By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“Thank you for coming. How nice it is to see your expectant faces,” Amis says, not looking up from the lectern in the upstairs conference room at the Beverly Hills Library. Slickly bookish, he’s dressed in a blue suit and lemony shirt, and his hair, brushed back from his forehead, looks as if it’s still damp from the shower. That’s one of the nice things about British writers: They do tend to have style. (In comparison, American writers like Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace can seem like the literary equivalent of policy wonks.) And Amis, in particular, is all about style: getting the lingo down, nailing the exact word . . . That’s the strength of his novels, and that’s their limitation too.
Earlier, when he was out on the terrace smoking a cigarette, Amis had told me that he didn’t usually read for very long — 20 minutes was the norm — and that he tailored his material to whatever city he was in. This being L.A., he was going to talk about movies. Porn movies, that is. “I hope I don’t upset any of you,” he says, after a brief disquisition on the current scene in the Valley. (What, at lunch, he’d described to me as the porn world’s “Salo period, its Nero period: pissing, fisting, double-anal, triple-anal . . . They have the ‘no-thumbs’ rule, so a girl has 16 fingers up her but no thumbs. And gaping asses — they’re called ‘gapes,’ it’s the big thing — as wide as it can go.”) “After all,” he continues, quickly scanning the room to make sure there isn’t too much gray hair atop the 150 or so heads turned in his direction, “you are Americans, which means that 46 percent of your disposable income is spent on pornography. This is America, where pornography accounts for 90 percent of the gross national product . . .”
After the laughter dies down, Amis recounts an exchange he had with a male porn star during a previous trip to the Valley. Amis inquired as to why there was this “incredible emphasis on anal sex” in the porn industry, and the porn star replied that it was because anal sex is where it’s at. “Pussies,” he told Amis dismissively, “are bullshit.” Amis had this conversation during a week in which he was also taking part in a three-day panel discussion on the British novel at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Fellow panelists included Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, and they all had great fun with the porn star’s remark. They began to throw it around, play with it a bit, substituting the word bullshitfor pussy: If pussies are bullshit, then the famous Edward Lear poem would begin, “The owl and the bullshitcat went to sea . . .” And Pussy Galore would be called Bullshit Galore. They vied with each other to see who could come up with the most ingenious example, but in the end, Rushdie had the clincher: Octobullshit. I guess you had to be there.
Once upon a time, the English were considered uptight and Americans were universally portrayed as free-flowing, loudmouthed vulgarians. This is no longer the case. Nowadays, it’s Americans who are uptight and it’s the English who (when they’re in America, anyway) are always quick to supply the risqué remark, the graphic sexual detail, while the politically correct natives stare at them open-mouthed and think, “Man, these guys are loose.”
“This little section is called ‘Fuck Off,’” Amis drawls, hand in pocket. Another section he reads is called “Women’s Breasts,” which is partly about Kingsley’s admiration for Ann Jones, a homely but amply endowed British tennis champ. During Wimbledon, Kingsley would sit inches from the TV screen with his thumb planted firmly over her face. The section also includes this snippet of conversation between Amis and his dad:
Martin:“Are you a total tit-man? Don’t you like any other bits? Don’t you like legs?”
Kingsley: “Well, I like to know they’re both there.”
With all this talk of tits and bullshit, the audience might be forgiven for thinking that Experience is some sort of dirty book. It’s not. It’s a very high-minded book — sometimes cloyingly so — written and constructed with gratifying care. High-mindedness comes to the fore during the Q&A session, when a man in the audience loudly demands to know if Amis thinks Bellow “outed” Allan Bloom in his recent novel Ravelstein. This is not a good question to ask. For Amis, Bellow is the holy of holies, the acme of contemporary letters, and he sends the question crashing to the ground in outraged flames. “Absolutely not . . . disgraceful literal-mindedness . . . Ravelstein is a work of tremulous crystalline beauty,” etc., etc., he sputters.
For the record, I love Saul Bellow and think Ravelstein is terrific. (For the record, I think Amis is pretty terrific too.) Furthermore, the stentorian-voiced questioner does come across as a bit, well, stentorian. But it’s a bit much, after being treated to the double-anal and the triple-anal and the tits and the Bullshitcat, to listen to someone being reprimanded for insufficiently appreciating the unimpeachable purity of Bellow’s motives. There’s something comical about the way Amis insists on being really cool and streetwise and down with the porno, while simultaneously donning a bishop’s miter in the high church of literary seriousness. Still, there is a point to all this badinage, and after regaling us with his porn routine Amis quotes Nietzsche to underline it: “A joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling.” The point would seem to be: There’s a lot of numbness out there, even on Parnassus.