Martin (Louis) Amis Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Oxford, 1949; son of Kingsley Amis. Education: Exeter College, Oxford, B.A. (honors) in English 1971. Career: Editorial assistant, Times Literary Supplement, London, 1972-75; assistant literary editor, 1975-77, and literary editor, 1977-79, New Statesman, London. Since 1979 full-time writer. Lives in London. Awards: Maugham award, 1974. Agent: Andrew Wylie, New York, New York U.S.A.
The Rachel Papers. London, Cape, 1973; New York, Knopf, 1974.
Dead Babies. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Knopf, 1976; as Dark Secrets, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, Triad, 1977.
Success. London, Cape, 1978; New York, Harmony, 1987.
Other People: A Mystery Story. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1981.
Money: A Suicide Note. London, Cape, 1984; New York, Viking, 1985.
London Fields. London, Cape, 1989; New York, Harmony, 1990.
Time's Arrow; or, The Nature of the Offence. London, Cape, and NewYork, Harmony, 1991.
The Information. New York, Crown Publishing, 1995.
Night Train. New York, Harmony Books, 1997.
Einstein's Monsters: Five Stories. London, Cape, and New York, Harmony, 1987.
Heavy Water and Other Stories. New York, Harmony Books, 1999.
Mixed Doubles, 1979; Saturn 3, 1980.
Invasion of the Space Invaders. London, Hutchinson, 1982.
The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America. London, Cape, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.
Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions. London, Cape, 1993;New York, Harmony, 1994.
Introduction, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. NewYork, Knopf, 1995.
Experience: A Memoir. New York, Hyperion, 2000.
Bruce Chatwin, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes: A Bibliography of Their First Editions by David Rees, London, Colophon Press, 1992.
Venus Envy by Adam Mars-Jones, London, Chatto and Windus, 1990; Martians, Monsters, and Madonna: Fiction and Form in the World of Martin Amis by John A. Dern, New York, P. Lang, 2000.
Actor: Film—A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965.
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The buzz surrounding the release of his much anticipated memoir Experience has confirmed Martin Amis's standing as one of the most important contemporary English-language writers. Published in May 2000, Experience is a candid self-portrait of 51-year-old Amis's life, much of which has been played out in public, particularly in the press in his native Britain: his leaving his wife of almost 10 years and his two sons to take up with an American woman; his firing his agent and wife of best friend Julian Barnes in order to secure a more lucrative—some would say extravagant—advance for The Information; his torturous bout of dental reconstruction; and—most importantly—his complex relationship with his most famous critic and one of England's most important writers of the postwar era, his father Kingsley.
In fact, Amis's fiction has often been defined by its relationship to—and difference from—that of his father. Whereas Kingsley's writing adheres to the aesthetic conventions of realism which aspire to narrative objectivity, Martin's novels exemplify the postmodern aesthetic in which narratives call attention to themselves as fictions through the presence of an intrusive narrative voice which is often indistinguishable from that of the author. The themes pervasive in much of Amis's work—self-reflexivity, self-consciousness, epistemological and ontological uncertainty—exemplify the themes of postmodernism and the postmodern novel.
Published in 1973, when Amis was only 24, The Rachel Papers anticipates Amis's concern in future novels with literary and cultural self-consciousness. It is the story of Charles Highway, an articulate and arrogant 19-year-old reflecting on and trying to make sense of his life as he prepares to enter Oxford University—and adulthood. His story is centered around his seduction of Rachel, whom he meets while in London to attend a cram school for Oxford. As Highway's relationship with Rachel develops, his recognition of her corporeality is in contraposition to his fondness for language, in which he ultimately finds more abandon than sex. Generally well-received when it was first published, The Rachel Papers has become one of Amis's best known novels for its witty and candid representation of the transformation from adolescence to adulthood.
