Martin Amis Amis, Martin (Vol. 101) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Rachel Papers (novel) 1974
Dead Babies (novel) 1975
Success (novel) 1978
Other People: A Mystery Story (novel) 1981
Money: A Suicide Note (novel) 1984
The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (essays) 1986
Einstein's Monsters (essays and short stories) 1987
London Fields (novel) 1989
Time's Arrow, or The Nature of the Offense (novel) 1991
Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (essays) 1993
The Information (novel) 1995

Neil Powell (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Life Is: The Novels of Martin Amis," in PN Review, Vol. 7, No. 6, 1981, p. 42-45.

[In the following essay, Powell provides overviews and analyses of three of Amis's early novels, The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success.]

Success is a funny thing. In literature (as K.W. Gransden observed in an amiable poem on Poetry Now recently), there are those notable popular successes which turn up, still in their paper jackets but a little tatty, cluttering the shelves of second-hand bookshops a couple of decades later, their authors either forgotten or remembered merely as instances of the fickleness of reputations. Then there are the successes...

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Susan Morrison (interview date 17 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wit and Fury of Martin Amis," in Rolling Stone, No. 578, May 17, 1990, pp. 95-99, 101-02.

[In the following interview, Amis discusses his work, literary influences, and techniques, and his reputation as a misogynist, among other topics.]

"Look, we're not running this."

That's what Martin Amis said to his London publishers when they showed him a proposed advertisement for his new novel, London Fields. Over a picture of a rancid meat pie crawling with maggots, the ad read: "Today, in London, the average man will think about sex 20 times. One man in three will masturbate. One person will be...

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D. J. Taylor (review date 27 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Backward Steps," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 4, No. 170, September 27, 1991, p. 55.

[In the following negative review, Taylor discusses the time structure of Time's Arrow, calling the novel "an entertaining conceit wound out to extravagant length."]

The "time's arrow" metaphor has obviously been knocking around in Martin Amis' consciousness for a year or two. Nearly used as the title of what became London Fields, it now surfaces at the masthead of this ingeniously bulked out novella—one of those short books that have been artfully got up to resemble a medium-sized book, with a price to match.

The arrow in question...

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David Lehman (review date 17 November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Death to Birth," in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1991, p. 15.

[In the following review of Time's Arrow, Lehman focuses on the reversed chronological order of the book's narrative and the intent of Amis's technique.]

My 8-year-old son, an expert at videocassette recorders, wondered one day, "Why can't we rewind time?" The question in all its blunt naïveté suggests the imaginative conceit at the heart of Martin Amis's remarkable new novel, Time's Arrow. Mr. Amis explores how life would appear, how it would feel and what sense it would seem to make if it were a film running backward—if time's arrow were to reverse its...

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Pearl K. Bell (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Time's Arrow, in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 282-95.

[In the following excerpt, Bell dismisses Time's Arrow as "offensive" and maintains that Amis "fails to comprehend" what he has "exploited" in his story about Nazi Germany.]

Martin Amis's restless ingenuity trips him up in a more serious way in Time's Arrow, a laborious attempt to be "original" about the Holocaust—hardly a subject that lends itself to the artful devisings of literary contrivance, or the sardonic bray of satire that has characterized his earlier work. In his new novel Amis has literally bent over backwards to be different. Reversing...

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Maya Slater (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Problems When Time Moves Backwards: Martin Amis's Time's Arrow," in English: The Journal of the English Association, Vol. 42, No. 173, Summer, 1993, pp. 141-52.

[In the following essay, Slater points to problems that occur in the narrative of Time's Arrow as Amis attempts to tell a story in reverse.]

In his latest novel, Time's Arrow, Martin Amis takes up the challenge posed by Nabokov in Look at the Harlequins!: 'Nobody can imagine in physical terms the act of reversing the order of time. Time is not reversible'. Amis does perform this impossible task. His novel begins with the hero's death, and works back through his life more or...

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Chris Savage King (review date 1 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bits of Rough," in New Statesman and Society, October, 1993, pp. 39-40.

[In the following negative review, King calls Visiting Mrs. Nabokov "gossipy" and "egotistical," and dismisses the collection of journalistic pieces as "pretty miserable."]

Martin Amis excites hero-worship and resentment in equal measure. From male writers, this is often a symptom of wanting to be him. This new collection of journalism covers a range of subjects that include snooker, fiction and Martin Amis. Being female, I should, in Amis' view, be "less baffled and repelled" in making critical judgments. Here we go, then.

It wasn't his fault that he was born into...

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Francine Prose (review date 27 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Novelist at Large," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 17.

[In the following review, Prose lauds Visiting Mrs. Nabokov as light, unoffensive, and lively.]

Written for British newspapers like The Observer and American magazines like Vanity Fair, and as an apparently welcome respite from writing fiction, the articles in Martin Amis's latest collection of essays have the range and appealing ragbag variety of work done on assignment. Indeed, as he writes in the introduction to Visiting Mrs. Nabokov: And Other Excursions, the only thing that unites these pieces is "getting out of the house."

In his...

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Victoria N. Alexander (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Martin Amis: Between the Influences of Bellow and Nabokov," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 580-90.

[In the following essay, Alexander discusses the influences of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov in Amis's work, focusing on London Fields, Money, and The Moronic Inferno.]

Martin Amis's novels feature heroes of playboy fantasies, unscrupulous upwardly mobile yobs, and charismatic murderers. With a mixture of anxiety and fascination, Amis chronicles the "cheapening of humanity," a phenomenon he attributes partly to the uniquely twentieth-century prospect of total annihilation and partly to the fact that much of American (and more...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 24 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Energy and Entropy," in New Statesman & Society, March 24, 1995, p. 24.

