Martin Amis World Literature Analysis
On first reading Amis’s books, the reader will probably hear echoes of many twentieth century novelists. One perceives the zany, scatological world of Philip Roth, the skewed universe of Truman Capote, the meditative voice of Saul Bellow, the complicated plot lines of Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut, and the high-voltage linguistic displays of Tom Wolfe, Vladimir Nabokov, and Anthony Burgess. Yet even though Amis has written about many of these famous novelists (especially in The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America), he remains stylistically unique. There is a certain blending of choppy British street slang, complicated literary allusions, playful puns or witticisms, and outrageously irreverent names that collectively brand each piece of fiction as belonging only to Amis. To read Amis is to experience the literary equivalent of skydiving or deep-sea diving, where the most familiar objects become strange and surreal and where time itself slows down or speeds up in a fashion that is altogether unnerving.
Style ultimately means the way an author invents and manipulates language to suit his or her particular requirements. In Amis’s satiric universe, the intent is always to poke fun at the colossal moral and social breakdown of the twentieth century. Like all good satirists, Amis is making the reader laugh at outrageous and illogical events that might otherwise be taken for granted. If Amis writes about sexual degradation, greed, trickery, and lying, he is not glorifying but denouncing these low points of human behavior. One of his favorite devices to evoke laughter is to create ridiculously appropriate—or inappropriate—names, as did the great British novelist Charles Dickens when he created such memorable figures as Pip, Scrooge, and Tiny Tim.
In Money, for example, a novel-length parable on greed and self-absorption, Amis gives these pecuniary names to certain appropriate characters: Buck Specie, Sterling Dun, Lira Cruzeiros, and Anna Mazuma. In this monetary madhouse, automobiles have a high visibility and high status value and so receive names such as Torpedo, Boomerang, Culprit, Alibi, Jefferson, Iago, Tigerfish, Autocrat, and Farrago. The hero, improbably named John Self, drives an ultraexpensive Fiasco, which is perpetually breaking down and requiring more and more expensive parts. John Self is engaged in hiring actors for his new film, and again the satiric creativity of Amis produces such actors’ names as Nub Forkner, Butch Beausoleil, and Lorne Guyland. The technical crew is composed of Micky Obbs, Kevin Skuse, and Des Blackadder. All of these characters calm their nerves with the angelic tranquilizer Serafim. Amis actually makes a guest appearance in his own novel, and as the character “Martin Amis” reminds John Self near the end of the narrative, “Names are awfully important.”
These unforgettable and oddly appropriate names are perhaps the most distinctive stylistic trait in all of Amis’s novels: Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers, Terry Service in Success, Mary Lamb in Other People, and the gallery of characters in London Fields, including Guy Clinch, Nicola Six, Keith Talent, Lizzyboo, Marmaduke, Chick Purchase, and Trish Shirt, among others. Names are indeed important to Amis’s artistry.
Closely akin to the making of names is the making of new words, or neologisms, and Amis delights in coining new terms or concocting hyphenated phrases in a manner that outdoes Tom Wolfe or Anthony Burgess. The antihero of Money, for example, crisscrosses the vast space over the Atlantic Ocean as he shuttles back and forth between London and New York, leaving behind a wake of “jetslime.” In the latter portions of the narrative, this same peripatetic John Self begins to perceive the hollowness of his own existence and castigates himself for being no more than a “cyborg” or “skinjob.”
When Amis is not inventing new words, he feels free to push every key on the linguistic keyboard, from technical, scholarly, academic, and literary English all the way down the scales to American and British slang. In all of his books, vulgar words abound, as do slang terms such as “yob” (lower-class person), “bim” (short for “bimbo,” an unflattering term for a woman), “rug” (hair), and “snappers” (teeth). Amis delights in any kind of linguistic artifact, especially those that help to define a culture or a character. He is amused by the American tendency to misspell just about everything, to use apostrophes with plural nouns (“light’s” for “lights”), or to enclose nouns in unnecessary quotation marks.
This obsession with language allows Amis to develop memorable characters, like John Self and Keith Talent, because their personality is equivalent to the way they speak and write. This same preoccupation with language also facilitates the development of larger themes that organize the many strands of Amis’s narrative designs. He tends to work with a small number of basic themes that he explores in different ways and at different levels of complexity in all of his novels.
The critic Karl Miller, in his important study Doubles: Studies in Literary History (1985), identified the principal theme in Amis’s work as “doubling.” Plot lines, characters, and situations always tend to be echoed in the universe according to Amis, such as the two brothers in Success or the characters “Martin Amis” and “Martina Twain” in Money. The two other major themes in Amis’s work are planetary decay and the muselike woman. The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, Money, and London Fields all presuppose a world on the brink of ecological disaster. In this world there is always a magnetic feminine presence, such as Selina Street or the inscrutable Nicola Six, whose blandishments and seductions literally keep the men moving through a world of smog, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and gamma rays.
Amis’s moral sensibility and his penchant for literary experimentation continued to contest for predominance in his work after London Fields. The works that defined Amis’s emergence into his maturity—most notably Time’s Arrow, Experience, Koba the Dread, House of Meetings, and The Second Plane—extended his early fascination with foregrounding literary concerns in narratives that examine difficult and thorny moral issues and sustain a tension between ethical commentary and formal experimentation. By taking on some of the most controversial and provocative subject matter available to a writer in the late twentieth century—many incendiary public issues, including religious fanaticism, corporate greed, humanity’s taste for violence, the corruption of sexuality, and mass-scale ethnic cleansing, as well as far more personal concerns, including the ego of the writer, the evolution of the writer, and the influence of family and friends—Amis continued to extend the...
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