Barbed Wiring

The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017 BY Martin Amis. Knopf. Hardcover, 416 pages. $28.

The cover of The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017

Great writers aren’t always “good writers.” Dostoyevsky shamelessly repeats himself. Denis Johnson, as Geoff Dyer once put it (fondly), can seem unsure of how a sentence works, and from the fake elegance of periphrasis Henry James gives us no relief. To go by the evidence of his fiction, Raymond Carver, that Chekhov of the strip mall, had the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old. On every page of Roberto Bolaño there is something to make a copy editor shudder. Easily, we could improve these writers’ sentences, and it is of sentences that literature is built. But we do not wish to “improve” their books.

In the case of Martin Amis, no one has ever doubted if he was good. “Oh yes, he had the long words, Martin Amis,” as Clive James put it in 1984. “And he knew how to use them.” A small British man with a large, barbed, imposing style, Amis, at sixty-eight, is now in the fifth decade of his career, and still getting the kind of attention younger (taller) writers covet. It is easy to see why. He is the rare novelist-critic who can make the finer points of usage sound almost sexy. And it helps, too, in terms of creating a strong impression, that in the novel as he conceives of it (he is at work on his fifteenth), the author doesn’t exactly vanish behind a curtain. Amis believes in writing the kind of sentences readers underline. “Some of my characters have been semiliterate,” he told the Paris Review in 1998, “but I fix it one way or the other so that I can write absolutely flat-out in their voice.”

All writers want to be brilliant. Amis is just conspicuous about it. And when he is going flat-out, there aren’t many who can catch him. For his true peers as a word-user we must look not to other novelists but to poets—to Pope and to Keats. Perhaps, in another age, Amis would have been a poet. As it is, he writes sentences, and these sentences are made up of phrases. It is primarily for these, rather than for the paragraphs and pages, that you read Martin Amis.

The Rub of Time, his new collection of nonfiction, brings together his occasional work dating back to 1994. Like everything Amis writes, it is a showcase, and it gives you a sense of his personal canon. There are pieces on his “twin peaks,” Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, and on slightly lesser eminences (Roth, DeLillo, Updike, Burgess, Ballard). There is a piece on his dad, Kingsley—aka “The King”—and on his friend Christopher Hitchens—aka“The Hitch.” There are pieces on politics, and on Philip Larkin, and bits and pieces on himself. Writing in 1997 of Princess Diana, not long after she died “fleeing the pointed end of her own renown,” Amis considers the differences between “hard” and “soft” news, and readers may file the Diana pieces (there are two of them) in the “soft” category—along with those on tennis, on soccer, on Four Weddings and a Funeral, and on John Travolta. It may go without saying that the book-tour piece (for Tina Brown’s New Yorker) is a tour de force.

To a degree that is, I suspect, unique among novelists, Amis is quotable. It is as if he thinks in sound bites. (Videos of Amis speaking add to this impression.) And the result is that it is nearly impossible to take him out of context. Mitt Romney, “the Latter-day Saint with the time-proof face,” has a “characteristic smile of pain”: “that of a man with a very sore shoulder who has just eased his way into a tight tuxedo.” The camera guys stand in a “snake pit of cables,” a poker player has a “pocked scowl,” and Pulp Fiction reserves a small role for a “droll and Jesusy Eric Stoltz.” The early stories of Nabokov are “little more than dazed hymns to the bliss of existence”; the late stories of Don DeLillo are “both airy and airtight.” (Amis will take “easy-chair DeLillo” over “hard-chair DeLillo.”) Tim Henman, the frustrated It Boy of English tennis, is still “the first human being called Tim to achieve anything at all.” “Consider the essential unlikelihood,” he elaborates, “of Tim Sawyer, Uncle Tim’s Cabin, Tim Brown’s School Days. . . .” Trump’s brain is a “bog of testosterone.” Amis is, I am sure, the only writer I know of who can advertise his presence with a single adverb. “Universalizingly,” conceivably, could have been written by somebody else. But not “commalessly.”

Martin Amis, Uruguay, 2009. Isabel Fonseca.
Martin Amis, Uruguay, 2009. Isabel Fonseca.

