The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

Links: The Amis obsession, Roosh’s hate mail, quiet, feminism and Ke$ha, and Alan Jacobs on taste

* The Amis Obsession.

* Roosh: “This is the fourth time where I’ve woken up and had an entire country mad at me. It does make the day a little more interesting…”

* “The Quiet Ones.” This describes me, and wanting quiet sometimes makes me feel increasingly out of place, or out of time. The Hacker News discussion is also good, and Paul Graham said this:

I think the fundamental problem with noisy people is not that they’re inconsiderate, but that they don’t have any train of thought to interrupt, and they thus don’t realize the havoc they’re wreaking.

When I was living in Providence, working on On Lisp, I told my loud but well-meaning neighbors that I was writing a hard computer book, and that made them be quiet. Ordinary people can understand that you need quiet if you’re working on some specific, hard task, like doing math homework. What they don’t grasp is that someone would want their mind to work that way all the time, as a matter of course.

* “The attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is considerably out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. That’s especially true when it comes to Islamic-extremist terror. Of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen.” My favorite annoying question when I hear people discussing the contemporary impact of terrorism is this: About how many Americans die in car accidents every year? If they don’t know the answer, they probably aren’t all that serious about evaluating real dangers and priorities. Sometimes it takes re-framing an issue to make sense of it.

* A highly dubious yet interesting observation:

If prominent feminist thinkers of the last century or so were to get together and design their composite “woman of tomorrow,” what would she be like?

Weirdly enough, she might look and act kind of like… um, Ke$ha.

* Alan Jacobs: “Ranking the Writers,” on how literary tastes change over time.

Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction

There’s an unusually interesting interview with Martin Amis in New York Magazine, where he says:

I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. [. . .]

No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well [. . . ] David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.

I think people aren’t reading the “essayistic, meditative novels” because “essayistic, meditative novels” reads like code-words for boring. In addition, we’re living in “The Age of the Essay.” We don’t need novelists to write essays disguised as novels when we can get the real thing in damn near infinite supply.

The discovery mechanisms for essays are getting steadily better. Think of Marginal Revolution, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, The Feature, and others I’m not aware. Every Saturday, Slate releases a link collection of 5 – 10 essays in its Longform series. Recent collections include the Olympics, startups, madness in Mexico, and disease. The pieces selected tend to be deep, simultaneously intro- and extrospective, substantive, and engaging. They also feel like narrative, and nonfiction writers routinely deploy the narrative tricks and voice that fiction pioneered. The best essay writers have the writing skill of all but perhaps the very best novelists.

As a result, both professional (in the sense of getting paid) and non-professional (in the sense of being good but not earning money directly from the job) writers have an easy means of publishing what they produce. Aggregators help disseminate that writing. A lot of academics who are experts in a particular subject have fairly readable blogs (many have no blogs, or unreadable blogs, but we’ll focus on the readable ones), and the academics who once would have been consigned to journals now have an outlet—assuming they can write well (many can’t).

We don’t need to wait two to five years for a novelist to decide to write a Big Novel on a topic. We often have the raw materials at hand, and the raw material is shaped and written by someone with more respect for the reader and the reader’s time than many “essayistic” novelists. I’ve read many of those, chiefly because they’ve been assigned at various levels of my academic career. They’re not incredibly engaging.

This is not a swansong about how the novel is dead; you can find those all over the Internet, and, before the Internet, in innumerable essays and books (an awful lot of novels are read and sold, which at the very least gives the form the appearance of life). But it is a description of how the novel is, or should be, changing. Too many novels are self-involved and boring. Too many pay too little to narrative pacing—in other words, to their readers. Too many novels aren’t about stuff. Too many are obsessed with themselves.

Novels might have gotten away with these problems before the Internet. For the most part, they can’t any more, except perhaps among people who read or pretend to read novels in order to derive status from their status as readers. But being holier-than-thou via literary achievement, if it ever worked all that well, seems pretty silly today. I suppose you could write novels about how hard it is to write novels in this condition—the Zuckerman books have this quality at times, but who is the modern Zuckerman?—but I don’t think anyone beyond other writers will be much interested.

If they’re not going to be essayistic and meditative, what are novels to be? “Fun” is an obvious answer. The “forward motion” and “propulsion” that Amis mentions are good places to start. That’s how novels differ, ideally, from nonfiction.

Novels also used to have a near-monopoly on erotic material and commentary. No more. If you want to read something weird, perverse, and compelling, Reddit does a fine job of providing it (threads like “What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” provides what novels used to).

Stylistically, there’s still the question of how weird and attenuated a writer can make individual sentences before the work as a whole becomes unreadable or boring or both. For at least a century and change, writers could go further and further in breaking grammar, syntax, and point of view rules while still being comprehensible. By the time you get to late Joyce or Samuel Beckett’s novels, however, you start to see the limits of incomprehensibility and rule breaking regarding sentence structure, grammar, or both.

