If Martin Amis weren’t the product of one of England’s most visible and voluble literary lineages, the expansive, opinionated and decidedly unreserved novelist has built a career that flies in the face of everything typically associated with what it means to be a British author. First came his years as one of 1970s London’s most notorious libertines (the Daily Mail dubbed him a “love rat”). Then there’s the professional identity he’s established over the past four decades spent producing prodigiously provocative prose, both fiction and not, encompassing a panoramic view of late twentieth century political and social issues. Taken as a whole, his body of work stands as baroque monument to humanity’s savagery and general lack of impulse control.
Beginning with his first novel, “The Rachel Papers,” Amis has polarized critics and readers while provoking scathing attacks on his wanton womanizing and writing style. His own father, “Lucky Jim” novelist Kingsley Amis, accused him of “breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, and drawing attention to himself.” The younger Amis’ public feuds with his famous friends and family members have made him such an easy target for media derision, his work has arguably been unfairly criticized and undervalued as a result.
Amis was long overdue for an even-handed assessment of his lengthy and varied career in letters, and help has arrived in the form of “Martin Amis: The Biography” by Richard Bradford, best known for his authoritative works on Kingsley Amis, of all people, and Philip Larkin. Bradford delivers a balanced look at Amis’ life and work, taking into account Amis’ foibles (insecurity, vanity, righteous indignation) while focusing on his vast contribution to the political and social discourse and his unique ability to capture the internal monologue of Western society’s id with dead funny satire.
With nearly thirty books to his credit, Amis’ oeuvre can look daunting to the uninitiated. So we’ve put together the following list of highlights from Amis’ career to serve as access points into a body of work as colorful as its author.
A Suicide Note (Penguin Ink)
This wickedly funny amorality tale about the ‘80s epidemic of gluttony and greed also doubles as an enduringly astute Hollywood parable about the illusion that more of everything will someday leave us feeling satisfied and full. The novel shines its spotlight on the spectacularly sleazy movie biz striver, John Self, an equal-opportunity addict who never met a vice he didn’t like. As Self strives for redemption and legitimacy by transitioning from the lucrative fringe of TV commercials to directing his first feature film, he careens downward toward depravity’s bottom floor, spraying sparks and gathering momentum until he turns into the kind of fiery wreck that takes on its own obscene beauty.
Martin Amis; Introduction by John Sutherland
This comic cautionary tale also concerns itself with the corrosive effects of consumption and the illusion of unfettered power. Amis, an outspoken anti-nuke activist, pours all his (well-founded) doomsday paranoia into this allegory about a mystery novelist wrestling with how to kill of his young femme fatale as the real world around him hurtles closer to potential nuclear oblivion, thanks to the combustible combination of global warming and a stockpile of bombs. This bold and audacious book showcases the vitality of Amis’ storytelling and demands the reader’s attention with the urgency and familiarity of its implied warnings.
Nearly a decade before Christopher Nolan’s low-budget neo-noir “Memento” blew minds with its end-to-beginning narrative, Amis reverse-engineered this portrait of an elderly anti-hero who grows younger over the course of the book. The story begins at his death bed and back-tracks through his years as a misanthropic working stiff struggling with anxiety and addiction to his time spent as Joseph Mengele’s assistant in Auschwitz, to boyhood and, ultimately, ending in innocence – where we all begin. “Time’s Arrow” captures Amis at his most nihilistic and somehow affectingly humane.
We now live in an age where the failure parable has become a genre unto itself, fueled by the thrill of reverse-schadenfreude and a nation of rubbernecking readers taking heart from literary flame-out memoirs by Benjamin Anastas and Bill Clegg. Amis arrived to that particular pity party about a decade early with this meta-fictional roman a clef about a lit agent and success-deprived novelist terminally envious of his bestselling best friend. Of course, in true Amis fashion, the put-upon protagonist turns his self-loathing outward and exacts hilarious vengeance upon his charmed chum. Amis came under siege for the $800,000 advance he received for this novel before a second wave of attacks accused him of mining his own contentious friendships with fellow stars of the British literary scene, including Julian Barnes. He then went on to receive some of the best reviews of his career for “The Information,” proving, with characteristic irony, that sometimes failure is indeed the best revenge.
Laughter and the Twenty Million
This exhaustively researched chronicle of Communist atrocities under Stalin (nicknamed Koba) combines a catalog of the Soviet dictator’s crimes against humanity with Amis’ personal reflections on his relationships with Marxist sympathizers, from his father and sister to journalist Christopher Hitchens, who began his career as a committed Leftist before migrating to the far right of the political spectrum. Screed-like and maddening at times, “Koba the Dread” is redeemed by Amis’ earnest and heartfelt inquiry into how and why the British intelligentsia embraced and implicitly excused a totalitarian movement and its genocidal leader.