I only saw Martin Amis in person once, at the opening of Brooklyn Bridge Park in August 2012. He was there to read from his new book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a send-up of British tabloid culture, which came out that month. The details are blurry: a white collared shirt, the river behind him. He called Brooklyn “an Arcadia of strollers,” which the crowd loved. A lot of people asked him about his friend Christopher Hitchens, who had died of esophageal cancer in December of the previous year. I can’t remember what he said. What does one say? It’s an awful thing.
Eleven years later, Amis has died at 73, also of esophageal cancer. What does one say, etc.? Amis leaves behind 15 novels, a memoir, scattered other books, countless pieces of criticism, and a legion of gutted fans who had found their way to his work, and stuck around because they were laughing.
I got into Amis by accident. One summer in my early twenties, I was so poor that I was buying used books purely based on their length. I worked at a bakery in Manhattan, filling commercial orders for fashionable restaurants, jamming 20 or 30 baguettes into bags that would then be whisked off in trucks. After the orders went out, I stood at the counter, selling individual loaves, sourdough rounds, multigrain, running them through the slicer. No one came in for hours at a time, and if I was discreet, I could read. The books I bought had to last a couple of weeks, as long as possible, until the next time I could afford one. That’s how I came to read Infinite Jest, Underworld, and Gravity’s Rainbow, and it is also how I came to read The Information by Martin Amis.
The Information is the third and least flashy of the (tenuously related) London trilogy, a lengthy volume about despair, jealousy, and the plight of the middle-aged novelist. Written in 1995, it follows the rivalry between two writers, one successful, the other less so. I was far from embarking on a writing career of my own, but I found its satire of the literary world funny:
The Little Magazine really did stand for something. It really did stand for something, in this briskly materialistic age. It stood for not paying people. And when it did pay people, it paid them little and it paid them late. Printers, landlords, tax-men, milkmen, contributors, staff: it paid them next to nothing and always at the very end of the eleventh hour.
After I finished it, I moved on to Money and London Fields. These are Amis’s 1980s comic masterpieces. They are written in high style, postmodern in their flourishes. They are unsparing, skewering everyone from the petty criminal on the street corner to the feckless bourgeois nice guy, insulated by money and flummoxed by family life.
The types Amis sends up in the London trilogy were not recognizable to me, an American kid from the Deep South. But the beauty of Amis is that he makes you feel like you get it anyway. I had never encountered someone like Keith Talent, the buffoonish local darts king from London Fields. I didn’t know what a fruit machine was, or understand the quirks of the English pub (for instance, that they are sometimes carpeted).
But I had seen plenty of coarseness, cruelty, and stupidity. I had observed frailties and gaffes across social strata. I had not known the specific vicissitudes of being a middle-aged novelist, but I could understand disappointment, and I could understand the shame of squandered potential. (I felt, at 20, that I was squandering my potential by being the baguette girl.)
Amis was a brilliant prose stylist, but his genius was in his humor. The humor invites you in. I had a writing teacher who once referred to “galloping intelligence” as a pleasing trait in a writer. That is a writer who moves briskly, exuberantly, and asks the reader to jog along beside him. Amis could have been the poster boy. Reading him, there is a feeling that he trusts you to keep pace with his wit, his bawdiness, his erudition. His work seems to say: You and me—we get it.
Amis has been called caustic, cynical, a man not given to mercy, and he was those things. I’d add brash and occasionally embarrassing: Lionel Asbo begins with teenage Desmond Pepperdine embarking on an affair with his 39-year-old grandmother. But I always experienced Amis’s humor as the opposite of mean. I felt it as a roaring fire, a great and comforting irreverence, exceeding and giving license to my own.
Start reading Money, and see how far you get without laughing. I break on page eight with this exchange between the narrator, TV commercial director John Self, and a deranged New York City cab driver who wants to round up 100 men and start a race war:
“What?” I shouted. “A hundred guys? That’s not many guys.”
“We could do it. With the right gunge, we could do it.”
“Gunge, yeah. Fifty-sixes. Automatics.”
In the paragraph that follows, he describes people with him in an airport customs line as “Venusians, pterodactyls, men and women from an alternative time-stream.” On the next page, he describes a man’s face as “barnacled and girlish.” Almost every paragraph contains a line this surprising and alive. Some of them have stuck with me permanently. Often, I think of John Self’s sincere attempt to stay in shape by sticking to a regimen of “frequent tureens of white wine.”
These books are so hilarious that they need not reach for depth, yet they do that too. London Fields is the story of femme fatale Nicola Six contriving to orchestrate her own murder, via the involvement of Keith Talent and nice idiot Guy Clinch, as nuclear war looms. The ridiculous premise gets you through the door, but once you’re inside, there are rewards like this:
Guy always thought it was life he was looking for. But it must have been death—or death awareness. Death candour. I’ve found it, he thought. It is mean, it is serious, it is beautiful, it is poor; it fully earns every compliment, every adjective you care to name.
Amis wrote in other registers besides the comic. Time’s Arrow, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 1991, is a formally clever book about the Holocaust (it’s told backward). The Zone of Interest, published in 2014 and set at a concentration camp, is grimly excellent. In 2002, he published Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, a nonfiction book about Stalin that oddly doubles as an attack on Christopher Hitchens. His most overtly political writing was his worst; I would not recommend anything he wrote in response to 9/11. He also wrote criticism, though he had stopped as he’d grown older, remarking in an interview with The Independent that “insulting people in print is a vice of youth.”
Some of Amis’s fans are fascinated by his personal life, which was admittedly gossip-worthy. He once famously replaced his teeth. He once famously demanded an $800k advance, while managing to annoy Julian Barnes. He once famously left a woman for another woman. He cavorted with a bunch of brilliant writers (Barnes, Rushdie, McEwan, Hitchens) in a sort of dazzling, hedonistic clique. He had a famously contentious relationship with his famously contentious father.
I never found any of that as amusing as what was on the page. It all seemed to me—like his physical presence in Brooklyn Bridge Park—slight, relative to the work. The takeaway from Amis was that people were gross, and even this vastly oversimplified summation makes me laugh. People are gross. They are vulgar, they are small. They are lazy. They are pea-brained criminals who love playing darts. They long to murder or be murdered. No one wants to say it, because it’s rude and implicates all of us. But Amis said it, and he even said it elegantly.
It’s a smart trick for a writer to make you think that you and he are elite among the clear-eyed. That the two of you are the exception. I would go further and say, it’s not even a trick—it’s the gig. Amis was great at it, the best. But he was unsentimental always; that was part of his style. And so, I exhort you, though the loss is tremendous, not to shed a tear for Martin Amis. I won’t either.