MARTIN AMIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN a casualty of his own biography. Every new book comes swathed in literary gossip or literary scandal to do with his father, his teeth, his divorce, his politics, his agent or his friends. The recent publication in England of Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (a jangling heap of bad writing and factual inaccuracy) doesn't actually tell us anything new: we know it all already. Born in 1949, the son of novelist Kingsley Amis, handsome Martin with his furrowed brow and energized prose seized on the wheezing literary world of 1970s England and shocked it back to life. While writing some of the most entertaining literary criticism you'll ever come across for publications like the Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman, young Amis penned in quick succession a handful of early novels that heralded the arrival of a bright, brash new voice in English letters — a voice perfectly suited to mingle with the yobs and snobs alike, scathing in its hyperbolic charge, addicted to the dregs of British society. In one of those early novels — Success, published in 1978 — one of the characters pleadingly tells the reader, "Take me to America," and that's exactly what Martin Amis did. His sprawling, early-to-mid-career comedies — Money, London Fields, The Information — all pitched their voices "somewhere in the mid-Atlantic," as another character has it, revitalizing English prose with the freewheeling energies of its American cousin.
The ensuing four decades of novels, essays, stories and journalism make up one of the most electric and original bodies of work in modern literature. Whatever one says of Amis, however one feels about what Kingsley complained of as a "terrible compulsive vividness in his style," it takes serious effort to deny the overwhelming originality of Amis's voice, and seems to me quite a bit harder to resist the temptation to imitate it. Alas, Amis says somewhere that the great stylists are the ones you shouldn't be influenced by (easier said than done, mate); like Proust, he believes that style is a quality of vision, the revelation of an author's private universe. In his memoir Experience he claims that "style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified." Reading Amis, we learn to inhabit his voice, his vision, and the morality that is his private universe. We learn to see the world the way Amis sees it: the way, in the novel Money, an overheated tunnel's "throat swelled like emphysema with fags and fumes and foul mouths"; or the distant airplanes in Yellow Dog that "were like incandescent spermatozoa, sent out to fertilize the universe." We see, in The Rachel Papers, the narrator's mother's skin that "had shrunken over her skull, to accentuate her jaw and to provide commodious cellarage for the gloomy pools that were her eyes; her breasts had long forsaken their native home and now flanked her navel; and her buttocks, when she wore stretch-slacks, would dance behind her knees like punch-balls."
What kind of private universe is this? Well, for starters it's a universe shaped by gusts and headwinds of comic hyperbole ("her buttocks...danced behind her knees like punch-balls") and an undercurrent of the literary high style ("the gloomy pools that were her eyes"). It's a universe both strange and strangely familiar...read more