her conclusion, as detective, seem an act of self-discovery.

Yellow Dog

A complex exploration of the sleazy world of tabloid journalism and pornographic filmmaking, Yellow Dog takes place in a world that is not quite like the reader’s own. In perhaps the most pronounced difference, British royal power is invested in a King Henry IX, to be passed along to his daughter, Victoria. One of the novel’s several narrative strands follows Henry, who faces a dilemma. He has been sent a film that shows Victoria in her bath. The footage seems real. The king, who lives a life constrained by minor social occasions and royal duties, is not a person of action. How to tell Victoria? How to deal with the press and the greater world?

In the main narrative strand, writer and actor Xan Meo is assaulted and does not know why. He is beaten to the point of brain damage, and his recovery seems doubtful at times. When he at last emerges from the hospital, he descends into callous sexual behavior with his wife and develops a fixation on his own daughter. A third strand follows Clint Smoker, journalist with Morning Lark, a pornographic tabloid sparingly sprinkled with actual news. His troubles, as he sees them, are sexual in nature, and to his relief he receives a series of e-mails that seem finally to match him with a perfect mate. Hanging over all is the apocalyptic threat of a near-Earth comet, the erratic course of which might deliver it into Earth’s atmosphere.

As the various narrative strands converge, reality deals the characters different hands. The central character Meo emerges, as do other Amis characters, with a triumph that partakes of emptiness: As he recovers from his head injury, Meo learns that he was attacked because of a literary allusion he made—one that a criminal took, wrongly, as factual revelation about him.

House of Meetings

The Amis character driven by a need for survival, and perhaps equally by an obsession with recovering the past, takes new form in House of Meetings, a novel whose main setting is in the Russian gulag of the years after World War II. The narrator describes himself as a foul-mouthed old man, now in his eighties. He is aboard a Russian tourist ship heading for Norlag in Siberia, where he was once imprisoned. As narrator, writing an account of his past, he remains a nameless cipher, embodying the depersonalized anonymity of the prisoner.

He was a soldier, one whose violent acts included the rape of East German women during the war. In Norlag, he accepts the power hierarchies within the prison camp and acts out the intrinsic violence of those hierarchies, to the point of committing murder. The story of his imprisonment, however, begins when his half brother, Lev, arrives in the same camp. Lev has a misshapen, troglodyte-like appearance, but he is not violent, and he avoids the gamesmanship required to obtain creature comforts. He becomes the butt of others’ aggression, against which his more violent-minded brother gives protection.

In their younger years, the narrator fell deeply in love with a woman named Zoya. The surprise he experiences in seeing Lev arrive in Norlag turns to dismay when he learns the ugly Lev has married the beautiful Zoya. Zoya has remained in the narrator’s mind, as a symbol of the life behind him and, he hopes, the life ahead. Even with Lev as Zoya’s husband, that goal remains before him, up to the moment he finds an opportunity to have sex with her, essentially to rape her. He then experiences a revelation of the utter emptiness of the desire that has ruled his life.

Amis captures much of the narrator’s fate in the House of Meetings of the title. It is a small building in the camp that is reserved for those prisoners who are allowed visits from their spouses. It is the place for the longed-for moment of sexual love, for the affirmation of carnal being. Because of the ill-fed and weakened state of the prisoners, however, most believe not a single act of sex takes place within it. Lev, however, says otherwise, and the narrator’s fixations lead him to return now, as an aged tourist. He finds the building a ruin.

Although some feminist critics have expressed reservations about Amis’s work (and it is true that most of his male characters treat their women with contempt), Amis is a formidable and critically acclaimed writer, certainly one of the most accomplished of the generation of English writers who came of age in the 1970’s. Few others could have attempted a work on the scale of London Fields, for example. Together with Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Peter Ackroyd—in their different ways—Amis has broken through the neat, middle-class boundaries of much contemporary English fiction and reached out toward a fiction that is more challenging and comprehensive in its scope.

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Martin Amis World Literature Analysis