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'The Emotion Is Starting to Come Out'

August 06, 1995|FRANCESCA RIVIERE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Reading Martin Amis and then meeting Martin Amis is like experiencing a Mobius strip--where extremes meet, with a twist.

In person, Amis is unlike the insatiable low-life and contrasting upper-class characters he writes about in several of his nine novels. He is neither slob nor snob.

He is a polite, sympathetic, modestly soft-spoken Englishman, with an Oxford-educated inflection. He speaks with quick, precise wit, honesty and intelligence. His youthful appearance contradicts his 45 years. If anything, his physical presence embodies the character and tone of the omniscient narrator of his latest book, "The Information" (Harmony, 1995), identified in the story as Martin Amis himself.

A Mobius strip with a twist.

Recently, in a West Hollywood restaurant-bar, Amis recalled an earlier voyage to America, in 1958-1959, when his father--author Sir Kingsley Amis--was teaching at Princeton.

"We came over on the Queen Mary, in third class. We came back in second class, and I was just certain we had really arrived . . . the impossible glamour of second class."

Like his father, Amis draws from a rich vein of British satire, specializing in protagonists at odds with the codes and values of their environment who lead intense emotional lives.

Both authors have had films made of their first novels: The elder Kingsley's "Lucky Jim" in 1954 aligned him with the Angry Young Men--writers and playwrights protesting modern English life; Martin's "The Rachel Papers" in 1973 won the Somerset Maugham writing award when the author was 24. Both are coming-of-age novels, comic in style and situation, expressing the mood of youth in each era.

Both authors also write nonfiction books and articles: Sir Kingsley on politics, education, language, film, television, restaurants and drink; Martin on nuclear power, tennis, literary heroes, Hollywood films and celebrities. Both share an interest in science fiction. Martin enjoys anagrams, wordplay and, as a novelist, having a Martian point of view--that of being a stranger in a strange land.

If in some future eon beings from this or some far distant planet want to probe the consciousness of earthling man in the 20th Century (Just what was he thinking? How did he really feel? ), they will have only to read "The Information" to comprehend the devastating repressed scream of pain in our daily existence. For all its comic and cosmic dark humor, "The Information" is very emotional.

"I've always felt like Kurt Vonnegut, who said, 'There's an intolerable sentimentality waiting to consume everything I write.' . . . And I always felt that there was a great deal of sentiment, of feeling, kept at bay by a fierce comedy. And I feel the emotion is starting to come out. You do try to keep it at bay with irony, you know."

Amis didn't set out to write the definitive tragic comedy of the '90s. But in taking on the universe, he captures the universal, through the voice of planet-bound man contemplating the cosmos amid the debris of chaos in his earthly life.

"It was more a kind of pulling back, sort of reverse zoom, from these little concerns to a huge picture . . . these little human operations are kind of useless in the vast perspective. . . .

"Your two big subjects nowadays, I think, are your travel through time, your particular span, set against the planet's travel through time. The planet's evolution wouldn't have been much of a subject at any other time in human history. It was creeping along, having not that much difference in human consciousness between one century and another up until the Renaissance. But now it seems to be changing every week. . . .

"This species is what we belong to--not your family, not your race, but your species. But the idea of killing each other over some border dispute seems preposterous in this big picture."

Set in London, "The Information" tracks the revenge of failed writer Richard Tull on his friend Gwyn Barry. Tull doesn't understand why Barry's novel, "Amelior," is so popular:

"When he first read 'Amelior' Richard kept . . . turning abstractedly to the back flap and the biographical note, expecting to see something like 'Despite mutism and blindness,' or 'Although diagnosed with Down's syndrome,' or 'Shrugging off the effects of a full lobotomy.' . . . 'Amelior' would only be remarkable if Gwyn had written it with his left foot. Why was 'Amelior' so popular? Who knew? Gwyn didn't do it. The world did it."

By his own description, Martin Amis is a voice novelist. In the author's construct, Amis' voice is encoded into "The Information" like a microchip of pain permeating the novel yet never interacting with its characters.

"It's I, and it's not a trick," he says. "I've been hovering around my books. I was a minor character in 'Money,' an initial confusion between Mark Asprey and Martin Amis in 'London Fields.' But it's me, it's honestly, truthfully me."

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