in defence of martin amis
Martin Amis is one of those writers you just love to hate. Hailed as the bard of butch, Amis is frequently skewered by the media. They attack his writing and label him greedy and egotistical. His most recent novel Lionel Asbo was savaged by critics with one particularly grumpy reviewer from the New York Observer simply proclaiming that “Lionel Asbo is a bad book”. Others were more eloquent but just as unforgiving. The New York Times found it “weary” and “pallid” while the Guardian felt it was “persistently wrong in jarring ways”.
And it’s not just the media that have it in for Amis. Fellow literary figures have also waved pitchforks in his direction. Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, famously fell out with the author after Amis dumped his long-time agent Pat Kavanagh (Barnes’s wife). Even Amis’s own father, Kingsley Amis, wasn’t always a fan. In letters to old pal Philip Larkin, Kingsley refers to Martin as “lazy Martin”, “Savage little Mart” and, my personal favourite, “little shit”. But if anyone can turn “little shit” into a compliment it’s Martin Amis.
Oh and did I mention that I’ve met the man himself? Yep shameless name drop. Me and Mart, we’re besties. Our conversation went something like this:
Amis – “What’s your name?”
Me – “Coco.”
Amis – “There’s a character in this book [The Rachel Papers] called Coco.”
Me – “Oh really, that’s great, yeah cool.”
Amis – “She’s a cock-tease.”
Me – “Wonderful…yeah cool.”
As you can see we have a beautiful friendship. I could write pages and pages about my mate Mart but for the moment I’ll just outline my top three Amis novels.
The first is The Rachel Papers (1973). Written when Amis was in his early twenties, the novel is wonderfully brutal and witty. It perfectly captures the appetites, anxieties and obsessions of that mysterious, misunderstood creature, the teenage boy. The protagonist Charles Highway is vain, pompous and inconsiderate — pretty much your run-of-the-mill douche bag. He spends the majority of the novel meticulously planning his sexual conquests. After setting his sights on the upper-class Rachel, Charles develops a file on her which includes everything from her bra size to a step-by-step guide to getting her knickers off. Needless to say Charles is a real little shit.
After The Rachel Papers I suggest you try old Mart’s second novel Dead Babies (1975) which is a grotesque variation of the P.G. Wodehouse or Jane Austen country house novel. Warning: it is not for the faint hearted. Imagine if American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, and a dwarf all walked into a bar. That’s Dead Babies for you. I won’t give away the plot. All I’ll say is that Amis’s characters are disgusting. Fascinating but disgusting.
Next comes one of Amis’s recent literary offerings, The Pregnant Widow (2010). Set in an Italian castle in 1970, the novel follows the romantic intrigues of a group of young men and women as they struggle to navigate the new terrain of sexual emancipation and free-love. Keith Nearing, the protagonist, is a hyper-conscious student of English literature and aspiring poet. He is accompanied by his girlfriend Lily and her friend, the amply-bosomed goddess with the fabled name of Scheherazade. Keith promptly develops an obsession with Scheherazade and hilarity ensues. Over the course of the summer, the castle also plays host to a variety of hedonistic interlopers including Rita, the champion of free-love, and Gloria, the enigmatic seductress who is nicknamed “Junglebum” thanks to her enormous backside.
While The Pregnant Widow lacks the panache of The Rachel Papers it is a much easier (and less vomit-inducing) read than Dead Babies.
Of course before you read any Martin Amis you will need to ask yourself one question: are you a tits or an arse man/woman? This question, crude as it may seem, is important when approaching the Amis oeuvre. After all it wouldn’t be a true Amis novel if it didn’t include a long discussion about how big tits should be (“like the upper bit of those dessert glasses . . . Just full enough to have a touch of heaviness”), or an off-hand comment about a woman’s arse (“her arse formed a . . . whatever you like – an arse-shaped semi-circle above the heels of her boots”).
Leaving aside the body parts for one second, Amis is a truly great wordsmith whatever the critics may say. Sure, sometimes he misses the mark with his novels and sometimes he’s a little shit. What of it? He’s a writer and writers are allowed to be little shits. At least that’s what I tell my family and friends when I’m being extra annoying.