Reading Martin Amis’s non-fiction is like riding in a plane. As you cruise over miniaturized skyscrapers, crop circles, mountains, even oceans, you recognize—and remember—how tiny and insignificant your own piece of turf (wherever you came from; wherever you’re going) actually is. Amis’s works seems all-encompassing, and it’s enough, at times, to fill one with diffidence and awe. But mostly delight.
Amis has long been a polarizing figure in the world of fiction (even, at times, within his own family). Few would credibly argue that he isn’t supreme prose stylist, and consensus seems to suggest his prime years surround the publication of Money (1984) and The Information (1995). Approbation and loathing abound before and after that period, but one thing remains unchanged: the advent of new work by Amis is an event, particularly in England. His unrivaled status as raconteur and target (from enfant terrible in the ’70s to contemporary eminence grise) leaves even his most lacerating critics (of which, of course, there are many) tending to come off as opportunistic and more than a little envious.
His non-fiction, on the other hand, brooks no dispute: he easily ranks amongst our most proficient critics, seemingly without peer in terms of his range and scope. Once Amis renders judgment—on a book, an occasion, a politician, whatever—it stays judged, definitive upon arrival. The title of his previous major collection, The War Against Cliché would, if utilized by practically any other writer, seem pretentious, haughty, redundant. With Amis, it’s a succinct and effective condensation of his aesthetic: he writes about the same things (in his novels and his essays) everyone else does, but his take on any topic is not only distinctive, but unfettered, and imperishable. Who knows or cares if this is the pressure he puts on himself to make every effort a tour de force, or if he’s truly as disproportionately talented as he seems.
Whatever else one can say about Amis, there’s never doubt that he cares deeply about language. More, he understands, and uses words with the same type of facility that, say, Richard Pryor used voice(s) and Miles Davis used silence. His genius with words is our joy, and Amis is one of those rare writers who can take a topic already beaten to death (Vegas, Trump, pornography) and render it not merely fresh, but imperative. Even if the reader isn’t aware or interested in the subject matter, Amis makes it interesting and enjoyable. As such, The Rub of Time is recommended to anyone for whom old-fashioned deliberation and erudition matter.
Amis has dabbled in political commentary in the past, but readers may be impressed (or appalled) by the number of essays dedicated to the circus act of Donald Trump’s exasperating rise. Then again, who better than a withering satirist to comment on a character that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of his own novels? Interestingly, and not a little sadly, the advent of Trump has made several of Amis’s most recent pronouncements and send-ups seem outdated, even trite. This phenomenon, regrettably, is not a deficiency on the part of Amis, or any individual journalist; indeed, the events of 2016 did—and continue to—oblige us to reclassify how we describe reality, while we careen each day into a deepening chasm of scandal and outrage. To take an example from the introductory essay (written in 2012), Amis commends American exceptionalism thusly: “if that much-mocked notion still means anything, we should apply it to America’s exceptionally hospitable to outsiders.” Who could have reasonably guessed that such sentiment, just four years later, would be at once outdated and ironic? One might even say it’s tragic.
Speaking of Trump, Amis has tons of fun harpooning that obscene fish in his stage-crafted barrel, but even amidst the derision, there’s an inimitable eye for detail. Summarizing the ill will of Trump’s campaign rallies and the Republican intransigence that hounded Obama’s every effort, Amis opines, with devastating understatement: “the passions that gave rise to 650,000 fratricides do not soon evaporate.” If no one could have anticipated our first reality show president, this keen insight regarding the not-so-civil war America’s still not close to completing certainly seems prescient when considering—to take but one example of low-hanging “Strange Fruit”, if you will—the Tiki Torch mob in Charlottesville.
It remains perplexing how so many, inside and outside the chattering class, got so much so right about Trump, we still seemed to miss the psychopath so plainly in our sights (we took him literally but not seriously, the Beltway media suggests, instead of just apologizing for journalistic malpractice). Perhaps by focusing on the bluster and easily-debunked mythologizing, we did miss the one thing driving Trump and his most ardent followers: ceaseless and unappeasable self-loathing. In any event, it’s difficult to deny this is one of the most astute summations of Trump’s character (and how well it’s served him, both in the business and political sphere): “(his) defining asset: a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey.”
Even for the reader who may be understandably allergic to anything political, there’s lots more on offer in this almost 400-page book. Here, for instance, is Amis, elucidating the vacant essence of pornography: “Porno stars, despite being very bad at acting, are very good at acting in one particular: they can keep a straight face. But then humorlessness, universal and institutionalized humorlessness, is the lifeblood of porno.” How many other writers can consistently deliver assessments at once pithy, ravaging, and unassailably on point?
Oh, by the way, he’s often very funny as well. Here he is, taking in the spectacle of Vegas slots machine enthusiasts: “(a woman) who has munched herself into a wheelchair: arms like legs, legs like torsos, and a torso like an exhausted orgy.” A fellow gambler’s “body is more liquid than solid, and it is simply seeking the lowest level, like a domestic flood coming down a staircase.” Anyone who would accuse Amis of punching down has never spent time at an American casino or amusement park (or Trump rally, for that matter). Picking on his own, here’s Amis, wary of the beer-addled violence commonplace most Saturdays: “Every time it strikes me, with all the freshness of a revelation: going to watch a football match is the worst possible way to watch a football match.”
If you can’t say enough about either Vladmir Nabokov or Saul Bellow, don’t worry, Amis can’t either. Amazingly, even after having discussed his personal “twin peaks” so often in the past, his more recent encomiums are neither redundant nor superfluous. With Nabokov, even one who has not dabbled in the works being described can savor Amis celebrating them (and if Amis can’t inspire a deep dive into our favorite lepidopterist’s catalog, no one can). With Bellow, there’s hero worship to be sure, but Amis convinces that it’s earned: “he… knew what slums really were: they presented the widest range of human feelings, but also directed the gaze upward, to the transcendent.”
Amis remains the fairest and most clear-headed critic of America’s sacred, if oft-assailed two-headed cow, Philip Roth and John Updike. Regarding the latter, David Foster Wallace bitchily—and beautifully—deconstructed his profligacy, asking “has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” Amis, always irreverent but congenitally old school, offers the more reasonable assessment: “His productivity was preternatural… a Protestant work ethic taken to the point of outright fanaticism.”
More impressively, he draws a line in the philosophical sand, conceding that Roth’s obsessions can veer into self-parody, while also admonishing perspective for our current too-academicized climate, where a more methodical criticism is, if not dead, on life support in an alley behind the hospital:
The charge of misogyny… is just a straightforward category error. As with the rabbinical critique, there is some historical justification, but both are sociopolitical, not literary; they are in fact antiliterary. Besides, isn’t women’s fiction crammed with male louts and rats? Isn’t men’s? The right-on heroine… is of no conceivable interest to any genuine writer; besides, she is well represented in any number of admiring narratives—and you can get all you want of them at the airport.
This, then, is the type of stuff that sets Amis apart, as a writer, critic, and eyewitness. In our online world of i-Everything, where the power of thoughtful, critical (and salaried) pens have largely been replaced by hashtag generating Tweet-storms of self-righteousness, it’s nice still having some of the unabashedly traditional masters to guide and inspire us. And, when necessary, set us “straight”, if you will.
Arguably the highest praise we can bestow upon any novelist is that they are a writer’s writer (fame and fashion are fleeting), and for a critic that they are a reader’s writer (tastemakers are seldom the ultimate arbiters of posterity). Martin Amis, at his best, is both, and in our increasingly post-history and two-sentence assessment era, this skill set is exceedingly rare, and indispensable.