A tricksy autobiographical novel feels very familiarby Miranda France / September 3, 2020 / Leave a comment
Can this really be Martin Amis’s last novel? He’s been writing them for most of my life, starting with The Rachel Papers in 1973, and producing a steady flow since, along with journalism and essays, assorted broadsides and sideswipes. These often came accompanied by a portrait of Amis wearing his famous sulky moue. That refusal to smile suggested a new and dangerous intellectualism—although it later turned out he was hiding bad teeth—an impression that primed us for something revolutionary. Our parents had been fans of his father Kingsley’s comic novels, but Amis fils was going to chuck that realist tradition overboard. In books like Money: A Suicide Note, London Fields and The Information, he invented a new language, where style was substance or even, in his words, “morality.”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Amis’s image—he was sometimes compared to Mick Jagger—was as famous as his mould-breaking prose. The media thrilled to his love affairs and literary spats, the expensive dentistry, the secret love child. His girlfriends included literati and aristocrats, although in this novel-memoir he boasts that the early ones were mostly “blue-collar” and “international,” including “a Ceylonese, an Iranian, a Pakistani, three West Indians, and a mixed-race South African.” The New Statesman once ran a competition for most unlikely book title: the winner was “Martin Amis: My Struggle.”
Real struggles did come though. In the early 2000s, following mixed reviews of his novel Yellow Dog, and the non-fiction book Koba the Dread about the horrors of Stalinism, Amis disappeared with his second wife to Uruguay for a couple of years, allegedly to escape writer’s block. He preferred to call it “worldhum” (anybody who doesn’t know that Amis hates clichés hasn’t been doing their homework). There he wrote an autobiographical novel, Life: A Novel, the first iteration of this book, but after 30 months and 100,000 words he realised that it wasn’t working: Life was dead. As he sat on a Uruguayan beach in 2005 watching the waves, Amis wondered if he might be washed up.
Most of us have been there—if not to Uruguay then to that despondent shore where a failure crystallises and has to be acknowledged. Amis writes well about it partly because,…