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On the level

Martin Amis' last novel drew scathing reviews. He's not bitter, but he is concerned about society's 'egalitarian push.'

April 23, 2004|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Martin AMIS is so easily articulate, both on the page and in casual conversation, that there can seem to be something mildly sinister behind it. It suggests the literary equivalent of selling one's soul to the devil, as blues guitarist Robert Johnson was rumored to have done in exchange for instrumental prowess.

He's developed his reputation first as the "bad boy" son of comic novelist Kingsley Amis and later as the acclaimed author of novels like "Money," "The Information" and the 2000 memoir "Experience." His prose is associated with linguistic dazzle, heartlessness, a fascination with lowlife and a powerful, sometimes moralistic intellectualism, as in his recent "Koba the Dread," a controversial book assailing intellectuals who coddled Stalin.

But in England, the accusations of Amis' own evil have burst fully into view: His last novel, "Yellow Dog," which concerns porn, Fleet Street smarm and Neanderthal masculinity, took a beating in the press last year that bordered on a national exorcism.

In a now infamous review, novelist Tibor Fischer wrote in London's Daily Telegraph that the book was "like your favorite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating." Liz Jensen of London's Independent wrote, "I was reaching for my oxygen mask and life vest."

Some Yanks got in on the action as well. "It bears as much resemblance to Mr. Amis' best fiction as a bad karaoke singer does to Frank Sinatra," said the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani. Assessing later, the Nation called him "the most condescended-to novelist of his time."

However deeply this cut at the time, Amis, 54, is showing few signs of it now. Sipping coffee in shorts and a light blue shirt beside a waterfall and pool at the W Hotel in Westwood, he's tan and relaxed, with an ironic distance from the fuss in London. He's a victim, he says, of Britain's current "egalitarian push," which both fascinates and repels him.

"It's a deep reaction to what was, until the '70s and '80s, a firmly class-based society," says Amis, suggesting that his countrymen are making up for lost time. "Everybody's trying to be utterly average and utterly unexceptional. No one's meant to stick out. You hear about people turning down knighthoods and OBEs," or Orders of the British Empire.

"And a tremendous interest in celebrity has somehow allied itself with this. They delight in creating completely ersatz celebrities, through reality TV shows -- with enormous ill feeling directed at the less popular members of each show, almost a lynching mood," he says. "It's all in parallel with national decline."


Hearty debate

Amis, who currently lives with his wife and their two daughters in a quiet part of Montevideo, Uruguay, where he has wintered for the last few years, is in town for The Times' book festival this weekend and for an appearance this particular night at UCLA's Royce Hall with contrarian journalist Christopher Hitchens.

A so-called "liberal hawk," Hitchens is a former socialist who sees the liberal left's opposition to the Iraq war as a shameful dodge, though he did not manage to engage the antiwar Amis on the issue.

The evening's conversation leaps from topic to topic as the old friends drink, smoke, curse and weigh in on America, the Iraq war, Amis' literary mentor Saul Bellow and several issues that lead to unprintable conclusions.

Clad in suits and perched in expensive chairs onstage, these onetime young turks could be curmudgeonly members of Parliament walking down memory lane at a posh West London men's club. At one point, Amis describes celebrating a childhood Christmas in Princeton and unwrapping "a robot, a knife and an ax, and a six-pack of cherry bombs.... I just thought, 'This is a wonderful country.' "

They play to a large and appreciative audience that includes Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Michael York. The almost shtick-like banter draws hearty laughs.


Consuming subject

MASCULINITY, Amis says apart from the forum, is "my main subject," a subject that's consumed him both in his novels and his nonfiction. (His most recent collection of the latter, 2001's "The War Against Cliche," won a National Book Critics Circle Award and leads with a section called "On Masculinity and Related Questions.")

"It's my theory that masculinity is the key to the Islamic problem," he says: Islamic women were gradually ground down and told they were inferior; their dreary lives matched their expectations.

"While in the Islamic world," Amis says, "the men are the ones who feel the humiliation of political impotence, are told that they are lions and princes and vastly superior to women." But with their lack of power and wealth, "they can't look their women in the face. There's no healthy release of sexuality. So no wonder you crash an airplane into the World Trade Center so you can get [sex] in the afterlife."

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