Martin Amis 1949–
(Born Martin Louis Amis) English novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, scriptwriter, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Amis's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 9, 38, and 62.
Regarded as a groundbreaking novelist, Amis satirizes the scabrous excesses of youth and contemporary society with an irreverent and incisive wit similar to that of his father, author Kingsley Amis. Employing fast-paced prose infused with contemporary slang and profanity, Amis portrays characters who are obsessed with sex, drugs, violence, and materialistic pursuits. Amis—who is commonly known as Britain's enfant terrible—has been the subject of strong debate for the past two decades. He has been lauded as an insightful satirist, but he has been dismissed by many critics as "gratuitously malevolent," according to Susan Morrison. Like such satirists as Jonathan Swift and Angus Wilson, with whom he has been compared, Amis is widely regarded as a moralist whose novels admonish the vices of his age. Jerome Charyn commented: "Amis is so horrified by the world he sees in the process of formation that he feels compelled to warn us all about it."
Born in Oxford, England, Martin Amis is the son of well-known British author Kingsley Amis and Hilary Bardwell Amis. He attended more than thirteen schools while he was growing up in Britain, Spain, and the United States, and underwent a variety of experiences in his formative years. After attending several "crammers"—special tutorials designed to help students prepare for university entrance examinations—Amis accomplished no small feat by attaining a formal first in English at Exeter College, Oxford. He later became a member of the editorial staff at the London Times Literary Supplement. At the age of twenty-four, Amis won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1974). He became the literary editor of The New Statesman, wrote numerous articles, and produced two more novels: Dead Babies in 1975 and Success in 1978. He followed these achievements with Other People (1981), Money (1984), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow (1991), and The Information (1995). A collection of essays and a collection of short stories followed while Amis was a staff writer and reviewer for the London Observer. Amis's extensive travels and rich personal experience of metropolitan London life have impacted the major themes in his works: greed, money, sex, alienation, and the human condition.
Amis's first novel, The Rachel Papers, is about a young man's passage from adolescence into adulthood. Charles Highway, the protagonist, is an egocentric English youth who relates his misadventures in graphic and humorous detail on the eve of his twentieth birthday. Dead Babies is a black comedy about a group of deviant youths who gather at a country home for a weekend of sex, drugs, verbal abuse, and physical violence. Success focuses on the relationship between two cohabiting foster brothers, one aristocratic and one working-class, and their comparative degrees of social, economic, and sexual success. The theme of rivalry between two protagonists reemerges in one of Amis's later novels, The Information. Money has been praised as one of Amis's best works. This ambitious novel explores such topics as greed, excess, self-destruction, cultural deprivation, sex, and love—all elements that have become standards in Amis's later work. London Fields, set in 1999 against a backdrop of impending environmental, economic, and military disaster, enlarges upon themes examined in Money and Success. Time's Arrow is about Tod Friendly, an American doctor who becomes progressively younger in Amis's reverse-time narrative. He ends up running a Nazi concentration camp, where he discovers himself to be "death doctor" Odilo Unverdorben. Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is a collection of sketches and essays detailing Amis's visits with various personalities, including Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Roman Polanski. The Information, Amis's most recent work, employs many of the themes and devices used in earlier works. The two central characters, Richard Tull and Gwynn Barry, compete for literary fame and glory in a rivalry much like the rivalries employed in London Fields and Success. Strongly autobiographical, The Information is a satire of London literary life. It serves as Amis's comment on the tenacious and competitive nature of the literary world.
Most critics have found Amis's first three novels—The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success—remarkably similar. As Neil Powell noted, "each is a social and sexual satire in which an unlikely hero emerges as a precarious survivor while the beautiful and damned all around him go to pieces." According to Charles Michener, The Rachel Papers is largely autobiographical, and Amis revealed to the critic that the novel is about the year he spent in "crammers" before attending Oxford. Powell contends that Amis made Dead Babies lewd and obscene in an effort to numb readers and that the author's "attempts at ironic or satirical detachment, employing updated Swiftian or Fieldingesque devices, are uneasy." He faults Amis for relying on the bombastic and sensational to sell his readers, and questions whether the author will ever outgrow his penchant for depicting the gratuitous and obscene. Time's Arrow has been faulted for both its confusing time structure and its controversial subject matter involving the Holocaust. Many critics focused on Amis's reversal of cause and effect in the narration of the tale, and took issue with his fictionalization of the historical record of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, commentators typically acknowledged that the satirical elements of the plot work effectively, and that the magnitude of telling a story in reverse presented Amis with special challenges. John Updike wrote: "Amis's ambitious concerns with inhumanity, time, and the unthinkable converge in Time's Arrow, a work of impressive intensity and virtuosity, albeit bristling with problematical aspects." According to Maya Slater, who found the narrative hard to follow: "Amis, by reversing the order of events, has deprived us of our ease of reading." Visiting Mrs. Nabokov is a collection of short essays and sketches written on assignment for various British and American magazines. Francine Prose noted: "[The essays] … move quickly; they don't ask much of us, or offend." Yet Chris Savage King found Amis's personal sketches to be tedious and pretentious. King wrote, "I used to find Amis an entertaining writer. I found this collection pretty miserable." The Information, which examines the subject of literary envy, has had a favorable reception. Calling the novel "… a study of envy and egomania that happens to play itself out in the world of publishing," Julian Loose has claimed that "the primary pleasure of reading The Information is that of being regularly swept up in … epic, frothy, digressions." Others agree that The Information is full of literary allusions and is noteworthy for its examination of life in the publishing industry. "The Information … comes to us under a storm of attendant publicity about its roots in real life," wrote Ed Morales. Many laud the novel as a culmination of Amis's strengths. Adam Mars-Jones holds: "[The Information] … has everything in common with Money and London Fields in terms of tone and territory." Pulling together several of the themes and motifs of his earlier works, The Information has been praised as a synthesis of Amis's work, but it has also been observed that the novel is a rehashing of his often used literary devices. Merle Rubin contends: "It may … strike many readers as perhaps a little too familiar-sounding if they've read Mr. Amis's earlier books."