The War Against Cliché

by Martin Amis

Published by Knopf Canada

506 pages, 2001


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Amis Takes Aim

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


In the late 1990s, Martin Amis took his place as the favored whipping boy of Brit lit crit. Never mind that, for almost all of his career, he had numbered among their ranks. In a country growing increasingly bored with the highjinx of its royal family -- the British hereditary elite -- Amis has the temerity to be literary hereditary elite. The offspring of a beloved British writer, it only stands to reason that Kingsley Amis' son would be viewed suspiciously right out of the starting gate -- and never mind that said gate was jumped three decades ago.

To make matters worse, from the first, young Martin seemed to play the part: the bad boy of the British literary scene whose lifestyle -- and mode of dress -- proclaimed his status as loudly as the somewhat experimental novels he wrote (beginning with The Rachel Papers in 1973), the company he kept and the recreational drugs he used.

By the time Kingsley died in 1995, Martin's bad boy image had solidified into a kind of weird mask and his highly public falling out with various prominent literary types is well documented elsewhere -- including Amis' memoir Experience and January's interview with the author in 2000 following the publication of that book -- so I won't belabor any of it here. Suffice it to say that Amis the Younger's shenanigans have often been publicly deemed more befitting a rock star than an author. More glitz than lit, even if it is Brit.

Amis' most recent book, The War Against Cliché, reminds us of what it is about this writer that makes him so hard to completely put aside. Whether or not you approve of his lifestyle or his life choices, if you write him off as the mildly talented dilettante son of a prominent writer -- the ultimate wannabe -- you'd be badly mistaken. Worse: you'd be missing out.

The War Against Cliché is comprised of a selection of Amis' own lit crit -- published in well known literary journals in the UK and the US over a period of about 30 years. The War Against Cliché gives us the best -- and sometimes the worst -- of this generous, elegant and persuasive writer. Covering the publication of books by authors as varied as Anthony Burgess, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Harris, Philip Roth, J.G. Ballard, Iris Murdoch (whose work Amis dismisses so continuously and variously over the years, you have to wonder why he continued to bother), John Updike, V.S. Naipaul and more and more and more. The work of 62 writers is reviewed in The War Against Cliché, but the actual number of reviews is higher as several works of some authors have been included and enough criticism of the works of Philip Larkin, Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike are here to warrant their own sections.

A man who is paid -- and these days, paid well, I don't doubt -- for his opinions, Amis has a lot of them. Unsurprisingly, there is little in The War Against Cliché that speaks of ambivalence: Amis tends to like something a great deal or loathe something into next week. There isn't, nor should there be, much in between. For instance, in 1982, reviewing The Essential Mailer by Norman Mailer, Amis pulled not one punch when he wrote that, "Norman Mailer's new book bears all of the signs -- all of the watermarks, all the heraldry -- of a writer faced with an alimony bill of $500,000 a year." Reviewing Philip Roth's My Life As a Man in 1974, Amis opened fire cheerfully. "Although Philip Roth's novels have got steadily sillier since Portnoy's Complaint (1969), the quality of his prose has continued to improve."

Sometimes, Amis exhibits rare psychic talent. In a 1996 review of Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village, Amis wrote:

One keeps turning disconcertedly to the photograph on the back flap. With her pearls, her cloth-buttoned suit top, her spryly waved hair and glazed maquillage, she looks like the wife of some sulphurous video vicar (who, any day now, will be found in a motel somewhere, under a heap of prostitutes).

He couldn't have known how close to the mark all of this would be. Could he?

As completely and profoundly as he damns, Amis' praise and admiration for certain books and certain writers is resonant. Reviewing Don DeLillo's Underworld in 1997, Amis wrote that "Underworld may or may not be a great novel, but there is no doubt that it renders DeLillo a great novelist." Remembering Vladimir Nabokov for Atlantic Monthly in 1992, Amis says, "In a sense Lolita is too great for its own good. It rushes up on the reader like a recreational drug more powerful than any yet discovered or devised. In common with its narrator, it is both irresistible and unforgivable."

In his foreword, Amis sums up his feelings about the world of letters quite beautifully. It not only sets the tone for the book, but clearly establishes Amis' passion for the ground he covers in The War Against Cliché:

Literature is the great garden that is always there and is open to everyone twenty-four hours a day. Who tends it? The old tour guides and sylviculturists, the wardens, the fuming parkies in their sweat-soaked serge: these have died off. If you do see an official, a professional, nowadays, then he's likely to be a scowl in a labcoat, come to flatten a forest or decapitate a peak. The public wanders, with its oohs and ahs, its groans and jeers, its million opinions. The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden: it is unfallen and needs no care.

Though he's not scowling, Amis has become one of the wardens. He fumes occasionally but it is joyous fuming. We don't have to forgive him: we're too busy waiting for more. | August 2001


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.