A Frivolous Tussle
In an illuminating interview with Robert Birnbaum in Identity Theory.com, Martin Amis explained why he thought Saul Bellow was the greatest American writer of the century. He believed it resided in the weight of Bellow’s sentences. Later in the same interview Amis mentions that he is a critic as well as a fiction writer, and indeed was for seven years literary editor for The New Statesman, while his essay collection The War Against Cliché is an influential tome that has probably done more than most books in warning the writer of the dangers of lazy phrasing. Yet Amis’s acute praise for Bellow can be seen also as a fine piece of auto-criticism: Amis’s skill doesn’t lie in the weight of the sentence, but in his sentences’ lightness. Where Bellow can accumulate much meaning in a well-turned phrase, Amis’s are closer to throwaways. Where Bellow often seizes on the existential nature of character through description, Amis appears much more interested in the surface texture, in the play of words over the acuity of perception.
In Herzog, for example, Bellow talks of someone at a trial: “a witness was sworn, a solid looking man of thirty five or so, in a stylish Oxford grey summer suit, of Madison Avenue cut,” before adding, “his face was round, full, jowly, but his head had little height above the ears and was further flattened by his butch haircut. He made very good gestures, pulling up his trouser legs as he sat, freeing his shirt cuffs, and leaning forward to answer questions with measured, earnest, masculine politeness.” In Money, Amis describes someone called “Fat Paul”, “with his full-breasted bulk, his impassive sloped slab of a face, his parched pub rug, and the cruel blond eyebrows which give the eyes themselves the glint of a veteran ferret who has seen it all in the hare-traps and rat pits.” Bellow, though known as a master stylist, nevertheless offers next to Amis’s description a sober stare. Amis’s sentence is giddy, high on its own alliterative ingenuity, its play on vowel sounds. Poor Fat Paul seems to disappear through a smog of wordplay. In the one sentence there is full-breasted bulk, sloped slab, arched pub rug, hare traps and rat pits. Breasted bulk is simple alliteration of a b on a b. Sloped slab tops it with sybillance and alliteration as we note that not only is the first letter of the word the same but also the second. Then Amis ends the sentence with hare-traps and rat pits, as if offering a mini tongue-twister. Amis is famous for his competitiveness, but is there any writer who more obviously allows even phrases in a sentence to compete with each other? Amis’s sentences are from a certain perspective quite brilliant, but by his own critical standards does he fail to achieve weight?
Herzog is written in the third person and Money in the first. Amis is thus offering a description from a narrator’s point of view, but there are many similarly constructed sentences elsewhere in his work, and it is to the story collection Heavy Water that we shall focus on here. A number of the stories offer high concept conceits ingeniously developed. ‘Career Move’ turns scriptwriting into a vocation and poetry into a glamorous career opportunity. Alistair is the earnest scriptwriter sending his work out to the little magazines, while Luke is the high powered poet, taking meetings in LA and working on various drafts of the poem with other poets. Poetry is an impersonal business and a lucrative one. We’re first introduced to Luke as he sits on a Bauhaus love seat in Club World, preparing for his first class flight to LA, “where he would be met by a uniformed chauffeur who would convey him by limousine or courtesy car to the Pinnacle Trumont on the Avenue of the Stars.” Alistair at the same time is posting a letter to the Little Magazine “on a wet Sunday afternoon in Leeds.”
Amis may have talked a lot about the problem of cliché, but one wonders whether he solves the problem without much effort of his own. Often Amis’s sentences and stories aren’t inventive but if you like ‘invertive’ – they turn clichés and received opinions on their head, but it is as though they are too attendant to the reversal. Language and story aren’t creatively searching out a new path of perception; they are taking the givens of the idiomatic and the trope and turning them inside out. A sentence like “he sadly posted this letter on a wet Sunday afternoon in Leeds” is of course itself a predictably clichéd sentence, but Amis will let it stand because of the context in which it’s placed. If it were part of a realist novel Amis would howl at the predictability, but because Alistair is a scriptwriter functioning like a struggling poet, the sentence has the self-reflexive irony that allows it to pass. That Amis works with the tired idea of Leeds being a town full of wet Sundays is fine: the stereotype has a context that means it needn’t be taken straight, no matter if it hardly does anything to show Leeds in a new and original way, just as there is no interest in showing the poet’s life from the inside either.