In Dead Babies, which followed in 1975, two groups of characters—the repulsively self-indulgent upper class English set of Quentin Villiers and his wife Celia, and the extremely drug-and-sex crazed Americans—team up for a weekend orgy of self-destruction that is not quite self-destruction since it is hurried on by the manipulative malignity of the mysterious "Johnny" who turns out to be none other than an alter ego of one of the "Appleseed Rectory" ravers. This narrative trickery, which allows Amis the freedom to ask questions about good and evil, about psychology and identity, and about the rules of narrative writing, without being stuffy or discursive, became a trademark of subsequent fictions.
Both Success and Other People disappointed certain reviewers, though for different reasons; the former, perhaps, because of its entrapment in some of Amis's obsessions and the latter, perhaps, because it attempted to break away from these obsessions and into new ground. In Success, Gregory Riding is another resident in the vicinity of what Philip Larkin called "fulfillment's desolate attic." He is more repellingly self-infatuated than Charles Highway, but—even despite his incestuous affair with his sister—less purely evil than Quentin Villiers. As the wheel of fortune turns, he loses his superhuman abilities with women and goes poetical and mad. Terry, his foster brother and erstwhile dupe, conversely ends up top dog. The novel is written as a dialogue alternating the narratives of the foster-brothers and subtly contrasting their points of view.
The amnesiac displacement of Mary Swan's sensibility that colors the narrative of Other People, might be thought of as providing some sort of continuity with Gregory's ending of Success. This displaced sensibility provides an opaque window through which we see the world of the novel and its events. These include Mary's escape from the hospital, her stay with a group of tramps and with the alcoholic family of one of them, until this relative domestic security is broken up by the violent Jock and Trev. Mary moves on to a hostel and then to a job as a waitress and a place in a squat where she manages a brief relationship with Alan en route to the world of ordinary domesticity, of the "other people," Prince, the apparently friendly policeman comes with the hints of her previous identity as a sexually predatory girl called Amy Hide, who may or may not have been murdered by a mysterious Mr. Wrong. By the end Mary seems to have rediscovered her old self but only, perhaps, in the sense that she has died into a cyclical afterlife or else returned from the death of the novel into her previous life. The novel's epilogue, in the voice of its intrusive narrator, further draws together hints that Prince may in fact be Mr. Wrong and that either or both may be identical with the narrator, who seems to aggrieved at something Mary has done to him and to be ultimately responsible for her death-in-life. Much of this is deliberately left unresolved and was condemned as incomprehensible by some readers. Other People is consequently Amis's most under-rated novel. It demands but also rewards much careful re-reading and, while it is not as funny as his other books, its concerns are close to the lucid center of his art.
The attempt to explore the relationship of narrator to the character and to establish a new and compelling metaphor of narratorial complicity becomes a central thread of Money and also of Amis's 1989 work, London Fields. In Money, the narrator is a grotesque high-and-low-life television commercial director called John Self, who jets backwards and forwards across the Atlantic trying to put together a deal to direct his first feature film. Meanwhile, his precarious life falls apart as sexual, financial, and literary plots become entangled in a series of schemes of which Self turns out not to be the perpetrator, as he supposed, but the victim. Money is perhaps Amis's most exemplary postmodern novel, addressing the tenuous distinction between reality and make-believe, high culture and low culture, as well as the uncertainty about gender roles and the place of women in contemporary society. Money also questions the nature of free will in postmodern society, evidenced in Self's pathological suspicion that he is being manipulated by forces that he cannot apprehend. This issue is further complicated by the appearance in the book of Martin Amis, the writer Self hires to work on his screenplay. Amis the character's musings about the relationship between the author and the characters he creates represents the kind of self-reflexivity and the blurring of the distinction between art and life that define postmodern writing.
Keith Talent, the protagonist of London Fields, is still more at home in a west London pub than Self and has an equally well-developed taste for the bad. The opening statement "Keith Talent was a bad guy …" offers an apparently incontrovertible condemnation of his horrible taste for playing darts, more horrible appetite for video pornography, and completely dreadful habit of saying "Cheers!" and "innit" on all occasions. But Keith, repulsive though he is, is to be upstaged in the novel, both by its postmodern femme fatale Nicola Six and by the grander evil of the narrator Samson Young, whom she lures into being the instrument of her planned self-destruction. In some ways, London Fields is a recasting of some of the ideas in Other People according to the lessons learned in writing Money. It has an undercurrent—new since Amis's post-nuclear stories Einstein's Monsters—of global crisis and eco-consciousness. We are invited to "imagine the atomic cloud as an inverted phallus and Nicola's loins as ground zero." Language glitters again and identity is a hall of mirrors and, like his darting surrogate, Amis is a master of the devastating finish.
