Experiencing Martin Amis
|Photo by Michael Birt|
Its 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 Britains 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 its 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, its 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, its 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 theres enough universality in this father-son story to have landed its author on ABCs 20/20 just in time to deliver a Fathers 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 hes 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 theres 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 its true that hes now living in New York.
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Ive lived in London for nearly 40 years, without serious interruption, he replies in his clipped Oxonian drawl. But Ive 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 youre living in New York? And in London its So youre back from New York? In England it just adds another little thing, where they can call you a traitor. If you dont 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 Martins lefty politics (Kingsley thought nuclear weapons were dandy and had erotic dreams about the queen); Martins 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 sons 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.
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. Theres a good remark by my mother which I didnt 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 its 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 its just the thought of the afternoon ahead of him: After lunch, hell be driven out to the Valley to continue his research for an article on the porn industry hes writing for Talk, as well as doing some deeper research for a novel. I ask him how exactly he goes about researching the Valleys porn industry.
Well, its 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 Talk magazine 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. (Hes enjoying this.)
Uh, sort of.
Yeah. I think you got it, he says, laughing. Its that kind of thing. You dont need many of those before you can start making them up for yourself.
Why are you interested in this for a novel?
Ive always been interested in it. It was a weirder world than I thought. I couldnt have intuited what its like. Its 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, Were prostitutes, thats what we are. Shes a very clever girl. Although I think theyre 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 its mainstream, its cool, its hip. Is masturbation hip? It doesnt feel hip. It doesnt look hip. Because you never see anyone doing it. No, youd 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 youd 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 hes keen on?
You dont really read your youngers, he says. The only one I read, because hes a friend of mine, but also because of his writing, is Will Self. When I open his pages, its sort of Jesus, whats he going to do now? But thats quite an exciting feeling to have. And I think Lawrence Norfolk is rather good. But just as my father didnt read me much, its hard to read these young guys. Its a bit painful too. My father and I worked it out one day that the younger writers saying to the older writer, Its not like that anymore. Its 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 thats awfully rare.
Unlike Bellows, 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 Kingsleys 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, its 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, theres 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.
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, hes dressed in a blue suit and lemony shirt, and his hair, brushed back from his forehead, looks as if its still damp from the shower. Thats 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 . . . Thats the strength of his novels, and thats their limitation too.
Earlier, when he was out on the terrace smoking a cigarette, Amis had told me that he didnt 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 dont upset any of you, he says, after a brief disquisition on the current scene in the Valley. (What, at lunch, hed described to me as the porn worlds 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 theyre called gapes, its the big thing as wide as it can go.) After all, he continues, quickly scanning the room to make sure there isnt 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 its 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 stars remark. They began to throw it around, play with it a bit, substituting the word bullshit for 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, its Americans who are uptight and its the English who (when theyre 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 Womens Breasts, which is partly about Kingsleys 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? Dont you like any other bits? Dont you like legs?
Kingsley: Well, I like to know theyre 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. Its not. Its 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 its 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 Bellows motives. Theres something comical about the way Amis insists on being really cool and streetwise and down with the porno, while simultaneously donning a bishops 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: Theres a lot of numbness out there, even on Parnassus.
The Television Program
Amis, I discovered during our lunch, had never heard of Napster. Nor did he seem to have any but the fuzziest notion of what e-books are. It was a signal illustration of how fast technology is moving: In Europe, news is still Milosevic Says No to Opposition Talks; here its Students Now Spend 80 Percent of Their Lives Online. But Amis quickly became interested when I explained to him that whats been happening to musicians with Napster could conceivably start happening to writers with what Andrew Sullivan has pre-emptively (and wittily) called Hackster.
Its all of a piece, this, Amis decided after Id filled him in on the latest bulletins from cyberspace. Lunch was done, and he was preparing for his trip to the Valley with a double espresso and another crumpled cigarette. There are these currents out there . . . he began, thoughtfully removing a shred of tobacco from his tongue. Democratization is the key word. On the Net, everyones a critic. Thats no longer a specialist job. If youre a reader youve got feelings just like anyone else, â and the way you react to a book is just as important as anyone [else] . . . There can never be a complete democracy of the talents or the intellect, but there already is one of feelings. (Or, as he put it in the Q&A period after the reading: In the future, everyone will be famous all the time, but only inside their own heads.)
Amis may not know Napster, but he does know television. A few days before I interviewed him, he was on Charlie Rose; a few days after I interviewed him, he was on 20/20. I missed Charlie Rose, and I would have missed 20/20, but at the last minute someone called to tell me he was on. I suspect Amis hopes that I did miss it. I suspect Amis hopes that anyone who has ever heard of Martin Amis or read one of his books or read any books at all, for that matter, missed it. Because, as a piece of marketing, the 20/20 profile was not aimed at the Amis fan. It was aimed at the emotions. The emotions of millions of Americans for whom the names Kingsley and Martin Amis mean very little, but for whom the words father and son mean a great deal.
On 20/20, there was no talk of pornography. Nor of literature, for that matter. There was talk of feelings: It was emotional pornography. Bill Ritter, Amis virile interlocutor, smiled greasily at the camera and gestured with enormous hands, as if he might just strangle the author rather than interview him. Cowering in a corner, eyelashes palely blinking, Amis looked as if he hoped to get through his 15 minutes of network fame by going entirely unrecognized. Well, one likes to think of it that way. In fact, he quietly played his part. There was footage of Kingsley with his children. There was footage of Martin with his children. There was footage of Kingsley with his second wife. There was footage of Martin with his second wife. In front of ones eyes, the book was reduced to the skeleton of its message: The son is the father, the father is the son. The segment ended with Amis reading a passage from Experience addressed to Kingsley after his father has visited him in a dream: It was incredibly warming to see you, but I didnt really need the reassurance about your wishes. Because my wishes are your wishes, and I am you and you are me.
What did you feel when you wrote that line? Ritter asked.
An emotional ruin, Amis answered tremulously, jerking his head away as if he might actually shed his first televised tear. But you are your dad and your dad is you, basically. Thats the essential fact.
Is that true for all of us? Ritter asked softly, the epitome of all emotional voyeurism.
If Kingsley had been watching, Kingsley would have barfed. But then, they didnt have book tours in Kingsleys day. Nor did Kingsley have to negotiate all the ambiguities wrought by synergy. As we were reminded at the end of the show, Talk-Miramax, Amis publisher, is owned by the same company that owns ABC Disney. And it was a few days before Fathers Day . . . The realization came that the publication date for Experience might actually have been set with Fathers Day in mind. Rather like a greeting card. No, Kingsley never had to deal with stuff like that. And his sons Fathers Day message? Accept your children completely. Forgive them completely and try to make them laugh.
It is, after all, what Kingsley did for him.
EXPERIENCE | By MARTIN AMIS | Talk/Miramax Books 406 pages | $24 hardcover
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