Thursday, 4 January 2007

The Newish Martin Amis

A lot of people, rightly, suspected that the great man had gone off the boil a bit in the twenty first century. Although Experience was well received,justifiably, Koba the Dread attracted an awful lot of criticism, some of which was justified, some not. And Yellow Dog...well...put it this way. I remember nothing of that book. Nothing at all.

Let me summarise what I think Amis is brilliant at:

1. The startlingly appropriate and arresting turn of phrase.
2. Black comedy.
3. Endings.
4. Imagery.
5. He can create some ridiculously memorable characters, who can be, within the one person, cariacature, self-reference, and subtle (I think Richard Tull has a bit of this, and almost any character from London Fields).

But - when he gets too lost in his own turns of phrase, or is too clumsy with his political obsessions (nuclear war, the twentieth century's horror), he loses sight of his own story, and bad Amis is unreadable. I wonder if the closing of the C20 left Amis rudderless, without the motivating force of his imagination.

House of Meetings, his latest, seems to me to be Amis feeling his way slowly back to form. He has lost a lot of the ornament of Yellow Dog and previous books; he has moved off the well worn "low life" patch onto something more bleakly low; he has devoted a whole, though short, book, to the creation of a character based in pain. Other writers have done this lots of times, but I haven't read a lot of Amis that approaches this for consistency and feeling. His political concerns sit, sometimes foregrounded, sometimes not, even if the character reads himself explicitly as Russia. I think he is moving towards a stronger synthesis of an experience that (as I've said before here) I think we're still living through. But for me - the main thing is that the language is sharper, much more focused, much less pointlessly showy and is in fact consistently poignant and thought-provoking.

It's not a work of genius, but it could be seen as a revision of his last couple of books, a radical redrafting, and it sets him on a much more promising course than it looked like he was on in 2004.

4 comments:

james higham said...

...But - when he gets too lost in his own turns of phrase, or is too clumsy with his political obsessions (nuclear war, the twentieth century's horror), he loses sight of his own story, and bad Amis is unreadable...

Samuel Johnson said you should read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out [1773, quoting a college tutor].

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thank you for this post. I hadn't even realised there was a new MA, so I will put it on my list for my next Amazon order. I agree with you about "Yellow Dog". I found it difficult to get through and unmemorable.

Gracchi said...

Interesting post. I hope Amis is getting back to form- it seemed he got lost a while a go but I haven't looked at yellow Dog so what you say is fascinating.

The Tin Drummer said...

When do you place the decline, Gracci? Some critics reckon The Information started it with its somewhat incestuous plotline (probably about Amis vs Barnes).