Once in a letter to his father, quoted in Neil Powell’s Amis and Son, Martin referred to Kafka as an idiot, an opinion he has clearly revised noting his respectful comments in later years about the Czech master, evident in a review of the stories published in The War Against Cliché. Yet a Kafka figure one senses could never be anything but an idiot in Amis’s work. The self is rarely viewed from the inside out but usually from the outside in. When the narrator in Career Move talks of screenplay readings in Earls Court Square, he says it is a place “where screenplay writers read from their screenplays and drank biting Spanish red wine and got stared at by tousled girls who wore thick overcoats and no make-up and blinked incessantly or not at all.” It is a fine piece of comic writing, but imagine how this could be written from the inside. For a writer who devotes so much time to the war against cliché, Amis perhaps finally does no more than do battle with it. In other words the clichés remain in place – Amis merely and obsessively wrestles with them as a tussle he wins individually.
Many hack writers will continue using tired phrasing and lazy observations, but Amis by inverting them is creating his own space for literary self-aggrandizement. Writers like Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Proust and Woolf, though, are writers deeply warring against cliché and all the preconceptions involved because the nature of existence doesn’t quite meet their perceptual needs and demands. When Hemingway famously said in A Moveable Feast that Dostoyevsky changes you as you read him, this is the phenomenological war against clichéd existence; not a skirmish over individual sentences and un-ironic observation evident in this passage from Career Move. When Luke gets back to London he “met up with Mike to straighten this shit out. (The poem]. Actually it looked okay. Mike called Mal at Monad, who had a thing about Tim at TCT. As a potential finesse on Mal, Mike also called Bob at Binary with a view to repossessing the option on Sonnet, plus developing it somewhere else entirely – say at Red Giant, where Rodge was known to be very interested.”
All the humour comes from the inversion – of the poem treated as a script. It works with the inventiveness of an extended pub joke, and can we not say the same of a number of other stories, including Straight Fiction, The Janitor on Mars, and even Let Me Count the Times, the most sustained story in the collection? In Straight Fiction the conceit rests on homosexuality being the norm and the heterosexual being the exception, so Amis plays on the shock of a homosexual facing straight living. “In the Castro, it seemed, everyone was straight. The whole community. They had straight green-grocers, straight bank tellers, straight mailmen. They even had straight cops.” Another character responds by saying “they [the straights] should be fuckin killed, men.” In The Janitor on Mars someone notes that “Art and religion are rooted in the hunger for immortality. But nearly everyone already has that. On type-y planets, generally speaking, they soon advance to a future-indefinite wordline.” He adds “I like art now. It takes a while to get the hang of it. What you’ve got to do is tell yourself “this won’t actually get me anywhere and then you don’t have a problem.”” It is the perspective of an alien looking at earth, but this is hardly phenomenological radicalism; more topsy-turvy conceit.
In The Janitor on Mars and Straight Fiction, though, this conceit seems more elevated than in Career Move, as though Amis wanted to grapple not only with cliché but with issues also. It is a point both biographer Neil Powell and critic Adam Mars-Jones, in an essay in Blind Bitter Happiness, have noted in his later work; a need to attend to the big themes. The biographer observes that Amis’s father Kingsley was very dismissive of this shift from the younger Amis’s apolitical aspect, to the later figure that started to fret about the Bomb and Human Rights. Both Powell and Mars-Jones however don’t question Amis’s political convictions, more the tone and manner in which they are couched. “Talking of an article Amis wrote for Esquire in 1988, Powell says “it was partly, perhaps mostly, a matter of tone – that heavy-handed ingratiating irony in the passage just quoted,” where the passage included a few words about his family: “Why, just before I left, my three year-old gazed up at me with those big blue eyes of his and said I was the best daddy in the world. My wife and I love our boys. And they love us. OK?” For Mars-Jones, it is the sentimental tone that destroys the logic of Amis’s argument in a passage from Amis’s ‘Thinkability’, where “the nearest to a syllogism we can make of these elements is: all human beings feel the cosmic delicacy. We have no sense of cosmic delicacy. Therefore we are not human beings.” The big themes seem to demand on Amis’s part a seriousness of tone that much of his work eschews, and the phrasing comes across as clumsily literal minded, as though seriousness is an art like any other, and one Amis has never quite mastered, and thus leads him into the naïve and the illogical.
