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By Martin Amis
Published by Flamingo

Martin Amis’ most recent novel has finally made it into paperback, and what a wicked entertainment it is. The plot concerns the jealousy of obscure, failed novelist Richard Tull, of his former Oxford roommate and successful popular fiction writer Gwyn Barry, and Richard’s plans to wreak vengeance for being ignored, despite being the smarter of the two. (‘What was Richard?’, asks the narrator at one point. ‘He was a revenger, in what was probably intended to be a comedy.’ is the reply.)

 

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Richard started off as the more promising, effortlessly acquiring a first, publishing a couple of well received if unintelligible novels, and making a name for himself as a shit hot young book reviewer. Now pushing the big Four-O, he is reduced to reviewing increasingly lengthy biographies of increasingly minor writers. Gwyn, in contrast, struggled to scrape a bad second, and his first publications were crib notes on Chaucer for secondary school students. But although he is the same age as Richard, he shows no signs of a mid-life crisis. Rather, he is now one of the most popular novelists in the Western hemisphere (and probably the Eastern one too), with translations, publicity tours, film rights and remunerative awards. He also has an aristocratic and attractive wife with whom he manages to carry off a public image of the perfect marriage (he even took part in a television documentary called The Seven Vital Virtues, 4: Uxoriousness), while bedding a bevy of eligible babes on the side.
Of course, money and envy are nothing new as Amis’ themes, but literary jealousy isn’t just a fight to the death, it’s a fight to the afterlife, for how one is going to be regarded by posterity. Amis also seems to be making a point about the decline of the novel, or literature in general. If Gwyn’s new age utopian claptrap is what most people regard as deep and meaningful, then what price ‘the good stuff’?
There are two discernible voices in Amis’ work: predominately, there is the incisively vicious one, which is usually set in London (London Fields); but there are also hints of an absurdly compassionate one, which is usually set all over the world (Time’s Arrow). I prefer the latter. He is, for the most part, obsessed with schadenfreude, and seems to take pleasure in the miseries and misfortunes of others, and only occasionally makes an effort to empathise with others’ pain. Amis is Dickensian in his presentation of the interaction (or lack of it) between middle class and working class characters. The middle class ones get to have interesting interior lives. The working class ones are just dumb.
Yet, for all that, there are passages here most novelists would kill or die to have written. Amis knows too much: one of the many excuses Richard offers his wife for his impotence is ‘book reviewing...stuff like deadlines and sub-editorial deletions and late payment.’ Only a book reviewer reviewing a book about a book reviewer could truly savour such quips.
Amis has been called, among lots of other things, the supreme English prose stylist of his generation. I demur. That accolade should go to Julian Barnes. (I’m not just saying this because of Amis’ long, competitive friendship with Barnes, which was terminated when Barnes’ wife, the agent Pat Kavanagh, was dropped by Amis for the sake of a bigger advance.) However, he does command an incredible technical virtuosity, which he places in the service of vileness. He writes like a dream, but is probably a thoroughly nasty and unpleasant little man.

First published in The Big Issues

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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