There are perhaps a few times when the great style dips into greatest-hits mode. The “light coating of Skippy” applied to talking heads at the 2012 Republican National Convention is, indeed, nuttily reminiscent of the “peanut-butter body-tone” of Fielding Goodney in Money (1984). Devout fans will already have drunk with Amis a “pensive pint” or two, and heard a variety of things “whimper with neglect.” So some of the furniture isn’t new. A reader might complain, more generally, that Amis has been over much—really, nearly all—of this ground before: Larkin, The Hitch, The King, every one of the writers under review. He climbs his peaks by new routes, but the view from the top is the same. Still, I doubt that anyone will much mind that the (very funny) “poets don’t drive” riff, like a few others in this book, first appeared elsewhere. (“Did Lowell drive? Did Berryman?”)

The problem with being a good-great writer (as opposed to an OK-great writer), I imagine, is that, when you slip up even a little, people talk. And so it is, ahem, but meekly that one might ask about that title, with its odd culinary double-entendre. (The rub of thyme?) But you get it that the author has been feeling the years. Of the many, many pleasures available in The War Against Cliché (2001), Amis’s last big nonfiction collection, the most debauched surely came when the reviewer went skipping into the ring with a writer who, it was clear even before the opening bell, didn’t stand a chance. (Like Mike Tyson, another small guy who beat up a lot of giants, Amis is the kind of performer who is possibly more fun to watch in a mismatch. He finds Thomas Harris, author of Hannibal, to be a “serial murderer of English sentences.”) In Rub, though, we see a man whom age has sobered declare, in a Q&A with The Independent, that he is through with “insulting people in print” (a “vice of youth”).

This is a little disingenuous. In Cliché, broadly speaking, he took on bad writing. In Rub, he takes on old writing—prose that has hip pain, and the kind of sentences that could use a stent. “The portrait of the artist as an oldman: this is a murky and glutinous vista,” he writes in a review of John Updike’s posthumously published collection of stories, My Father’s Tears:

Readers must now prepare themselves for quotation, and a blizzard of false quantities—by which I mean those rhymes and chimes and inadvertent repetitions, those toe-stubs, those excrescences and asperities that all writers hope to expunge from their work. . . . Updike’s prose, that fantastic engine of euphony, of first-echelon perception, and of a wit both vicious and all-forgiving, has in this book lost its compass. Formerly, you used to reread Updike’s sentences in a spirit of stunned admiration. Here, too often, you reread them wondering (a) what they mean, or (b) why they’re there, or (c) how they survived composition, routine reappraisal, and proof checking without causing a spasm of horrified self-correction.

The review lives up to this alarming billing. Amis brandishes a sentence of Updike’s whose repeated first-person pronouns (“than I . . . though I . . . than I”) are “as hypnotically conspicuous as, say, ‘antidisestablishmentarianism.’” He identifies what he calls “the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen.” Of a stretch that Updike, indeed, might have lived to regret, Amis says that it “audibly whimpers for a return to the drawing board.”

Is it brave to face down the frailties of your elders? Possibly—especially when you, too, are getting elder-er. “Writers die twice,” as Amis puts it in a piece on Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura: “Once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” Amis didn’t like Laura much, either. It is part of the “meltdown of artistic self-possession” that is Late Nabokov. (Like Lolita, Laura is about pedophilia. Unlike Lolita, it seems to recommend it.) Of course, Amis has lots of nice things to say about Updike and Nabokov, too, and he has only nice things to say about Bellow. He describes him, at one point, as “a supercharged plagiarist of Creation.”

You could not pay a great man of letters a sweeter compliment, or a more loud one. Bellow, who died in 2005, was something of a father figure to Amis, and the essays on him now and then give you the squirmy impression that the author is trying a little too hard to score points with a ghost. But he can also be subtle and, on what he loves, beautiful. Larkin’s poems, he writes, escort us “from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom.” As can come in handy for a book reviewer, Amis is a master of epigrammatic counterintuitiveness. The Art of the Deal “resembles a rags-to-riches story from which the rags have been tastefully excised.” “The great writers,” he writes of DeLillo, “can take us anywhere; but half the time they’re taking us where we don’t want to go.”

Amis can do a lot of things, but his genius has always been for vividness—“terrible compulsive vividness,” as his father, Kingsley, put it, not quite admiringly. The extreme case is other people’s bodies. One is reminded by Amis’s physical portraiture of what Norman Mailer said about Diane Arbus: Giving her a camera was “like giving a hand grenade to a baby.” When Amis picks up his pencil, he pulls out the pin. Donald Trump, “hammily scowling out from under an omelette of makeup and tanning cream,” has a “little woodland creature that sleeps on his head.” Rambo, aka Sylvester Stallone, is a “lethal trapezium of organ meat,” and Monica Jones, Philip Larkin’s rather handsome lady companion, “resembled an all-in wrestler renowned for his indifference to the norms of fair play.” In Las Vegas to gamble, Amis hits the poker tables, where he is reminded of Chris Moneymaker, the 2003 World Series of Poker champion, whose surname still raises certain questions: “What if he was called Chris Moneyloser or Chris Breadline or Chris Asshole?” It is at this point that Amis notices that Americans are kind of fat.

