Profile of Author Martin Amis
A shirtless Martin Amis reclines poolside, head tilted towards the sun, on the roof of a posh Westside hotel. There's a statuesque young woman sunning topless a few chaise longues away. He seems not to notice. A British hardcover copy of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March rests on a table next to him, warping in the heat. Turns out, it's inscribed: "To Martin, my dear friend. With love, Saul." Amis owes the Everyman Library an introduction for the re-release of the Bellow classic, and he's on the case -- even here, in the sun, poolside. Amis has been a literary celebrity for years, the prickly, celebrated son of celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis. Now, Britain's brat of letters faces middle age, and, at 45, he has become notorious -- at least at home. He dared to ask $800,000 for his latest novel, The Information; he dared to leave his well-off American wife for his well-off American girlfriend; he dared to spend $30,000 for new teeth. Amis' big book deal has been as relentlessly in the news in England as O.J. remains here. "I had a year of feeling like shit," Amis says, referring not onlyto the split with his wife, Antonia Phillips, and its effect on his two young boys, but also to the friendships that ruptured when he betrayed his longtime pal and agent, Pat Kavanagh. In place of Kavanagh, Amis hired Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie, infamous for his greed and talent poaching. Kavanagh is also novelist Julian Barnes' wife, and Julian was Martin's close friend -- they played tennis, snooker, and chess together. Not anymore. "If I'd known that this was going to be all over the place -- a headline in Time, a discussion in the Washington Post -- I would have killed myself at once," he says. "But, in fact, it's toughened me up, because you can't be secretive and neurotic about something everyone knows about. So you have to say, 'Fuck it.'" Last winter, Amis-bashing became England's national pastime. "I always earn out my advances," famed novelist A.S. Byatt told the British press, "and I don't see why I should subsidize his greed, simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had his teeth redone." "In England, I had unprecedented treatment," says Amis. "The book didn't get a fair and full hearing. The tone of some of the reviews was unbelievable. Critics said the book had no redeeming features at all." Amis is reluctant to say that the critical mauling he endured was the result of envy, but what else could it be? "It's never for you to say that envy is playing a part in this, but envy never says, 'I'm envy.' It says, 'I have high moral standards,' or 'I'm disgusted with materialism.' "I like to get violent disagreement," he asserts. "Good stuff doesn't immediately get assimilated. There should be holdouts, even people offended by the work. You should rub people up the wrong way. But the whole reading experience was completely soured for them [the English critics]." Throughout his personal annus horribilis, Amis sought refuge in his work. "Nothing has ever stopped me from doing that, yet," he says. "The writing is the only thing that's the same tomorrow as it is today. It's there on the desk as you left it. Everything else is subject to change. Without that, it would have been infinitely worse." Fortunately for Amis, the acrimony over his large advance for The Information (and his expensive new pearlies) didn't cross the Atlantic. "In America, it's been absolutely fine," he maintains. "This thing about his teeth is ridiculous," says American novelist Richard Ford. "Given what John Grisham gets for his novels, Martin's advance wouldn't have raised an eyebrow here. Our response would have been 'Great, nice going!'" Amis views The Information as a formative work. "It's not neat," he says. "There is something sort of flailing about it, but that's just how it came out. I knew from the start that the passions in the book wouldn't have been assimilated, that they would still be raging, and that it would be full of the bafflement of my situation." While he was writing The Information , Amis began living it. Like his character, Richard Tull, he found himself involved in an extramarital affair. In the book, Amis' take on the subject of infidelity is, not surprisingly, a literary one. He writes, "All writing is infidelity." (For his ex-wife, the issue was likely less abstract.) "You're never a hundred percent there for anyone, even the children, because you've always got this pilot's light with preoccupations burning," explains Amis. "It also means that with any kind of domestic incident, you're always wondering how you'd write about it -- you're looking for the writer's slant on it. You're always slightly absent. You're with your book, no matter what else is happening, and that's kind of sad, but it's an inevitable thing with writing." The public view of Amis may be as a world-class shit, but he does have his admirers, and, as a man of letters, he is world-class, period. "Martin's actually very likable," says Ford, "because he doesn't take himself too seriously." For Amis, having endured the fallout from his mid-life crisis in full view of a hostile public summons up one of his signature terms: postmodern. "The fact that it was done in public is the postmodern element of it all," he says. "There was a guy in a van outside my flat, outside my girlfriend's flat, and outside my wife's house." Some writers thrive on such exposure, but not Amis. "Fame is a tumble dryer and will swerve you every which way," Amis laments. "For a writer, it's kind of pointless. In itself, fame is a drag. It has that one utility of getting you readers, but nothing else about it is any fun."In The Information , his eighth and very postmodern book, Amis takes literary envy and mid-life crisis ("If you don't have a mid-life crisis," says the pessimistic narrator, "then that's a mid-life crisis") as his