The Jewish-American background of the narrator of London Fields (described in the novel's racy idiolect as a "four-wheel Sherman") may have anticipated the theme of Time's Arrow, whose title had been a provisional title for the previous book. Also reminiscent of the two previous books is Amis's determination to take on the most enormous of the social issues of the 20th century: here it is the Nazi Holocaust and its aftermath. Time's Arrow is Amis's most ambitious technical achievement to date and is, indeed, one of the most extraordinary narrative experiments in existence, almost unprecedented outside of the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. The novel is written in reverse time, tracing a typical American suburban scene of the present back to the concentration camp Auschwitz, where its narrator, Odilo Unverdorben, has been an official. Some readers have complained that the cleverness and showiness of the time experiment detracts from the seriousness of the subject, but this need not be so. Read in the tradition of an experimental and historically traumatized novel like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five or else backed-up by the critiques of rationalist intellectual constructions provided by postmodernist theoreticians like Theodor Adorno, the disturbances created by the novel's form and by its horrific subject matter hang nightmarishly together.
If Time's Arrow might have led us to expect a development away from the brilliant satire of the early novels towards a more sober and mature seriousness in Amis's work, then The Information must represent something of a disappointment. It is a book that euphorically condemns middle-age but which is surely itself written out of a deeply repressed fear of aging and its disillusionments. In The Information, Amis turns his gaze toward a kind of 40-year-old alter ego called Richard Tull—a novelist who is quite pathetically unsuccessful and who ekes out a modicum of literary income and of self-respect from the occasional review. For the most part, it must be said, Amis's reviewers took this chastening portrait of their craft in fairly good part. While Tull vegetates in the ruins of his ego and ambition, his arch rival Gwyn Barry strides from success to success. Only further disappointments greet Tull, and what the novel calls "the information" is his growing sense of vacuity and despair. Amis is quite relentlessly brilliant here, once again, on the compromises to and erosions of literary ambition that are brought on by domesticity and by the loss of a sentimentally cherished but unattainable ideal. Tull is, in some ways, the most fully fleshed, and the most convincing of all of Amis's postmodern grotesques, and he would quite probably have been the most congenial if the author had once relaxed and allowed him to peep out from beneath the high steel-capped heels of his satire. Neither he, nor the author, seem to contemplate for a moment the redeeming possibility that literary success is neither the only nor the absolute in human values; perhaps much in postmodern culture would lead us to the same conclusion.
Night Train, Amis's ninth and most recent novel, was published in 1997 to mixed reviews, criticized by some for sparseness of style and, as John Updike has said, for its "post-human" quality. Night Train is the story of the jaded, tough-talking female detective Mike Hoolihan whose pointed unsentimentality is shaken by the apparent suicide of her boss's daughter Jennifer, whose grisly death seems incongruous with her charmed life. At her boss's request, Mike undertakes to find Jennifer's killer, as it seems unlikely that her death would have been self-inflicted in light of her personal and professional successes, as well as her apparent optimism and benignity. Mike's investigation yields some startling revelations about her own identity and, more generally, about the development of the female identity in the postmodern world, a theme that is pervasive in much of Amis's work. Perhaps more significantly, Night Train explores the issue of motive in postmodernity, another theme important to Amis's work. In typical Amis fashion, Night Train bucks the conventions of genre, offering a detective story in which motive itself becomes the suspect.
In addition to his memoir Experience and the nine novels, Amis has published the short story collections Einstein's Monsters and Heavy Water and Other Stories as well as numerous essays, many of which have been collected in Invasion of the Space Invaders, The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, and Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions.
—Richard Brown, updated by