Next week, Martin Amis will publish Zone of Interest, a dark new novel that takes place, like his earlier Time’s Arrow, in Nazi-occupied lands during the Holocaust. In this week’s New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates reviews the book, suggesting that Amis is most compelling when he writes as a “satiric vivisectionist.” You could also read our own Mark O’Connell on Lionel Asbo: State of England.
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
There is a certain type of writer whose books loom especially large as targets for hatchet jobs. A lot of critics are inclined toward gladiatorial showboating when reviewing a flawed book, and find that the temptation to indulge this tendency is exacerbated when it happens to have been written by an author of major significance or universal renown. The problem of the book’s failure is compounded by its being positioned within the broader context of its creator’s success. Here the question shifts from that of whether the book is any good to that of whether its author has any right to his or her exalted position in the first place. What’s really being asked, in other words, is something like “who is this person, and how do they keep getting away with this sort of carry-on?”
Martin Amis probably gets more of these “playing-the-man-not-the-ball” type reviews than any other living English-language writer. In fact, the Amis Hatchet Job is, at this point, a sort of minor literary genre in its own right. And, like any genre, it has its formal peculiarities and idiosyncratic requirements. As a rule, the reviewer will mention at least one (but preferably many more) of the following list of topics: misogyny; Islamophobia; dentistry; patrician contempt for the working classes; sonship of Kingsley; mentorship of Bellow; friendship of Hitchens; enmity of Barnes and/or Eagleton; comparability with Jagger; earliness of success; velvetness of trousers; greatness of Money; misapprehension of nature of own talent; distinctiveness of style; disproportionate presence of style in relation to substance; tendency of style’s distinctiveness to degenerate into self-parody. The reviewer will, before trashing this latest novel, often mention that they’ve been a fan of Amis for as long as they can remember, and that they have stuck up for him in the past when others groan at the very mention of his name. The animating question of the Amis Hatchet Job – the “whodunnit?” of the form – is usually either “How come nobody stopped him?” or “Why does he even bother?” Partly because of its inherent tendency towards exhibitionism, it can be a pretty entertaining genre, but it’s one that’s started to become a little predictable.
The reason I’ve been thinking about the AHJ as a genre is that I’ve been reading Lionel Asbo: State of England and feeling intermittently obliged to try my hand at it. Is Lionel Asbo a bad book? Well, it’s certainly a book with quite a lot of bad stuff in it. Every ten pages or so something happens, either at the level of prose or plot, that makes you want to hurl the thing across the room. (I read it on a Kindle, and the experience got me thinking about whether it might be a good idea for e-readers to come with a Wii remote-style adjustable wrist strap, so that this vestigial book-flinging instinct doesn’t result in domestic disaster. Those things are a lot more aerodynamic, and a lot harder, than your traditional ink-and-paper set-up.)
Firstly there’s the story itself, which, like most of its predecessors in the Amis bibliography, is all set-up and very little plot. Our protagonist is a mixed-race teenager named Des Pepperdine who lives in a council flat with his white uncle Lionel in the fictional London borough of Diston. Lionel is one of Amis’s most thorough sociopaths: someone for whom violence is both a means to various professional ends (he works as a “debt collector” of some sort, taking two apoplectic pit bulls with him wherever he goes), and a pleasurable end in itself. Des, in all but one crucial respect, is an exceptionally good kid, despite being raised by Lionel – his “anti-dad,” his “counterfather.” He’s hardworking, smart, and fundamentally decent. The one crucial respect in which he’s not a good kid, though, will probably be a deal-breaker for a lot of readers: at age 15, he frequently has full penetrative sex with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mum. If the reason why Des would want to do this is never adequately established (the whole question of statutory rape is more or less glossed over), the reason why he wants to keep it a secret is plain. What little plot there is, then, is largely concerned with the business of Des’s efforts to hide the incest from his beloved girlfriend Dawn and, more pressingly, from the eminently murder-capable Lionel. When the gran succumbs to Alzheimer’s – she’s barely into her forties, but it’s that kind of novel – she starts raving in lurid detail about all her former lovers, and this becomes an increasing cause of concern for Des. Meanwhile, Lionel wins the lotto and becomes instantaneously, farcically wealthy. He begins a relationship with a glamor model named “Threnody,” and thereby ascends to the peculiarly English status of tabloid folk anti-hero.
Amis has a great deal of fun with Lionel; in fact, he’s often clearly having more fun than the reader. He never makes the mistake of trying to mitigate Lionel’s horribleness, but it’s nonetheless obvious that he is powerfully endeared to his creation. At one point, Des is questioned by Dawn as to how he can love such a “truly dreadful person,” and it’s difficult to see his reply as anything other than Amis’s own baffled explanation for his attraction to the Lionel Asbos of the world: “‘Dawn, he’s worse than you know. But I can’t help it. It’s like you and Horace [Dawn’s racist father]. He’s a truly dreadful person too – and you love him. You can’t help it either.’” Some UK reviewers have seen Lionel as a vicious reactionary attack on the English working classes – as a kind of straw chav – but Amis’s misguided, conflicted affection for him is always puzzlingly apparent, and it’s always much more complicated, much messier, than these critics allow for. It can be difficult to differentiate such affection from a kind of fascinated disdain, but this has often been part of what has made Amis, in the past, such a compelling and troubling satirist.