subjects. Like his earlier satires, Money (1984) and London Fields (1989), The Information deals with moral and cultural decay, but this time Amis doesn't remain the gleefully malicious and detached observer. There's a brooding, intimate quality to the new book, a perfect match of tone and subject. The information in The Information really hurts Amis, too. "The belief that death is a rumor and that you're this lucky exception -- clever you! -- that's almost the definition of youth," he says. "But around 40, the jig is up. The mid-life crisis is an hysterical overreaction to this situation." Despite the deep universality of his subject, not all readers will have an easy time with The Information. "I thought it was tremendous fun," says Richard Ford, "but I wonder what someone outside of the literary world will make of it." Other writers, though fond of Amis, admit to having trouble reading his long, densely layered novels. "I couldn't finish London Fields," says crime novelist Elmore Leonard, whose new book, Riding the Rap, was reviewed favorably by Amis in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review. "I've always felt that most novels have way too many words in them. But Amis has the language; he can do it. It's his point of view, and that's the important thing about his books." Even Amis' father went on record, telling Charles Michener in Esquire, "I can't get to the end of a paragraph. It's too ornate. It reminds me of what someone said about Kipling -- bombarded with felicities.' It's very important to write a dull phrase from time to time." Indeed, Amis may have a point. With its lack of sympathetic characters, and plotlines that often go nowhere, The Information is postmodern to a fault. For Amis, language must dance on the page, and that's far more important than an orderly plot. His father, who rarely reads him, once said, "Son, you should never bugger around with the reader." But Martin disagrees. "Motivation in the novel has more or less had its day," he told his father. "The art is in pleasing the reader in complicated ways, but not necessarily through a well-told tale," he says. "Take theseso-called master storytellers, like Dickens. Dickens' plots, forinstance, are absolutely chaotic. As I say in The Information , the plot of Little Dorrit centers on this question: Someone leaving money to their nephew's lover's guardian's youngest brother's sister. It's all over the shop, that novel. No, Dickens lives because of his voice, his perceptions, his rhythms and prose." When he's reminded that his father thinks postmodernism is just a fad, Amis says, "Yeah, but he's wrong. Postmodernism isn't a bandwagon that you jump on. It's the evolutionary stage of the novel in your time. I've always practiced it. Even my first novel has glimmers of it. It's in your blood somehow. I never thought postmodernism was going to be a very fruitful direction for the novel, but it turned out to be incredibly prescient because the whole world is postmodern now." Nevertheless, Amis admits, "Postmodernism is coming to the end of its usefulness." He adds, "When terrific postmodern novels like Philip Roth's The Counterlife have been written, you can't very well get much more intricate than that. I feel a great 'Now what?' gathering in literature generally as we approach the millennium." Though The Information received glowing reviews from both the Sunday and daily New York Times, Amis took some heat from Time, and even more from Newsweek -- critic Jeff Giles wrote that the novel was "just a burst of undifferentiated animosity" without a "real emotional center," adding that "commas, colons, parentheses, and dashes crawl all over the page like flesh-eating microbes." "Well, bullshit about the punctuation," Amis responds. "That really does get my goat. I don't care what else he says. I'm incredibly sensitive to punctuation -- that is what I meant and it's necessary to do it that way, and it's not eccentric, either. 'Has no emotional center,' 'bursts of animosity' -- animosity towards whom? He must have bought the stupidest of all lines on the book, that it's a roman clef." In The Information , Amis presents two sides of himself. The protagonist, Richard Tull, writes ponderous, migraine-inducing tomes -- one is arrogantly titled Untitled, "with its octuple time scheme and its rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators." His longtime friend, the less-gifted and pompous Gwyn Barry, has gotten rich producing moronic utopian novels, such as the pretentious Amelior. Richard is clearly the neglected, struggling literary writer, while Gwyn reaps the benefits of the public's tendency to reward mediocrity. The subject of literary envy was tailor-made for Amis, who may be one of the most ambitious and competitive writers on the planet. In The Information , there are tennis, chess, and novel competitions, as well as contests involving women and money. As far back as his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), rivalry has fascinated Amis. For a competitor like Amis, a fear of failure, of losing, naturally looms large. "I've done more than I ever thought I'd do," he says. "But failure, disappointment, humiliation -- these are the things that stay with you. Your successes, your triumphs, such as they are, desert you. Failure is adhesive -- and it's also interesting and rich and plangent, whereas success is corny. Success is the stuff of a Jackie Collins novel. Serious writing is about failure, not about success. As Henry de Montherlant once said, 'Happiness writes white.' It doesn't show up on the page." Yet Amis' fear is universal. "I'm just afraid of the battle of complications in life, of it getting too loud and drowning everything else out. Anxiety about too many pockets of uncertainty. Like everyone else, I wish my life were simpler."Amis, like Norman Mailer, is one of a select group of major cultural and literary critics whose use of the first person in their