At the end of his recent biography of Martin Amis, Richard Bradford poses a question, as if to justify the toil of the previous 382 pages: “Significance: Is He a Great Writer?” “The short answer to this question is yes,” he continues – too swiftly? – “he is the most important British novelist of his generation.” Bradford surveys Amis’ influence on the younger generation of British novelists, and then deals summarily with his rivals: the “endlessly predictable” Rushdie is guilty of “Magic Realism by rote”; Barnes, despite being “outstandingly talented … does not make us think”; McEwan is the “best of the three”, he concedes, but “he shocks us without causing an inordinate degree of confusion and he certainly does not provoke rage, which is why he has won the Booker and Martin has not”. And since, for some reason, only one great British novelist is permitted per generation, the gong goes to Amis. QED.
Amis needs all the apologists he can find, certainly. As Bradford observes, Amis provokes rage, but he also provokes something else: a peculiar condescension. Even his sternest critics acknowledge his talent, but with a caveat: What have you made of that talent, young man? Have you put it to good use? (How galling such sentiments must be to a writer who has passed 60.) At times, Amis has loaded his books with the ballast of serious issues – nuclear warfare, Stalinism, Islamism – though his gifts are poetic and comedic rather than political. And perhaps it is all this tut-tutting that provokes some of Bradford’s wilder counter-assertions: “Money is as important a literary landmark as Ulysses.”
It must be inhibiting to be a Great Writer Designate. Amis’ latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England (Jonathan Cape; $32.95), sends out mixed messages on the subject. The subtitle suggests a certain largeness of ambition, undercut by the blurb, which describes it as “fairy tale”. What is the reader to make of this? Without getting bogged down in academic discourse on ‘interrogating genre/(s)’, how exactly are we supposed to read it?
The book’s eponymous hero, the violent young criminal Lionel Asbo, does not like reading, because “after a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss? Then you temper’s gone, and you can’t uh, regain you concentration.”
Frequently, in Lionel Asbo, Amis is taking the piss, but sometimes he is not, and sometimes he seems to be taking his piss and drinking it, too (a sentence he would surely despise).
The book begins with a letter to an agony aunt by Lionel’s nephew, the 15-and-a-half-year-old Des Pepperdine:
I’m having an affair with an older woman. Shes’ a lady of some sophistication, and makes a refreshing change from the teen agers I know (like Alektra for example, or Chanel.) The sex is fantastic and I think I’m in love. But ther’es one very serious complication and i’ts this; shes’ my Gran!
Within two words, Amis has already taken the piss out of chav names and their pretentious misspellings. But we do not require Amis for this type of satire: it is available online, at any lamentable ‘spot-the-bogan’ website. Surely this is too easy, and the sentences that follow ever easier. As any fan would know, in the Amis kingdom (presided over by père or fils), incorrect punctuation is almost as heinous a transgression as incest with one’s grandmother.
At this point the reader feels a little sorry for Des. Shouldn’t Amis be picking on someone his own size? But soon Des hears a “voice in his head, and he listened to it and he talked to it. No, he communed with it, he communed with the whispers of his intelligence.” He shortly learns to punctuate, and spends afternoons in the library, reading the newspapers – “he expected the spidery print to exclude him. But it didn’t; it let him in.” And here Amis breaks into song: “He had spent eight hours in the place called World.”
Des goes to university, where he meets Dawn: “Holding hands. Books on their laps. Kisses. Civilisation, thought Des Pepperdine.” Amis, we are led to believe, thinks the same thing. So why the condescending exclamation marks, as their lives begin to fall into place? “On August 2, 2011, Des and Dawn were informed that they’d both got Two Ones! … And [Des] was summoned to two interviews, one at the Diston Gazette – and one at the Daily Mirror!’ Are we barracking for Des or not? This is where an authorial cue card might come in handy: ‘SNEER’, perhaps, or ‘TEARS OF JOY’. Certainly Lionel Asbo (Uncle Li) would take the former option. Lionel changed his surname to Asbo after England’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, the first of which he was served as a three year old. His milieu is Diston, an imaginary London borough, with its “burping, magmatic canal, its fizzy low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste”.