Break enough rules and you have word salad instead of language.

Most of us don’t want to read word salad, though, so Finnegans Wake and Malone Dies remain the province of specialists writing papers to impress other specialists. We want “forward motion” and “propulsion.” A novel must delight in terms of the plot and the language used. Many, many novels don’t. Amis is aware of this—he says, “I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.” But I’m not sure his fiction shows this (as House of Meetings and Koba the Dread show). Nonetheless, I’m with him in principle, and, I hope, practice.

Precisely how I often feel about the classics:

“[Martin] Amis always feels able to acknowledge greatness without denying that it can be boring and make insolent demands on one’s time.”

—Frank Kermode, Bury Place Papers, a book which reminds one that scholarly critics can have a light, delightful and yet erudite touch, their reputation to the contrary.

Barney’s Version — Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version isn’t always clear or pretty, whether he’s portraying himself, his friends, his quasi-loves—whether Barney genuinely loved anyone aside from himself is uncertain, with claims otherwise of dubious merit—and his enemies. These categories blend into one another with alarming and realistic regularity. The novel is also seriously fun rather than funnily serious, in the tradition of excessive, bombastic, narcissistic personalities too eccentric for politics but otherwise cut out for that field, like the narrators of Martin Amis’ Money and many of Saul Bellow’s novels, but most notable Seize the Day and Herzog.

Social impropriety binds those characters together and is abundant in Barney’s Version. In a rare moment, Barney Charnofsky is “Bingeing on respectability, I was not determined to prove to Clara’s ghost that I could play the nice middle-class Jewish boy better than she had ever dreamed.” He fails, and trying to prove anything to a ghost is ridiculous, but I love the inversion of the typical mode of bingeing as negative, recalling Richard Feynman’s comment, “So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility […] It’s made me a very happy man ever since.”

One character says to Barney, “Now will you please be quiet and stop making an exhibition of yourself.” He doesn’t, of course, since he’s spent his entire life making an exhibition of himself, perhaps explaining the irritation verging on envy that he feels toward a successful acquittance. Barney says of him, “But, after all these years as a flunk, my old friend and latter-day nemesis has acquired a small but vociferous following, CanLit apparatchiks to the fore.” I wonder what he would think of me becoming such an apparatchik by way of coming to Barney’s Version through the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge, Eh?. Nonetheless, publicity, however minor, on my part gives Barney more of a chance to make an exhibit of himself.

He doesn’t do so in a simple manner, either. Chapter four begins by saying, “What follows appears to be yet another digression.” The whole novel is a digression—this post mimics its structure—which makes a certain amount of sense because most people’s entire lives are one long digression, or a series of them, and the narrative cohesion usually given to them by biography and the like is more an effort to impose order on chaos, like selecting a line to fit to a series of data points regardless of whether the line has any meaning.* For such a novel to work, it must nonetheless tell a story with some kind of beginning, middle, and end, even if those elements aren’t in their usual order, and Barney’s Version succeeds as a novel despite and because of its narrator’s protestations.

We’re also not sure when to trust Barney, especially because a would-be editor keeps inserting footnotes. Elsewhere, Miriam, the perhaps love of Barney’s life, says “I believe you,” when Barney denies killing his somewhat friend who might’ve slept with his second wife and might’ve been set-up to do so by Barney himself as a way of getting Barney a divorce (got all that?). He says, ” ‘I’ll be out of here in a week,’ […] hoping that saying it aloud would render it true.” Many of his hopes are improbably rendered true, and his belief in his own belief is somewhat perplexing. As for Miriam, believing a liar might also not be a great idea, but then Miriam might not know Barney’s a liar, or she merely expressing optimism to a man she doubts. It’s not clear what. A lot of Barney’s Version is humorously unclear. In other words, you get a lot of narrative play and epistemological complexity among your laughs. If there’s a better way to get said fiber, I’m not sure of it, and I like mine with sugar much more than vinegar. Life, after all, is pretty funny, and seeing that reflected in books is a relief. Mild offense sometimes blends into hilarious social commentary, as when lawyers are “[…] perhaps mollified because parents of the accused had promised to endow a chair of visible-minority social studies at the college.” That could be a line from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. Later, we find in Barney’s Version:

I don’t hold with shamans, witch doctors, or psychiatrists. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or even Dickens understood more about the human condition than ever occurred to any of you.

Usually the third in that opening series isn’t placed with the other two, but the structure is an effective way to express Barney’s low opinion of someone trying to help him. Fortunately, the psychiatrist doesn’t take much offense, as Barney has low opinions of many people, places, and professions, as well as, at times, himself. He also demonstrates obvious allusions in a novel filled with them, some subtle and some not, and his ability to go from hockey to Shakespeare and back impresses. Speaking of hockey, at one point a long-winded girlfriend causes him to start reading about sport in lieu of her, a feeling I remember well, as when I found myself in such a similar low-signal-to-noise-ratio circumstance, the New Yorker was my outlet of preference, causing a roommate to remark once, “I could tell you were on the phone with her because normally I hear you talking.”