reviews has been earned. As almost any issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review will reveal, the use of "I" is a mere vanity for most writers, but with Amis it comes out of a secure point of view, one validated by a deeply cultivated sensibility and a solid body of work. "I've always felt that writing criticism is the other half of being a cultivated person," he says. In his critical work, Amis holds up a mirror to subjects as varied as Claus von Bulow, Truman Capote, and Isaac Asimov. About Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak, he writes, "It is as dense, as funny, as thought-crammed, as richly associational and as cruelly contemporary as anything he has written." Such a description accurately characterizes Amis' own novels. When he says of John Updike, "His fascination with the observable world is utterly promiscuous: he will address a cathedral and a toilet bowl with the same peeled-eyeball intensity," readers may rightly suspect that's a quality for which Amis also strives. The author, who was literary editor of The New Statesman at 27, gives as good as he gets. "I've written career-ending reviews," he says with a smile. In one of his most scathing, Amis shredded Richard Rhodes' uncomfortably purple memoir, Making Love, in the New York Times Book Review. "What Mr. Rhodes gives us, in any event, is a cataract of embarrassment. Making Love is a hot book, right enough; but the heat is all in the armpits....This is all very 'tenderly' told. But because it is 'fact' ('it happened'), Mr. Rhodes permits himself the kind of cliches that even the most worthless novelist would impatiently discard....As so often when Mr. Rhodes gets grateful and reverent, you have to read that sentence twice, even though you didn't want to read it once." Amis, who has endured his share of negative reviews -- "I've had plenty of them" -- says he "more or less conforms to whoever it was who said, 'A bad review should spoil your breakfast but not your lunch.'" Amis' background helped him develop a thick skin. "One of the advantages of being the son of a famous writer is that it prepares you to be dumped on. You see your father getting stinging reviews, and you learn it's just part of the deal." With Amis still smarting from the personal attacks in his own country, perhaps he should move to America. After all, if one of his heroes, Vladimir Nabokov, could do it, why not he? "It was frequently said that I already had moved to America," Amis says. "There's a lot of anti-Americanism in this whole affair." But the author won't even think of leaving Britain. "I could never move anywhere while my children are at school in England," he says. "So wherever they're at school, that's where I'll live." This attitude is perhaps linked to the difficulties Amis experienced as a result of changing schools constantly during his own childhood. "I became very good at ingratiation. I was the permanent new boy, always having to prove myself, get my base of friends, and avoid getting beaten up, which was the other great challenge," he recalls. "Academically, I was good at English, but not much else. It was more the kind of fast life I was living out of school that kept me back. Once I was put into a force-feed environment, then I did it all very quickly and got a scholarship to university." Amis was not always the son of a famous father. "There was some authentic semipoverty in the first three or four years of my life," he says. "I lived in a flat my parents shared with an Indian doctor and his wife. But then my mother inherited a little bit of money and we moved into a terraced house in quite a nice part of Swansea, South Wales, where my father was a teacher." But nothing from his youth could have prepared him for the extravagance of spending $30,000 on his teeth. The work has not yet been completed. "I have wedged, temporary stuff and still need all kinds of bone transplants," he says. "I didn't do this to get a mouthful of chiclets so I could grin at the cameraman. It was much more fundamental; my teeth have been a lifelong difficulty." Yet even his malady -- no doubt a cause for joy to his enemies -- is useful to Amis. Teeth function as a dramatic indicator of our mortality, their impermanence sure to aggravate anyone's mid-life crisis. "Teeth are both internal and external -- they're your external bones," he says. "You live among them, you live in your mouth in some weird way." Amis' plans for the future include writing a few more short stories to fill out a collection. The earliest story in the proposed book goes back to the mid-'70s, when he finished The Rachel Papers. "It's not terribly good," he says, "but I'm less self-protective than some writers who censored themselves, like Auden and Robert Graves." Also in the works is a collection of his criticism, which will include "Don Juan in Hull," his brilliant essay on the masterful but dyspeptic poet Philip Larkin. Like Larkin, Amis has had run-ins with the PC police. His fictional treatment of women, for example, has been called misogynistic. Amis admits, even if it's with a smile, that The Rachel Papers was "a pre-feminist book." Yet he feels that no good comes from repressing one's feelings. Should politically correct attitudes be allowed to corrupt the novelist's pursuit of the sometimes unpleasant realities of life, nothing of value could be written, he believes. "Racism, for example, is something that's in all of us, and will continue to be in all of us," Amis says. "Freedom from those feelings is only something you can aim at; it's not something you can achieve. Familial feeling will always include some racism -- some fear or distrust of the other. That's just human. "It's much more grown-up to get it on the table," Amis concludes. "Rage comes from the very distortion of imagining that you can cleanse yourself overnight of all that stuff: you've identified the problem and you've dealt with it like that. That's an illusion."