We may have apparently digressed, but the digression serves a purpose: to point up the manner in which Amis’s thinking is often overly sincere and logically inconsistent. The same thinking appears in the fiction. Though in a review of J. G. Ballard’s High Rise Amis proposed “The point of his vision is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well”, we might disagree with Amis in principle only to find that he disagrees with himself in practise. When he says in The Janitor on Mars, “Tour scientists had no idea what to look for or where to look for it, but your poets, I sometimes felt, divined the universal,” there is something humanly common-place about his perception, and hardly requires the Martian narrative to justify it in terms of verbal brilliance. If Amis reckons that literary science-fiction needn’t concern itself with the prescient, then Amis provides us with what is far worse: ready hindsight. The sci-fi story doesn’t hint at future possibilities; more present worries. In another passage he joins global warming with chaos theory. “the forty seventh billionth self-cooling cola can be burped out of its hydrocarbons…and there was that mild forest fire in Albania. And there you have it. You wouldn’t know how these things are connected, but connected they are.” At certain moments one senses literary craft meets power point presentation. Yet the argument isn’t quite made, nor the aesthetic quite realized. Talking of ‘Thinkability’, Mars-Jones says it “is a rhetorical construction, its logic local rather than overarching,” and some of Amis’s fiction feels the same. He has a point to make, an issue to address, and yet it feels half-baked: relying on self-raising sentences over the thought through argument.
The problem we find in much of the fiction is this: Amis’s simultaneous belief in art for art’s sake, and the fretful awareness of big issues hovering over everyone’s lives. Do great writers usually ignore these two questions rather than try to resolve them? The youthful Amis may have insisted Kafka was an idiot, but there is much that he could learn from Kafka’s interest in being neither meretricious nor political because neither the polish of the prose nor the socio-political problems of the world particularly concern him. They are second principle, not first principle problems. To focus so obviously on the issues and the prose results in social vacillation instead of ontological integration. Kafka’s problem with the world was such that it couldn’t readily be a social issue or a brilliant sentence: it comes out of a perceptual crisis between the writer and the world. He is neither politically concerned nor anxiously producing brilliant prose not because he is politically indifferent or aesthetically slapdash, but that the place of creative necessity incorporates these questions on a fundamentally necessary, not on a social or literary, level. When Kafka claimed the only thing could save him was writing, it had nothing to do with being a professional writer; it was the space he could open up to breath phenomenologically.
Maybe we are now in a better place to understand Amis’s acute statement on Bellow, and also a casual comment Aidan Smith makes in an interview with Amis in The Scotsman. Smith noted an editor on GQ once saying to him that around 80% of his staff wanted to write like Amis. It is an entirely understandable and reasonable desire; Amis’s capacity for producing the well-crafted sentence, the fine turn of phrase, the stunning metaphor and simile, is the style journalist’s ideal: “some internal heat-source fuelled his bleeding eyes; otherwise his fat face was worryingly colourless”, the narrator says in’Heavy Water’, “like an internal organ too long on its tray.” Describing a woman in The Coincidence of the Arts whom the central character paints, the narrator says “her body seemed preternatural in its alternations of the soft and the hard; and her skin, unlike his own, did not reflect the light but absorbed it, confidently annexing its powers.” Yet moments before, however, the narrator mentions that “His ears were trained inwards only, and he listened to the muscles creaking in the root of his tongue.” Of the three it is only the latter that seems to carry weight of observation, rather than frivolity of description, and would consequently be too heavy a sentence for a style mag. The description of the organ on a tray could describe any number of unhealthy looking heavies in a movie a style journalist was reviewing; the comment on the model easily absorbed into a breathless profile about the latest starlet getting a centrespread. The idea of a character however with an ear trained inward creates an interesting space for exploring perceptual singularity. Amis, though, more or less ignores it, as if he is happy with its functionally descriptive aspect.
However, if Amis so admires Bellow’s capacity for giving his sentences weight, then why when he occasionally provides one of his own does he not make it more central, and expand upon it? Perhaps because Amis sees that he is a comic writer, a claim he makes in an interview in Prospect magazine with Tom Chatfield where he dismisses writers given credit for seriousness, like Coetzee. Yet his admiration for Bellow implies that Amis regards the weighted observation over the caricatural aside. Coetzee’s failings as a writer lie in the dullness of his sentences; they lack the snap, crackle and pop Amis believes essential to great writing. Bellow’s sentences have weight, but they also have grace. He is entertainingly profound, with the emphasis on the latter without ever ignoring the former, evident in one of Amis’s paeans to Bellow, when he says in a piece in The War Against Cliché that Bellow’s first name should be soul and not Saul. Yet the weakness of the pun is revealing, a term of such weight is matched to a bit of light wordplay. The sentence threatens weight but arrives at wit. Just as we noted that the observation concerning the inner ear becomes merely a descriptive passage, so a comment about the soul leads to no more than a play on words.
