Photo by Jack Gould
It’s autumn in the world of Martin Amis. The trees aren’t bare, certainly, but the leaves are unmistakably tinged with red and gold. There’s a price to be paid for having once been the most fashionable novelist in Britain, and now that he’s in his 50s, Amis is paying it. Given the critical battering his last two books have received, the outlook for his 60s is grim.
Yellow Dog, his 10th novel, is amusing in places and hilarious in none — something that could never be said of such blackly comic extravaganzas as Money and The Information, books with passages that could practically kill you they were so funny. In comparison with those earlier works, the humor in Yellow Dog feels weighed down by age and the author’s own alienation from contemporary culture — instant messaging, piercings, shame-free pornography and all the rest of it. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily indicative of an early onset of conservatism. Years ago Amis was equally caustic about punks and punk rock, which he called the celebration of talentlessness. But he was speaking from inside the culture then. Now he stands outside it.
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In person, Amis sounds older too, his days as England’s literary enfant terrible receding rapidly in the rearview mirror. London, the city he has made as much his own over the course of 10 novels as Saul Bellow did with Chicago, bores him. “What are we doing there?” he asks rhetorically, meaning himself and his family. “We never go to the theater —”
“Hate the theater. Every time I find myself at a play, I think: You’ve done it again. You’re in the theater.”
When he speaks, Amis sounds very much like his novels: sardonic, witty and faintly disgusted by almost everything. Yellow Dog parades the usual gallery of freaks and grotesques: Xan Meo, a model family man and minor celebrity who turns thuggish after being bashed on the head by a real thug; Clint Smoker, a multiply pierced and minutely endowed tabloid journalist; King Henry IX, a vaguely Prince Charles–like figure who talks as if he were living in the 1950s and has a Chinese mistress called He. The ensuing wordplay registers one of the novel’s themes, sexual ambiguity, on a linguistic level. (“He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft.”)
Then there are the porn stars, washed-up soccer greats, petty criminals, hacks and treacherous beauties of the kind familiar from Amis’ previous novels. But somehow, the joy has gone out of it. Amis used to revel in the language of the moment. Now he more often seems repulsed by it. Not that you can really blame him.
“He fell in with a group of fuckers round the pool-table,” begins a representative passage. “There was fellow feeling: they were all in this together. Some shitters left — but new pissers took their place. Every farter bought a drink. This went on for a long time. Then he bade farewell to the assembled wankers, and moved on.
“Later, as he stood in the throbbing toilet of a jazz bar in Camden Road . . .”
When he wrote Money (1984), in which his gargantuan hero John Self laid waste to New York and London while consuming vast amounts of junk food, booze and pornography, not only was Amis a part of the world he was writing about, he says he felt as if he were “swirling around in it, as if in a Niagara Falls.” But Amis was in his 30s then. Now the culture belongs to someone else and the gulf between writer and subject is palpable.
“The important thing is not to reject it but to observe it,” he says of contemporary
youth culture, “and I can still do that. Probably one of the reasons this novel is more
tending toward the satirical is that my distance from Clint Smoker is far greater than my distance from John Self. So almost in response to that you make it more lurid and more cartoonish.”
Speaking of youth, I ask Amis if either of his teenage sons has shown an interest in writing. Is a third member of the Amis family about to be loosed on the literary world? Apparently not. Nor, he says, is being the son of a famous writer as much fun as it was when he was growing up with novelist Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim) as a father. “For me it was a mild bit of boost and tiny bit of glamour, but now the culture has wheeled round a bit and it’s a bit of a liability.”
“It’s considered a vulnerable spot — elitist and poncy and divisive.” When I raise my eyebrows at this, Amis gives a small sigh of acknowledgment. “Yeah, that’s what it’s like there,” he says sadly. “I said to someone, ‘My son’s going to study classics,’ and she said, ‘That’s a bit divisive, isn’t it?’ If it had been social studies, it would have been fine.”
It’s pretty clear that Amis doesn’t like England much at the moment, which may be why he’s planning to spend the next year in Uruguay, together with his half-American, half-Uruguayan wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca. There’s a philistine flattening and leveling going on, he says about England, and hints that it may account for the savage reception of his novel.
“It seems to me that what people want from the novel is a sort of across-the-table, 50-50, I’m-okay-you’re-okay exchange of views. What they really don’t like is a high style. That makes them bristle. When I read I want to be told something. I want to be shaken up and feel that I’m being addressed from a certain distance and even from a certain height. But that would be a humiliation for them.
“I can already see this egalitarian P.C. thing souring on people,” Amis continues. “Because what did it tell you? It told you that because of the strength of your feelings you were the equal of everyone else. My feelings are just as important as your feelings or indeed Shakespeare’s feelings. And so you’re proud for a bit about your feelings, but then it dawns on you that it doesn’t empower you to do anything else, being equal in your feelings, and you find that, yet again, you’re unequal in the talents.”
Which, of course, is one of Amis’ great themes. His third novel was called Success, but several others could just as easily have been titled Failure.
Amis’ last three books — Experience, a highly praised memoir, The War Against Cliché, a collection of his reviews (everyone loves Amis’ reviews), and Koba the Dread, an essay on the crimes of Stalin that was widely mocked for being overly earnest and naive — kept him from fiction for the best part of a decade. In the meantime, fiction moved on. Of late, all the novelistic noise has been made by writers at least a decade younger — Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen and the rest, all of whom one can just about imagine being invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show (Franzen actually was, and turned it down). One cannot imagine such an invitation being extended to Amis.
“It has its poignant side, things getting stranger,” he says. “As I put it as early as The Information, the writer and the human being goes from saying hi to saying bye. There’s a lot of poignancy in seeing these young people in the street, who look so different, and yet their expressions are ageless, eternal — and I find myself very touched indeed. I’m not going to be watching them for that much longer. It’s a valedictory mode. I don’t think you become a marginal, blimpish figure, you just see it from a slightly alien perspective.”