One of the disorientations of Amis’ prose is its combination of high style and low subject matter. (This reached its apogee early, in his Invasion of the Space Invaders of 1982, a guidebook to video games that might have been penned for the Onion: “Who are these that haunt the electronic grottoes, where the machines sing and the Earthlings play? Who are these proletarian triffids, these darkness-worshippers, hooked on the radar, rumble and wow of friendly robots who play with you if you pay them to?”) Amis is a poet who likes to slum it. As he explains in Koba the Dread, in a letter to his deceased father: “you wrote, very largely, about the bourgeoisie in your fiction, i.e., the middle classes – a category seldom seen in mine, where I make do with the aristocracy, the intelligentsia, the lumpenproletariat and the urkas.”
Lionel Asbo – formidable, compelling – is the ultimate Amis urka. He might be the wised-up love child of John Self from Money and Keith Talent from London Fields: thuggish, woman-hitting, addicted to pornography. Though how wised-up he is remains unclear. The intelligence of the Amis urka fluctuates markedly, sometimes approaching that of his maker, a criticism Des pre-empts: “I can’t work him out, Dawnie. Never could. I mean, he’s clever when he wants to be. Last time I was there he said something really good. Very acute, I thought.”
But if Lionel’s intelligence is under dispute, his wickedness is not. When he finds out that a schoolboy, Rory Nightingale, is sleeping with his mother, he fixes Rory up “with a circle of new friends”. That is the last we see of Rory, except for one thing:
As he moved off Lionel lobbed something in the air. Des caught it: tiny, gluey, heavy. He straightened his fingers – and the trinket seemed to leap from his palm. Warily he crouched to pick it up. A metal loop smeared with dried blood and an additional gout of pink tissue. Rory’s lip ring.
Most of us have never felt this item in our palm, but of course it would be this exactly: tiny, gluey, heavy. This is why we read Amis: for his visceral prose, which lends experience its full shocking weight. The trinket leaps off the reader’s palm with all the threat of the book. Because Rory, of course, was not the only schoolboy “giving one” to Lionel’s mum. And so the beginnings of the plot, such as it is, are in place. Does Lionel know or doesn’t he? What is he going to do when he finds out?
Bradford’s comparison with McEwan is instructive: “he shocks us without causing an inordinate degree of confusion”. When reading McEwan, the ride can almost be too smooth. You never quite forget the master technician behind the scenes, manipulating the puppets with such breathtaking craft that they could almost be human. Amis does not maintain such control of his material; the “inordinate degree of confusion” that results might sound like reality, but it is not quite that, either. The contrivances are there, almost perversely unhidden: all the workings on the outside, like the Pompidou Centre. Of course Lionel will find out about Des. And of course he will not be forgiving: “Be reasonable, Des. What you expect? He gave my mum one. And if you fuck my mum, there’s going to be consequences. Obviously.” What sort of consequences? Well, much is made of Lionel’s pitbulls, lurching at the door and barking “Fuckoff”. As Chekhov said, if there is a gun on the wall in Act I, someone must get shot in Act III. Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, Amis prefaces each section of the book with: “Who let the dogs in? Who? Who?”
It is almost an anti-plot, in its renunciation of suspense, and yet – curiously – it works. It keeps us turning pages over most of the book that follows, even as Amis runs off with a gigantic red herring, before he returns at the end to insert two final pieces. Lionel’s mother dies, which means (as we know from The Godfather) that all bets are off: “See, there’s certain things, Des, there’s certain things a man can’t do till his mum pops off.” Meanwhile, Des becomes the father of Cilla, who becomes more gorgeous and more doomed with each sentence. And is, of course, left to sleep on the kitchen table in the hot weather, as the dogs snarl, primed with Tabasco sauce, outside on the balcony.