One of the things that bothered me about the novel – and which led me to suspect that those who have accused Amis of a kind of patrician-anthropologist attitude toward the lower social orders might have a point – was the matter of Lionel’s speech. There are certainly some moments of linguistic brilliance here, where the cadences and rhythms of working-class Londonese are captured and subtly Amis-ized. Here, for example, is Lionel working his way into a best man’s speech at the wedding of his friend Marlon Welkway: “‘Now I always thought, Marl? Marlon Welkway? He’s not the marrying kind. Marl? No danger. Ladies’ man. Confirmed bachelor if you like …” I chuckled at this perfect presentation of Lionel’s voice, with its implied dialogic preemptions and forestallings. I didn’t need to be told what this voice sounded like, because I was already hearing it. But this was a rare moment, because throughout the novel Amis insists on interceding between Lionel and the reader, and telling the latter exactly what the former sounds like. So we’re informed that he pronounces the name “Cynthia” as “Cymfia,” and that he pronounces “myth” as “miff,” and “hyposthesis” as “hypoffesis.” We’re told that “pathetic” is pronounced “puffeh-ic-uh,” that “paddock” is delivered “with the full plosive on the terminal k,” and that “truck” is pronounced “truc-kuh (with a glottal stop on the terminal plosive).” This goes on and on, and it becomes exponentially antagonizing. It’s like trying to read while Amis looms over your shoulder, briskly clearing his throat and saying, “Now remember what I said about Lionel’s terminal plosives, all right? Let’s not forget that this is how he talks, substituting the ‘f’s for ‘th’s and so on.” (These were the moments when an adjustable Kindle wrist strap would have been most welcome.) His lack of trust in his own ability to adequately evoke Lionel’s speech, and in the reader’s competence to imagine it without these constant intercessions, is ultimately mystifying.
Amis is a notoriously riff-based writer; his signature style is one of comic accretion, and he’s at his exhilarating best when he’s exploiting the comic possibilities of elaboration and repetition. But the riffs in Lionel Asbo are often desiccated, drained of their venom, to the point where they’re in danger of sounding like harping. For a comic novel, in other words, the comedy falls too flat too often. And yet, as always with Amis, there are enough fleeting glimpses of brilliance to keep you turning the pages in anticipation of the next one. Like Lionel and Des flying into “an unserious little airport” on their way to visit Grace in Scotland. Or the description of a cat listening to a conversation “with independently twitching ears – one ear listening right, one ear listening left.” Or the reference to “parking” (i.e., burying) a deceased loved one. The strongest example of how the experience of reading Amis can vacillate so wildly between intoxication and frustration came at the end of an uncharacteristically touching section in which Des and Dawn fall helplessly in love with their new-born daughter, and with the elations and anxieties of parenthood. I was enjoying this stretch of the novel more than I had any that preceded it, and so the abrupt way in which Amis pulled the plug on it felt like a particularly reckless kind of self-sabotage: “If it’s true what they say, if it’s true that happiness writes white, then decency insists that we withdraw, passing over to the three of them a quire – no, a ream – of blank pages.” Well, I disagree with this particular authorial intervention: decency insists no such thing. If anything, it insists something like the opposite. The writing he abandons here is actually some of the least white in the whole novel.
So is Lionel Asbo a bad book? It’s certainly nowhere near Amis’s best (I see it languishing somewhere down around the lower quartile of the bibliography), and there are frequent moments when you wonder what the hell he can possibly have been thinking. But even when the riffing sounds like harping and the jokes fail to hit their marks, it’s not an unenjoyable experience. Reading Amis, I am often reminded of something my father used to say about the late Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros, who was as wildly uneven as he was wildly talented: “Even when he’s bad, he’s a lot more fun to watch than pretty much anyone else.” Amis is all over the shop here, but even when he hits his tee shots into the car park, there’s always a significant chance that he’ll wind up with a birdie. It’s frustrating and disappointing, and frequently maddening to watch, but it’s rarely boring.
American readers can now get their hands on the latest from Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Also out this week: The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle, Paul Auster’s memoir Winter Journal, Dan Fesperman’s spy novel The Double Game, and a pair of debuts, Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners and Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist.
The best longread you’re likely to find this afternoon: Martin Amis talks to David Wallace-Wells about his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, America’s decline, politics, porn, post-modernism and more. Amis even dodges another attempt to bring up that book he wrote about videogames that nobody will let him live down.