Sometimes you get to do things that really make the job worthwhile. This one was for the Vice Fiction Issue 2008.
IT’S NOT LIKE THAT ANYMORE IT’S LIKE THIS
But Martin Amis is Still Obsessed With Masculinity
Martin Amis is one of the great writers of modern fiction. Even if he’d given up putting pen to paper after his third novel, Money, this would be an irrefutable fact. Period. Sorry. He writes grippingly of ugly characters addicted to themselves and the world around them, consuming for the sake of consumption and blind to their own greed. His ugly, and occasionally hilarious, creations were both of their time and chillingly predictive of what is going on outside your window right now. He also threw unreliable narrators, himself and a bit of time reversal into his novels helping create a little genre people call ‘postmodernism’ which you might have heard of.
As a thirteen year old boy watching the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold before his own eyes it is unsurprising that his novels have not only been filled with personal armageddon but also the impending threat of macro-armageddon on a planet wide scale. An initial preoccupation with Cold War threat gave way to a recent fascination with the conflict between the West and the Muslim world leading to his recent collection of shorter works The Second Plane.
Amis gives interviews rarely and has a reputation as for being spiky and guarded. Having read his work and been more than a little into all of it, actually picking up the phone to talk to him had me shaking like a Bolivian coke mule about to ingest a loaded johnny. Luckily, Amis (‘Marty’ to his buddies apparently) was kind, willing and open. He also has the most mesmerising way of emphasizing words mid-sentence. Go watch him talk about House of Meetings on the Charlie Rose show on YouTube right now. Then you’ll get the bits in italics.
Vice: Having grown up with a successful novelist for a father was there a point where you made a conscious decision to be ‘a writer’ or was it just assumed?
Martin Amis: At around thirteen a certain self-awareness came over me as I was writing prose and poems in notebooks and diaries. What you are doing at that age is communing with yourself in a new way and becoming articulate within yourself. I think that everyone goes through that state and the people who end up becoming writers are simply those who never grow out of it. I never did. I also have to admit my father as an early influence. I read his stuff but felt like it was an independent decision that I made and I knew that it wasn’t a case of just writing a single novel and thinking: “I’ve done that now” or impressed my father and purged the influence. I had the feeling that it would be a long haul thing. In a good way.
What other novelists were early influences on your writing?
Well, I’d not read Bellow by the time I had written my first novel. I read a lot of Austen early on but I fail to see how anybody could be influenced by her, she’s simply too lucid. I’d read some Nabokov but I suppose the biggest early influence was Dickens. His stuff was just nuts and wild which is beguiling at that age. It’s impossible to imitate Austen, as it is all understatement whereas with Dickens the prose is so hairy and muscley; you can really gorge on it.
In you early work particularly you seem preoccupied with the present, its excess and its vacuity both in the rampant consumerism of Money and the Thatcherite capitalism of London Fields.
Certainly during the early period yes but there comes a point where you’re not really in the culture any more. You become removed from it. My father put it well to me once. He said: “at a certain age you think it’s not like that anymore it’s like this but you are not quite sure what this is”. I think it would be insane to harbour ideas that you can remain plugged in forever.
You spoke of being “addicted to the 20th century”, has the 21st proved not quite as addictive?
Possibly that was the point where that became this. You are certainly of your time and while you still have you’re slant on it all you find that you are no longer swimming amongst it. The novel I am coming to the end of now is set in 1970 so perhaps I am clinging to the 20th century.
London has always had a looming presence in your novels, what was it about the city that fascinated you?
I always felt grateful to be in one of the worlds great cities and it would have been completely impossible to write anything like the novels I wrote in somewhere like Cambridge. It was very much a case of being in it again. Living, breathing and swimming in it and as we all know: the fish doesn’t ask about the water. You just sit there, run your nerve endings up against it and it all comes out of the other end of your pen.
At times you have written in forms outside of fiction to reflect upon society in the same way you have within your fiction. Do you think that things that are not formally fiction ever make comment in the same way as fiction?
Fiction utilizes a different part of the mind and you can see it in action and see the difference when you produce non-fiction. I studied Stalinism and Russian history extensively when working on Koba The Dread (non-fiction) and then House Of Meetings (fiction) and due to the formal difference similar feelings were expressed in different ways. Fiction acts like a slow zoom lens, it allows you to go deeper in and say something else. It took three years to get from the brain to the back of my spine and then I felt ready to say something.
Even when not dealing directly with the directly political your novels exist in an atmosphere of political threat. Over time the threat has shifted from Soviet Cold War to Axis Of Evil but always with a sense of potential armageddon.
I was very un-political as a young man. I was left of centre but being surrounded by Trotskyites like Christopher Hitchens made me seem moderate by comparison. I was unattractively proud of not knowing a great deal about politics. Literature was what I had and it was my thing. Despite writing about nuclear weapons (Einstein’s Monsters) and the Holocaust (Time’s Arrow) I only really gave myself a political education when I began to study Russia and suddenly I could see the categories and the precedents. It all came alive to me. When September the 11th came along I wasn’t prepared for anything as interesting as that to happen in my lifetime. If I had to explain what my novels were about in one word it would be masculinity and here was masculinity in a whole new form. It takes that essence of what it is to be a man straight back to violence and really the political history of man is the history of violence. The social history of man is simply sex. Those have always been the most interesting questions to me: what is it that makes man put himself about in such a way and what is it that makes him treat women in the way he does. In terms of when I have chosen to speak out about topics in non-fictional form it is with these concerns in mind and because I felt I had something to say.
Are you talking here about The Second Plane?