[In the following review, Kaveney asserts that The Information is a "generic" Amis novel, and claims the book to be "the overpriced sale of second-hand shoddy."]

Nervous energy is not enough. Martin Amis has built a successful career on, and out of, fear of failure. His interest in that fear, like ours, is wearing thin. Sexual rebuffs in The Rachel Papers, having your credit cards cut up in smart New York restaurants in Money—these were intense moments because they are anti-sacraments, outward signs of an entire gracelessness thus far concealed.


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Michael Ratcliffe (review date 26 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Little Boys Are Made Of," in The Observer Review, March 26, 1995, p. 17.

[In the following predominantly negative review, Ratcliffe discusses some of the "bad writing" that is present in The Information, noting that while parts of the tale are sincere and "diversionary," much of the novel is "self-laceratingly autobiographical."]

There are three ideas in Martin Amis's long and lugubrious revenger's comedy.

The first is that writers are, on the whole, a nightmare and, while he's sorry about that, it's much, much worse for them than for their nearest and dearest. The second is that men have a terrible time simply keeping up with...

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Christopher Buckley (review date 23 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Inflammation," in The New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Buckley discusses The Information and how Amis has evolved as a writer.]

There's been a whole lot of keening in the British press lately about, Martin Amis's new novel, and some in our own. The cause of all this fuss and feathers is that—brace yourself—he fired one agent (the wife of his close friend, the novelist Julian Barnes), and hired another, Andrew Wylie, an American now referred to in the British papers as "the Jackal" and "the Robert Maxwell of agenting," who got him a juicy advance for the British edition, rumored to be close to $800,000....

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Richard Eder (review date 30 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pen Envy: The Baroque Obsessions of an Unpublishable Writer Character," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following review, Eder lauds Amis as "dark, satirical and gifted with irascibility." However, he does find fault with Amis's lack of "inventiveness" and the aim of the author's satire.]

The best-known male writers of Britain's postwar period wrote of a zero-sum island where rancor was the leading literary theme. The women writers, meanwhile, were beginning to find ways to move on: Iris Murdoch through pagan myth, Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald through different kinds of humor with a similar root in sadness.


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Michiko Kakutani (review date 2 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raging Midlife Crisis as Contemporary Ethos," in The New York Times, May 2, 1995, p. C17.

[In the following review, Kakutani favorably discusses The Information as "ambitious" and "uncompromising," and predicts that the book will be favorably received.]

Once in a while in some artists' careers, there comes along a work that sums up all their preoccupations, all their technical innovations to date. Sometimes, as in the case of Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock, the work is simply a playful but solipsistic dictionary of familiar riffs and routines, a self-referential game of mirrors. Other times, as in the case of Ingmar Bergman's film Fanny...

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Julian Loose (review date 11 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Satisfaction," in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 9, May 11, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review, Loose discusses the themes, strengths, and weaknesses of Amis's novel The Information.]

Clearly, for Martin Amis, enough is nothing like enough. To read him is to discover an author as voracious as his characters: like Terry in Success, who specifies that 'I want all that and I want all that. And I want all that and I want all that. And I want all that and I want all that.' Or like the fast-food, fast-sex junkie John Self of Money, who always gets less than he bargains for, yet keeps going back for more: 'I would...

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Merle Rubin (review date 17 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Information—An Unpleasant, Familiar-Sounding Book," in The Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following review, Rubin examines The Information and states that despite the "unpleasant" nature of the story, Amis manages to contrive a "scathing satire of London literary life."]

The publication of Martin Amis's eighth novel, The Information, stirred up considerable controversy in London literary circles, not only over the size of the advance its author demanded, but also over what some deemed his mistreatment of his literary friends and associates. (Amis replaced his former agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of his longtime...

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Ed Morales (review date 23 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Amis and Envy," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 21, May 23, 1995, p. 52.

[In the following review, Morales discusses briefly the plot, themes, and autobiographical elements of The Information, praising some aspects of Amis's writing and faulting others.]

With The Information, Martin Amis seems poised to make a profound comment on the nature of the writing business, the unnerving inevitability of aging, and, well, death itself. At least it appears that the information he refers to is Death; Death of the English Novel, Death of Western Civilization, Death of the White Guy. The word that's obviously missing from this title is Superhighway,...

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James Bowman (review date 29 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Content of His Characters," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 10, May 29, 1995, pp. 61-63.

[In the following review, Bowman asserts that Amis's work is often lacking in plot but strong in prose.]

Writers of fiction in the twentieth century can be divided into the champions of big texture and the champions of big content, and there can be no question that the texturalists have had the better of the conflict. The reassuringly Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end, which used to be thought a minimum requirement for a novel, have given way among the adepts of literary culture to what Ezra Pound called (and called for): "Beginning, Whoop! and then any sort...

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David C. Ward (review date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Discussions of Recent Books: A Black Comedy of Manners," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 561-64.

[In the following negative review, Ward faults The Information, saying it "does not have a plot, it has predicaments and events." He also declares that "none of the characters in The Information comes close to being sympathetic."]

On its publication Martin Amis's The Information threatened to be avalanched by the various English literary and celebrity controversies of which its author was the lightning rod. Amis having his teeth fixed; Amis changing his agent thereby losing his friendship with author Julian...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Diedrick, James. Understanding Martin Amis. University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

A study of the themes and features found in Amis's work. Discussion of Amis's artistic vision, his journalistic experiences, and overview of the characteristics that make Amis's work unique. The book includes bibliographical references.

Doan, Laura. "'Sexy Greedy Is the Late Eighties': Power Systems in Amis' Money and Churchill's Serious Money." The Minnesota Review 34/35 (Spring/Fall 1990): 69-80.

This essay compares power structures in Amis's Money to...

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