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“Yeah, he loved America,” Amis says of his father. “The year he spent in Princeton, he came very close to making it his home. And he said, rather regrettably, in a letter to Larkin, ‘I never did so much drinking and fucking in my life.’ There’s a good remark by my mother which I didn’t get into the book. One day — she told me this years later — she got rung up in Princeton by this anonymous woman who said, ‘Do you realize your husband is sleeping with every woman in town?’ And my mother said, ‘Yeah, every woman except you.’” As he delivers the punch line, Amis’ lips twist into a trademark sneer.
A smoker who rolls his own, Amis rolls a cigarette with plump, trembling hands. The result is a cigarette that looks like it’s been stepped on. Hands still trembling, he pours us each a glass of mineral water to go with our croque monsieurs. In Experience, he describes how his hands shook reverently when he first met literary idols like Saul Bellow and John Updike. Given how much they shake when he meets a journalist from a free alternative newsweekly, it â must have been quite a sight. Or perhaps it’s just the thought of the afternoon ahead of him: After lunch, he’ll be driven out to the Valley to continue his research for an article on the porn industry he’s writing for Talk, as well as doing some “deeper research” for a novel. I ask him how exactly he goes about researching the Valley’s porn industry.
“Well, it’s not like it was,” Amis answers, dipping the corner of his sandwich into a little pile of salt on the edge of his plate. “The Talkmagazine office will set up a shoot, meeting a couple of stars, meeting a director, meeting an executive, you have a little schedule . . . You get the lingo. The lingo is very important. You know what a ‘facial’ is in porno language?”
“Can you imagine?” he asks, scrutinizing my expression. (He’s enjoying this.)
“Uh, sort of.”
“Yeah. I think you got it,” he says, laughing. “It’s that kind of thing. You don’t need many of those before you can start making them up for yourself.”
“Why are you interested in this for a novel?”
“I’ve always been interested in it. It was a weirder world than I thought. I couldn’t have intuited what it’s like. It’s really a proletarian form, almost Stakhanovite. Very ill paid, lots of health hazards. Not AIDS so much, though there was one outbreak in ’98. As Chloe, this wonderful actress, said to me, ‘I have herpes. You work in porno for a while and you have herpes. Everyone has herpes.’ And she said, ‘We’re prostitutes, that’s what we are.’ She’s a very clever girl. Although I think they’re more like gladiators.”
“Well, we watch them take these risks. And they are kind of putting their lives on the line.”
When I suggest that porn is getting pretty hip these days, Amis disagrees. “I deal with that,” he says. “I say that every time a porno star opens a Virgin megastore, people say it’s mainstream, it’s cool, it’s hip. Is masturbation hip? It doesn’t feel hip. It doesn’t look hip. Because you never see anyone doing it. No, you’d have to make an enormous change in human nature before it became hip.”
The conversation moves on to other topics: his friends Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, the E.C., communism, readers, writers, technology — as you’d expect, Amis is a lot of fun to talk to. Less predictably, his is also a relaxing presence. I ask him about the younger writers out there. Are there any he’s keen on?
“You don’t really read your youngers,” he says. “The only one I read, because he’s a friend of mine, but also because of his writing, is Will Self. When I open his pages, it’s sort of ‘Jesus, what’s he going to do now?’ But that’s quite an exciting feeling to have. And I think Lawrence Norfolk is rather good. But just as my father didn’t read me much, it’s hard to read these young guys. It’s a bit painful too. My father and I worked it out one day that the younger writer’s saying to the older writer, ‘It’s not like that anymore. It’s like this.’ The ‘this’ and ‘that’ being the rhythms of thought, the dialect of the tribe. Some people can hang on to it. I think Saul Bellow has a reading on the state of the world and modern consciousness that is undiminished at the age of 85, but that’s awfully rare.”
Unlike Bellow’s, Kingsley Amis’ world-view calcified long before his death in 1995, but that may have been thanks to Martin. Once the “voice of a generation” himself, he had to look on as his son displaced him. Now, just when Kingsley’s reputation might be fading, Martin is there to prop it up. Experience is an ambitious book, and filled with enough asterisks and appendices and odes to Nabokov and Bellow to drive poor old Kingsley crazy. Forget about throwing it across the floor: This would have called for defenestration. Still, it’s hard to imagine Kingsley complaining much about his own portrayal. Not many writers will ever be written about this well by someone who knew them this intimately. Moreover, there’s a side effect to reading Experience that Kingsley would have appreciated: It makes you want to go out and buy one of his novels straight away.
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