By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by Michael Birt|
It’s hard to meet Martin Amis for lunch at Chateau Marmont without thinking of his bleakly hilarious satire of the literary life, The Information. That novel, about two competing writers, one a vacuous success, the other a brilliant but unreadable failure, has a lot to say about book tours, both the successful and unsuccessful kind. Looking around the garden of the Marmont (the flowering hibiscus, the jacketed waiter, the bronzed publicist flitting through the shadows with a copy of Experience under her arm), one can see which kind of book tour this is: This is the successful kind, the kind few writers on the planet will ever know or see.
But then, Martin Amis is a special guy. He may not have won the Booker Prize, but his noirish, souped-up prose style is as distinctive as any in contemporary fiction. Starting with The Rachel Papers(1973), and continuing with novels such as Money (1984), London Fields (1990) and Night Train (1998), as well as two superb collections of journalism, he has used street-smart Nabokovian wordplay to describe sicko modern culture and its preoccupations. Now 51, and a few years past a well-publicized midlife crisis that involved a change of agents, the breakup of his first marriage, the breakup of his friendship with novelist Julian Barnes, the discovery of a long-lost daughter, the discovery that a long-lost cousin had been murdered by Britain’s most notorious serial killer, and $20,000 of excruciating dental work, he seems ready to ratchet up his fame another notch.
Of course, you need the right book. Experience, Amis’ heavily hyped account of what it’s like to grow up as the son of a celebrated comic novelist (father Kingsley Amis), and then become an even more celebrated comic novelist yourself, is as close to being the “right” book as Amis is likely to get — particularly in America. For one thing, it’s a memoir, not fiction, and that moves him adroitly into the mainstream. (“We live in the age of mass loquacity. We are all writing it or at any rate talking it: the memoir, the apologia, the c.v., the cri de coeur.”) For another, it’s got human interest, gossip and famous names. Granted, the names are mostly literary and the style often acutely elevated (“Some freak perihelion or syzygy caused the sun to hang unnaturally low in the late afternoons”), but there’s enough universality in this father-son story to have landed its author on ABC’s 20/20 just in time to deliver a Father’s Day message to the American people. As they say on television, more on that later.
Face to face, Amis seems donnish, gentle, almost languid, but perhaps he’s just tired. In conversation, he sits with his head turned pensively to one side and remains like that for minutes at a time. (“Oh, look at this,” he says when he finally moves his head from right to left and notices that there’s a bikini-clad model posing for a photographer at the next table.) The famous dentures (the $20,000 of dental work involved the removal of his upper teeth and the salvaging of the lower, an ordeal about which he has much to say in his book) are notable for their subtlety: flawless, but practically beige in comparison to the blinding snow peaks that light up the average Hollywood smile. By this point in a book tour, he says, he prefers easy questions, or just plain conversation. So I ask him an easy question. I ask him if it’s true that he’s now living in New York.
“I’ve lived in London for nearly 40 years, without serious interruption,” he replies in his clipped Oxonian drawl. “But I’ve intimated that I might at some point or other move to New York, or to America, with the result that everyone assumes that I live in America. So the first hurdle I have with almost everyone I meet in the States is ‘So you’re living in New York?’ And in London it’s ‘So you’re backfrom New York?’ In England it just adds another little thing, where they can call you a traitor. ‘If you don’t like it here, you can fuck off out of it’ — you know, that kind of English attitude,” he concludes, screwing up his features until he looks like a xenophobic little soccer fan with a dead Belgian at his feet.
Kingsley — unlike Martin — was something of a xenophobe too. (One of his novels was called I Like it Here.) When he won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), a trip abroad was part of the prize. Kingsley called it a “deportation order.” “Forced to go abroad,” he moaned in a letter to the poet Philip Larkin, “bloody forced, mun.” Other points of contention between father and son included Martin’s lefty politics (Kingsley thought nuclear weapons were dandy and had erotic dreams about the queen); Martin’s fancy-pants prose style (Kingsley loved Ian Fleming, despised Nabokov and Bellow); and, more generally, postmodernism (when Kingsley came across a character called “Martin Amis” in Money, he threw the book across the floor and barely glanced at his son’s novels again.) Nonetheless, the two men were very close, united by a love of language and a shared sense of humor. There was also a foreign country they both liked: America.
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