MARTIN AMIS'S FLICK-KNIFE

Notes on a Voice: his new novel, "Lionel Asbo", has split the critics, but no-one disputes the vividness of his prose. John Walsh explains how it's done

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine July/August 2012

His father Kingsley said, “I wish he would just once write a sentence like, ‘Then they finished their drinks and left.’” Martin Amis would rather eat bees than risk being so boring. At 62 he is still the most exciting living British writer for anyone concerned with vivid prose. Ian McEwan can be more formally exact, Iain Sinclair more jaggedly musical, Salman Rushdie more wildly imaginative. But you settle into an Amis novel, or essay, confident that he’ll cut to the heart of the subject with withering intelligence. “He has a style”, wrote John Carey, Britain’s leading literary critic, “as quick and efficient as a flick-knife.” 

Amis’s fiction aims to excite, to confront and argue, but in a cool modern idiom. His words race around the reader like pack-hounds, harrying and snapping. His sentences seldom luxuriate in baths of description. He can whizz through catalogues of sexual misbehaviour and violent excess, but always offhandedly, as if you, the reader, know this stuff already. He used to be a sucker for the Risky Flourish: the last line of “Dead Babies” (1975) is, “His green eyes flashed into the dawn like wild, dying suns.” A damaged romantic occupies his vivid brain, along with a deranged Jeremiah, a chronicler of masculine despair and a cartographer of transatlantic excess. In “The Information” (1995), critics detected a mellowing, a gentler tone, a new chattiness. Perhaps horrified, Amis amped up the grimness to take on suicide, porn and Stalin’s gulags and give them all a dark, atonal music. 

Golden Rule
Avoid clichés—not just of language (obviously) but of the mind and the heart. Plotting included. His early books had plots—a campaign to win a girl in “The Rachel Papers” (1973), the revelation of a killer in “Dead Babies”, the rise and fall of two men in “Success” (1978)—but he ditched them as wheezing old motors, in favour of elaborate structures of ideas and serio-comic special effects. 

Key Decision
Don’t bother with ancient literary tropes such as evocations of place or person, unless their grotesquerie brings heat. Don’t do weather unless it’s entropic or apocalyptic. Don’t try love scenes (what are you, Joanna Trollope?). Do sex, so long as it’s awkward, pitiless or absurd. Choose darkness over light, especially in humour. Confront, dramatise, outrage, shock into laughter. 

Strong Points 
(1) The paragraph-long unfolding of a single conceit: assimilating John Self’s ruined teeth to the Upper West Side and Lower East Side of Manhattan in “Money”; charting the sexual failure of the good writer with his wife, in “The Information”, as if it were a parade of erotic triumphs, on the stairs, in the kitchen, on the landing. (2) Excess. He piles detail on wildly improbable detail, as in the concordance of Nicola Six’s kisses, in “London Fields” (1989). More is more. (3) Wit. He is especially funny about the chin-jutting egotism of the Sun-reading classes—which is why his 13th novel, “Lionel Asbo”, will be devoured. 

Favourite Trick 
Repetition. Amis adores emphatic reiteration, whether for personal crises or social history: “The 1940s was probably the last we decade. And all decades, until 1970, were undeniably he decades…But the Me Decade was also and unquestionably the She Decade”—“The Pregnant Widow” (2010). 

Role Models
Nabokov for lordly language. Swift and Joyce for shameless inspections of the body and its myriad disappointments. Updike for forensic close-ups of human interaction. His hero and surrogate father-figure Saul Bellow for wisdom, and the pooh-poohing shade of his actual father, Kingsley Amis, for comedy. 

Typical Sentence 
From “London Fields”: “And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.” 

John Walsh is a feature writer on the Independent and a former literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the Evening Standard