Yes. I felt I had something to say and non-fiction was a very immediate way of saying it. So I did.
The plot devices that you became infamous for using later became known as ‘postmodern’. Were they conscious formal decisions or were they subconsciously demanded by the story?
Postmodernism wasn’t really this grand bandwagon that it may have seemed at the time. It was in the air and if you are of your time you saw the point of it. In the end it proved not the rich vein some had hoped and something of a dead end but it was very predictive in terms of life itself becoming very postmodern, what with buildings having their piping on the outside and politicians talking openly about ‘the plumbing’. There was a whole new level of self-consciousness that developed as well as an interest in ones own age that would have been unknown in say the 18th century. History is still speeding up and you want to reflect that so when I sit down to write I want to push the form of the novel and play with it so there is that conscious and deliberate sense of pushing the form. If anything though I am now returning to realism with a modernist sensibility without that tricksiness of postmodernism.
How do you feel about the current state of fiction, will it survive?
It will always be produced; I worry more about it being read. Poetry is already dead in those terms. Poetry requires that you stop the clock. When you read a poem the writer is saying let’s stop and examine this writing. People feel uneasy due to the pace that time passes to actually stop. They don’t like solitary reflection anymore. Poetry no longer has a place in the culture. This will eventually seep out to include the novel. The day of the long, reflective, discursive novel, such as the great Saul Bellow novels, which were eight-month bestsellers in their time are over. The novel now is streamlined and sped up. It is as a reflection of the age.
Are there any young novelists working now producing such work who you admire?
The truth is that I don’t read my youngers. It seems a terribly uneconomical way to organize your reading by studying those unproved by time. I read my friends so I take in Will Self and Zadie Smith with great interest and it all seems healthy out there but I can’t make any broad statements about ‘where’ the novel is now. Sorry.
In conversation with Self you have said that “the middle classes are under-represented in my novels”, you also seem to have a recurring pre-occupation with the lower classes.
I like extremes. There is a certain latitude necessary to be a character, often in a repulsive way in the case of the upper classes, but it gives you a freedom to be a little more extreme and extravagant at either end of the social scale. The pressures at the lower end of the spectrum are very intense and that leads to characters becoming interestingly twisted into strange shapes. The middle classes are written about by everyone. They shan’t whimper with neglect because I am not writing about them. All fiction is essentially kitchen sink. It is just that some kitchen sinks are more expensive than others.
You mentioned a novel that you are working on now. Can you tell us anymore about that or will you get in trouble?
I hope not. It is a novel set in the social revolution and the main character is twenty years old. Its title is The Pregnant Widow, which comes from a remark by the wonderful Russian thinker Alexander Herzen. He said that when political or social orders change by revolution one should be pleased that the old is giving way to the new but the trouble is that you get the death of the new order and no heir apparent. You are left not with a child but a pregnant widow and much grief and tribulation will take place between the death and the birth. I would say that even now the baby of the social revolution is yet to be born thirty years on.
Like London the figure of America figures often in your novels. In Money you portray the country as the unbridled consumerist paradigm that London strived to be. But lacking that British inhibition.
America is a wild place, an awesome place and like Henry James I very much believe it be a world rather than a country. As a place it is very difficult to generalize about. Having watched the last eight years with horror I am of course thrilled about the election because the potential to go wrong in America is so huge and here at last is someone genuinely impressive as well as someone who can help heal that great wound in American life. I think we could be entering a great era.
Perhaps an ear in which we see the baby of the social revolution born?
There was talk at one point of David Cronenberg making a film of London Fields was there any truth to that?
There was. I met him a couple of times and he re-wrote the script a little but he would only have got a sliver of the novel and not the whole book so it was left. The project is still alive though. They did The Rachel Papers, which was fun, and Dead Babies, which was sort of fun. They are making my novels in order. Just at twenty-year intervals. I have never had a great time with writing for cinema though, I did a terrific script for an adaptation of Northanger Abbey, which was picked up by Miramax and then sat on. I’m not sure what happened to it, I should probably check on that actually. Cinema is a wonderful form though and a young form. As Bellow said: film is about exteriors whereas the novel is concerned with interiors so there are many possibilities yet to explore.
What caused you to move to Uruguay for two years?
My wife is half Uruguayan and half New York Jew, a heady mixture. She has about 25 first cousins out there. We visited it for a winter and liked it very much so we stayed. We eventually left as our girls outgrew it and needed better schools. The landscape is fantastic but it was too quiet politically to have any impact on my writing. It is a real anomaly in terms of how gentle and sane it is in the context of South America.
Recently you began teaching at Manchester University. Why of all places Manchester?
Quite simply: they asked me. My father taught and by all accounts was fairly good at it and I felt that I might do all right at it as well. I enjoy it very much and I like my colleagues, which is rare for a job. All I do is teach novels. What could be more agreeable than that? I don’t guide my student’s elbows while they write. In fact I don’t even see what they write. We talk about it a little and I talk a lot about Nabokov, Kafka and Dostoyevsky all of whom are the people I like to talk about anyway so I’m rather happy with myself.
Is it true that you were a Mod and then a Hippy during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s?
I was a Mod but that all ended after my fifth scooter crash, then yes I was a rather opportunistic hippy. All that free love and music sounded fun but I was never particularly pious. Mod was more about having the right pink socks on the right day anyway. The Hippy thing was more of a coherent idea but there was very dark side to it. Like John Updike said it was a fascinating dark carnival. All this optimism with a dark underbelly where, if you rooted around in it long enough, you’d find Charles Manson.