The giant red herring is Lionel’s lottery win, which occupies most of the pages in between. Suddenly £140 million richer, he becomes a tabloid star. This affords Amis many opportunities for class comedy, as Lionel stumbles through a luxury world, his pleasures – like John Self’s – limited by his own imagination. In one hilarious scene, he battles with a lobster in England’s Oldest Restaurant, clad in a shahtoosh dinner jacket, trying to conceal his grubby tabloid, Morning Lark, from the other diners.
It also allows Amis to score some points against British celebrity culture. Lionel’s new girlfriend, ‘Threnody’, resembles glamour model turned novelist Katie Price, though her literary aspirations are of a different scale: Threnody hopes to win the TS Eliot Prize. But the poetry of a glamour model, again, is surely a soft target for Amis’ satire:
Talking over issues
Seeing eye to eye
Learning how to compromise
As the years go by
We hereby cast aside
For you will be mine husband
And I will be thy bride …
There always seems to be a moment in an Amis book in which the known world retreats; in which the lifeline of plot – basic as it might be – slips from your hand, and you find yourself adrift in a world of sensory impression and virtuosic polyphony. At times you feel as lost as Lionel, stumbling through the luxury of Amis’ prose, surrounded by dazzling surfaces, each lacquered in his brilliant high style. It is disorienting, a world without perspective. And yet – what a place to get lost in.
Amis’ reverence for language is near religious. In his collection of criticism The War Against Cliché, he states his position: “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does.” Amis achieves formal perfection at the sentence level; the hope might be that it spreads inwards to the heart of the book, with a self-replicating, fractal inevitability. But what if it does not? ‘He is all style and no substance,’ cry his detractors. But what is style, at this level? It is not just pretty words. It is the right words, the only words, as in any great poem. And he sustains these for the length of a novel. Amis’ sentences sing and thrum and send off so many reverberations and harmonics that everyone else’s sound flat. Perhaps this is why he provokes such critical rage. Reading him, you realise your own words have been slacking off on the job, that none of your verbs are even doing words. His sentences have a pop velocity, a forward rhythmic thrust, and yet there is a countervailing density that demands you read slowly, carefully, to crunch through all the fibre. In this great age of transparency, of pared-down style, Amis is an effortful read, and (presumably) an effortful write. But the reader is rewarded: you get to borrow Amis’ intelligence for the duration. It makes you smarter. It makes you see more. And it makes you love language again.
At his best, Amis marries this style not just to sensation but also to feeling, and amplifies it, as in his luminous memoir Experience, or in much of The Pregnant Widow. Parenthood offers him these opportunities in Lionel Asbo:
His gaze slips up from the swollen vulva and its vertical smile – to the head: a dunce’s cap of flesh and blood and bone … And then, in the seventh week, she smiled – irrefutably. You suddenly knew what an extraordinary thing a smile was, how kaleidoscopically it transformed the eyes.
In his closing remarks for the defence, Bradford retreats from pronouncements of greatness, designating Martin Amis – like his father before him – “by far the best prose stylist in English”. Isn’t this enough? Shouldn’t we be grateful for this? We can’t help getting angry with him at times, but we also can’t help reading every glittering word.
Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent books are Welcome to Your New Life and The Best Australian Essays 2017 (as editor). Her most recent album is Beethoven Piano Trios.
At the end of his recent biography of Martin Amis, Richard Bradford poses a question, as if to justify the toil of the previous 382 pages: “Significance: Is He a Great Writer?” “The short answer to this question is yes,” he continues – too swiftly? – “he is the most important British novelist of his generation.” Bradford surveys Amis’ influence on the younger generation of British novelists, and then deals summarily with his rivals: the “endlessly predictable” Rushdie is guilty of “Magic Realism by rote”; Barnes, despite being “outstandingly talented … does not make us think”; McEwan is the “best of the three”, he concedes, but “he shocks us without causing an inordinate degree of confusion and he certainly does not provoke rage, which is why he has won the Booker and Martin has not”. And since, for some reason, only one great British novelist is permitted per generation,...