Or, as Amis has it, there’s a woman with “arms like legs, legs like torsos, and a torso like an exhausted orgy”; there’s “approximately one butter mountain per table, with his rump slobbering all over his stool.” As for the scene at large, it’s “an unsociable blur of speckle and bumfluff.” It is “like the dining room of an ocean liner after an invasion by unusually pitiless pirates.”

You could not ask for more, in terms of sheer fireworks. Some writers help you to see the world. Amis makes it so you can’t unsee it. It is a singular gift. Naturally, it is not to everyone’s taste. Within the tiny kingdom of book reviewing, it has for some time been a kind of cliché to wonder (especially if you are youngish and male) whether Amis might be too good for his own good. “Why do I attract these shitty little ingrates?” Amis once reportedly remarked, in response to something very long published in the London Review, and you see his point. Of all the ways to be a little bit bad, being too good is, absolutely, the best. And Amis is as good on Jane Austen’s subjunctives as he is on the love handles of Las Vegas.

As is well known, he is less good on Islam, and on Islamism, which somehow finds its way into that Vegas piece via a series of asides: “Las Vegas would not be one of bin Laden’s favorite towns,” “Al Qaeda remains silent on the question of obesity,” etc. It is a backhanded tribute to Amis’s towering skill that such stuff is, in the end, merely daft. In 2006, Amis coined the word horrorism, because, he decided, terrorism was not scary enough. A reader named Jonathan Brooks e-mailed to ask if Amis recognized that “the phrase . . . is unintentionally hilarious.” “Fuck off,” went Amis’s reply. “And incidentally ‘horrorism’ is a word, not a phrase.” This exchange, which is reprinted in Rub, presents an interesting microcosm of the Amis personality.

The main vices he censures in other writers being laziness and lack of control, it makes sense that Amis’s would run in the opposite direction. His vice is that, sometimes, he forces the issue. He is too in control. For instance, with punctuation. You do not glide through an Amis paragraph on gentle currents of commas and periods. You are rocketed back and forth by em-dashes and spun around by semicolons. They’re all impeccably placed, of course, but the pushiness can start to wear on you. As a reader, you have no freedom of movement. The technical term for this is hypotaxis, and it is not the style of the times. The style of the times is casual. Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, for the most part, only ask of their punctuation that it get out of your way. They let you glide. They are paratactical writers.

Amis will never be one of these. For him, writing is, you might say, in its essence getting in other people’s way, and turning them in circles, and administering pert prompts. And, so, there are moments when this unparalleled writer will say things that get perhaps too much of your attention. “It already sounds fogyish to iterate” sounds like how they speak on Planet Thesaurus. “The stray bullet went in through his nape and came out through his brow” is how a postmortem might go, maybe, if the morgue attendant were John Milton. For readers who love Amis, bits like these, that break the scale, are all just part of the fun. They are a home-run king’s still-impressive foul balls. They point to what Amis is great at, and this is writing in its primal form. It is saying it new. It is phrasemaking.

Nabokov’s The Enchanter is “sulfurously direct”; Lolita is “delicately cumulative.” Book tours leave our guy feeling “robotically garrulous and insanely peripatetic.” Frank Kermode, writing seventeen years ago, observed that the “great thing” about so many of Amis’s phrases is that “the author can be fairly sure they will never be used again.” (There’s some irony here.) And for most of human history, you could only be fairly sure. Recently, though, we began to get a better idea. A Google search does not cover every base, but even so, the approximation is telling. “Insanely boring” yields 365,000 hits (cliché), “insanely inspired” 75,400 (getting there). “Creative gaiety,” by contrast, leads back to just a few hundred. Ditto “divine levity.” With “juggernaut gasbag,” there is one. (All come from this book.) What are the ramifications for writers today—good and great—of this growing Googleability of phrases? Perhaps, one day soon, we will know exactly how much use it takes for a word combination to wear out and become trite. Perhaps we will all have easy access to the math of how language dies.

Or, perhaps, one day, there will be an app that does the word-combining for you. Quite possibly, in the literature of the future, our phrasemaking, that slightly mechanical labor of love, will be automated. Like carmaking.

James Camp is a writer living in Brooklyn.