I’m tempted to go on about Barney’s Version—there’s a murder plot, an unreliably unreliable narrator, jokes from fading memory, an intrusive editor, family squabbles, drinking problems/solutions, none of which have been fully discussed in this sketch of a sketch—and the more I consider it, the more I realize its easily missed depth and the more I’m inclined to recommend it, given its paradoxical ability to be both light and heavy at the same time, like a character who’s finally reconciled The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Barney’s Version has the magic of a novel that wiggles out of description with such finesse that I barely realize what’s happened, and I’m not reading about the world, but Barney’s version of it.


* Alain de Botton’s fabulous Kiss & Tell is the most successful mockery of biography I’ve read. It also comes with the sanction of the American lit apparatchiks, who put it on my senior year AP English test.

Hugging the Shore

I found John Updike’s Hugging the Shore through Critical Mass’s the Critical Library series of posts, where this collection repeatedly came up. It’s out of print and, I suspect, a book that shaped older critics but is no longer essential and feels too much likes its opinions, like most, have either become accepted or unimportant. Like many revolutions, the ideas in Hugging the Shore seem to have become part of the ossified landscape. Some of the pieces still thrill: the one on Ursula K. Leguin is short but good, while those on Bellow seem to both stretch and not be able to wrap themselves around Bellow. Many of Updike’s opinions I respect, but, at the same time, I flip to the next essay halfway through the one I’m on.

To me, something like Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 – 2000 feels more vital, for lack of a better term, and maybe Amis’s verbal pyrotechnics show off, but they also convince. Give me it instead of Hugging the Shore, and throw in Orwell’s Essays (more on Orwell here) to give an overview of many of the same topics but better. I like Hugging the Shore, but with criticism even more than novels the essential is everything.

The Amis Inheritance

The New York Times Magazine from yesterday ran a long article on “the curious writerly firm of Amis & Amis, founded by Kingsley, who died in 1995, and now run by his son Martin.” It deals with an obvious question in the lives of both writers, but one that hasn’t often been seriously examined because Martin is equally often hostile and dismissive of those who ask one-off questions about how Kingsley affected his writing. Take this response from January titled Martin Amis: You Ask The Questions; The novelist writes in answer to ‘Independent’ readers about misogyny, Islamism, Iran’s nuclear threat and Kirk Douglas’s naked body:

How do you think you might have ended up spending your working life if your father hadn’t been a famous writer? JOHN GORDON, Eastleigh

Well, John, that would depend on what my father had chosen to do instead. If he had been a postman, then I would have been a postman. If he had been a travel agent, then I would have been a travel agent. Do you get the idea?

That echoes dialog between John Self and a character named Martin Amis in Martin’s novel, Money:

‘Hey,’ I said, ‘Your dad’s a writer too, isn’t he? Bet that made it easier.’
‘Oh sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub[,]’ [Martin said.]

Money also tempts an autobiographical reading into aspects of the protagonist, John Self, as he also has an overbearing, promiscuous father and other similarities to Martin. To be sure, I doubt even people inclined towards biographical readings would argue that the Self’s excesses reflect Martin’s lifestyle, but there are certainly parallel elements.

The father figure issue is a subject Martin must get far too many questions about—perhaps his equivalent of “where do you get your ideas?” or like John Banville being asked about Benjamin Black. As a result, the article from The New York Times provides as good a summary as one’s likely to find about them in particular and literary progeny (in a literal sense) in general.

This Amis mania—the links above are just a smattering of recent press coverage—probably comes in part from Martin’s new novel, House of Meetings, and from Zachary Leader’s new biography, The Life of Kingsley Amis. Christopher Hitchens reviewed it favorably in The Atlantic. “Favorably” probably isn’t a strong enough word, as Hitchens says: “In this astonishingly fine and serious book, which by no means skips the elements of scandal and salacity, Zachary Leader has struck a near-ideal balance between the life and the work, and has traced the filiations between the two without any strain or pretension.” The rest of the article discusses little about the book but much about Hitchens’ recollection of Kingsley, as Hitchens knew the father and knows the son, and so complements the larger work.

Like Hitchens, I loved Lucky Jim when I read it, but I didn’t care for Girl, 20 the first time through. I recently gave it another shot, though, and changed my opinion, making posting the previous link a tad embarrassing to post. Regardless, “The Amis Inheritance” is worth reading, as are the books of Amis & Amis.


An update: The New Yorker also has a piece on The Life of Kingsley Amis available online.

Update # 2: Terry Teachout writes more on Kingsley in Commentary magazine.

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