(Vintage)Kingsley Amis was considered to be one of the first Angry Young Men of the British Isles, which thus discounts Swift, Shelley, Byron, Shaw, Wilde --- and possibly Marx (who, although German, researched and published his most weighty works in England).Amis' angry reputation soared with Lucky Jim, a highly overrated novel about a bumbling professor at a red-brick university. The writer was lauded for "satirizing modern urban life," but in truth Lucky Jim was successful largely because at the time of publication, 1954, wit was in short supply in what was left of the United Kingdom.Kingsley not only gave birth to forty books, they tell us he give birth to Martin, too, which we would guess would make the younger an original Angry Young Boy. It is no accident that the two Amis's gaze uneasily across the pages of our Encyclopedia at a bullnecked Idi Amin.From the nine Martin Amis selections given here, he emerges as angry, sure enough, but not all that young, nor even all that original. We have here a strange mix of reportage and fiction. The former is easy for him, possibly too easy. There's the Republican convention of 1988 at New Orleans: we get a list of the stuff being sold to the delegates ("Pork Rinds, they're Republickin' Good"), Dan Quayle's pronouncements ("The question today is whether we are going forward, or past to the back"), the surly comments of the TV crews ("The Germans of the media"), and the obvious contrast between clean-living Republicans (local chaplain: "And now a word from our sponsor. Heavenly Father...") and the signs in the tawdry Latin Quarter ("MOJO'S FOR --- LOVE.")
A visit with Véra Evseenva Nabokov and son Dmitri produces the unstartling information that they spend most of their time with "the obligation owed to literary history," and the most interesting part of the interview is never touched on: how in hell Amis worked it to get an interview with the notoriously reclusive Véra.
A chapter on the pornographic industry and the new and "Gonzo porno" is neither enlightening nor funny; rather, it tends towards the pornographic, especially with Amis bragging that in a subsequent conference in Pasadena with Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, he introduced the theme of Bullshit ("Bullshit in Boots. What's New Bullshitcat.") So much for Pushing Back Literary Frontiers in the English-speaking world.
The excerpts from Martin's novels are hardly any more enlightening. It's obvious that Amis never learned that a good novelist must love all of his characters equally --- vide, James and the nouveau rich, Faulkner and the Snopes., Fitzgerald and Gatsby. Amis' representation of faded nobility vs. working-class peons comes out as neither noble nor loving, although he is much given to stylistic repetition. London Fields' "Horrorday" is a fine example of literary excess:
A split horrornail kept snagging in the blur of fabrics, all of them synthetic: made by horrorman .... He passed in the passage and roughly freed a segment of his scrotum, nastily snared in the seized teeth of his horrorzip.
Having said all that, we have to report, as readers no doubt suspect, that underneath it all, Amis is not without some talent. There are some fine funny characterizations. We were reminded of Dickens when we read of Yv's mouth, in State of England,
When closed, as now, it --- Yv's mouth --- looked like a copper coin stuck in a slot. No, there wasn't any slot: just the nicked rim of the penny jamming it.
Or a journalistic conclusion of an otherwise overwrought story on the porn industry:
Porno is a proletarian form. And porno people are a hard-grafting, ill-paid fraternity who, by and large, look out for each other and help each other through. They pay their rent with the deaths of feelings.
While laboring through this not-too-well edited overview of Amis, we come upon a selection from his Einstein's Monsters, "Insight at Flame Lake." It's the tale of a thirteen-year-old schizophrenic whose father has just killed himself. Uncle Ned has volunteered to take Dan on for the summer, along with his wife and new-born child, Hattie.
The story is unfolded in alternative readings from Dan's diary and Ned's notebook. We see, with the alternative readings, the concerned, normal, boring uncle pitted against the secretive, brilliant, completely looney nephew --- the two of them winding about each other, missing the point of each other so completely that it is impossible to doubt that someone is going to get hurt.
Ned figures that Dan is recovering wonderfully well from the suicide. Meanwhile, Dan has dumped all his meds, and is convinced that the baby in diapers is an incipient schizophrenic, just like him. His increasingly spooky fantasies about her leads the reader to suspect, then to know, that one of them will end up in tragedy.
Later I looked up and the "baby" was standing over my bed. With tears stinging the [mosquito] bites on my cheeks I begged her to return quietly to her room and cease this miserable experiment, but her eyes were lit by all the glitter-sizzle of schizophrenia as she told me how --- together --- we might end our trial by fire. She wants me to take her out into the sleeping warhead of Flame Lake, and so foreclose the great suspense. Even now, in the dead of night, as we both knew, the water would be black and boiling like Vulcan pitch while, above, the leptons of the stars warily encircled the waiting Earth and its strong force. Toward dawn she left me, with a warning. But I know tonight we must decide ... I think it's cruel and senseless that in the daytime, when we might discuss things rather more sensibly, the baby just lies there smiling and pretends to be a baby.
The tension set up by Amis between Uncle Ned's bland little journal and Dan's seething diary one builds to a an unbearable, truly anguishing conclusion. In fact, all is so well-wrought as to lead one to suspect that the author may well have had some personal experience with schizophrenia.
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Going through Vintage Amis makes me understand why I have read so little of Amis' works. It is because he is, for the most part, a noisy, bratty show-off. What he most certainly needs is no further reprinting of his heavy horrorwritings in an attempt to take his horrorreputation to the horrorskies, but a sensitive culling of his works to give us the few bits of magic that he has managed to create in his horrorprolixity of eighteen or so books (he is fifty-five; at this rate, we can expect another eighteen before he horrorexpires.) Let us pray for a suitably edited edition of Martin Amis. This certainly ain't it.--- Lolita Lark