Very few of Amis’s sentences possess what we might call existential gravity, the capacity to sum up very quickly not the social generalisation, but the human impression. When Amis describes his central character in ‘State of England’, he opens by saying “Big Mal stood there on the running track in his crinkly linen suit, with a cigarette in one mitt and a mobile phone in the other,” and later adds, “Not tall but built like a brick khazi: five feet nine in all directions…Mal felt he was in a classic situation: wife, child, other woman.” We are also in a classic situation. Amis has created a stereotype that he will then try and shape-shift not into an individual, especially, but if you like a prototype. Big Mal becomes the prototypical hard man loser, just as Keith Talent in London Fields and John Self in Money, become prototypical figures of lust and greed. In a review of London Fields Jay McInerney reckoned “Keith Talent is a brilliant comic creation…as a fictional minor crook, he is in the major league.” Amis finds not so much the depths of the real as the exaggeration of the unreal: the interest in creating characters that top other literary creations – McInerney compares Talent to characters in Graham Greene and, interestingly, Bellow; David Lodge and Julian Symons, on the same back cover, to characters in Dickens. A prototype in the sense we’re describing it is a stereotype that the writer makes one’s own, and that competes with other types. John Self becomes not the stereotypical man of greed, but the prototypical one: the figure that takes greed to a new level, and becomes literary short-hand for avarice the way Scrooge is a byword for meanness, and Sykes for wife battery, Miss Haversham for spinsterdom. It is as if Amis always yearns for the prototypical out of the stereotypical and one may discern in such an approach the competitiveness we proposed was even evident in Amis’s jostling for superiority even between sentences.
In Heavy Water and other Stories only Let Me Count the Times seems to work as a piece of integrated fiction; it is the story that offers the most sustained comic reasoning as Amis doesn’t create comedy out of caricature, but humour out of an absurdist imagination. Each sentence seems not to be looking constantly at its knowing readership, competing with other sentences and other writers, but perhaps quite aptly for a story about masturbation, is much more self-involved. Amis’s central character calculates exactly how often he sleeps with his wife, and also in what permutations. Later Vernon becomes fascinated for the first time in years in the onanistic. He starts imagining all sorts of possibilities with his wife, then with a third party, then with his wife’s friends and so on until he realises that since everything is a figment of his imagination there is nobody beyond his sexual grasp.Vernon can even sleep with people who are no longer alive; even people who never were: including characters from Shakespeare and George Eliot. Of course his sex life with his spouse becomes very occasional, and the story hinges on how he gives up imaginative quantity for living quality. The moral message of the story is contained by a sort of exhausted logic of the proceedings.Vernon runs out of options and into the arms of his wife. Here one senses Amis not so much competing in relation to anything from sentences to character types, but working with an internal logic of the story’s own. It may still lack the sentence weight he so admires in Bellow, but it feels like a story turned in on itself, working through its own minor problematic, rather than outwards, towards reader expectation and competitive possibilities. It may even indicate exactly where Amis’s talent lies; not at all as a major novelist but as a writer of small conceits taken for a walk. It is only in such instances that he escapes not only the anxieties of influence but also of his own sentences, reversals and caricatural characterisation. He finds the inner reasoning of the work, an aspect missing if we take into account Mars-Jones and Powell’s comments.
In Amis and Son, Powell tells an anecdote about Kingsley reading one of Amis’s books, and saying he never bought into the conceit of an Amis novel Other People, finding it too improbable. “You see there’s this girl with amnesia shit you know what I mean, so she’s forgotten what a lavatory is and thinks the cisterns and pipes are statuary, but then how does she know what statuary is?” One suspects he might have approved of the masturbatory tale, however, seeing in it the sort of reductio ad absurdum that doesn’t ignore logic at certain moments, but instead constantly pushes it to onto the next level of reasoning. It makes sense that someone who realises he can have sex with his wife’s friends in his mind can then move onto strangers, and then since it is all in his mind can move onto famous people and fictional characters.
In a Guardian piece a few years back various writers were asked who happened to be the greatest living novelist in Britain, and Amis’s name was mentioned again and again. Yet we would be more likely to agree with Powell, that Amis often “uses emotional instincts to justify his intellectual position, instead of using his intellectual position to test and verify his emotional instincts.” In an essay on Diane Trilling in The Moronic Inferno, Amis admits that meeting her years before he had irritated her by making “an incautious remark, illiberal in tendency – an undergraduate remark.” Trilling couldn’t believe she was “sitting having tea with this person.” There are many moments in Amis work where one might feel remarkably similar, feel in the hands of an attention-seeking undergrad looking to impress. Amis is surely a minor writer, a weakling pumped full of anabolic analogies, alliterative phrasing and cutting commentary. Eighty per cent of GQ journalists might want to be Martin Amis, but should an even higher percentage of fiction writers desperately wish not to be? Next to great modern writers like Coetzee, Kelman and Saramago, Amis’s work is no more than a frivolous tussle with language.