Martin Amis, the enfant terrible of English letters, was fifty last Wednesday. Fifty. For many, it will be one of those unwelcome reminders of just how quickly time passes. Why, just the other day, Martin Amis was being called a "literary bad boy," the Mick Jagger of Grub Street. If you looked up "precocious" in the dictionary there was a picture of him, his curly lips fixed in a characteristic expression of disdain: half sneer, half smirk. My, how time flies.
He still looks like Mick Jagger. That's the bad news. The good news is he's remained the leader of the pack. Last June he signed a deal with Talk Miramax, the new multi-media company headed by Tina Brown, which may well net him the largest amount of money ever paid to a literary novelist. His agent Andrew Wylie hasn't disclosed exactly how much, but it's rumoured to be in the ball park of $6 million. Here's a new name for him: he's the Jeffrey Archer of serious fiction.
This vast amount can only be based on his reputation. It certainly isn't based on sales of his books. Earlier this week I called a friend at his former American publishing house to discover how many copies he'd sold of Heavy Water and Other Stories, his most recent book to be published in the States.
"This must be a mistake," she said, on first reading the figures on her computer. "Can it have sold so few copies? No, it looks right."
According to the records of Random House Inc, his latest collection of short stories, which was published on January 30 of this year, has sold less than 5,000 copies. Night Train, his last novel to be published in America, sold approximately 40,000 copies in hardback but even that was a disappointment. (A respectable sale for a serious literary novel in America is 60-80,000.) Underworld, by contrast, Don DeLillo's latest novel, sold over 500,000 copies and made it on to The New York Times Bestseller List.
Perhaps Talk Miramax is relying on other, as yet untested skills of the literary wunderkind. In its front-page report last June, Variety announced that in addition to three books and several articles for Talk magazine the deal included "the acclaimed novelist's first screenplay."
This was an uncharacteristic lapse on Variety's part. In fact, Martin Amis is credited with writing the screenplay for a 1980 science fiction epic called Saturn 3, starring Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel. For the purposes of writing this article, I actually rented Saturn 3. I can only agree with the anonymous reviewer on the Internet Movie Database: "The only real plus to this film is seeing a younger Farah Fawcett run around in a skimpy white outfit through most of the movie."
So it's his reputation which is worth $6 million. Now he's reached his half-century, it seems a good time to take stock. Is he really Britain's best literary novelist?
His reputation rests on a number of achievements. First, there was his startling debut, The Rachel Papers, published when he was only 24 and the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award. Then, there were the equally promising follow-ups: Dead Babies, Success and Other People. And let's not forget his "formal First in English at Exeter College, Oxford", an accomplishment he's so proud of he includes it in the blurb at the beginning of all the Penguin editions of his books.
Most important of all, there's Money. Published in the mid-eighties, this lurching, vertiginous account of a 35-year-old film producer's descent into madness successfully captured the zeitgeist of the time, gleefully skewering the greed and materialism that would become synonymous with the decade. All the hallmarks of his earlier fiction-the scatological humour, the vivid, Hogarthian characters, the superb comic set-pieces-coalesced into something broader, an epic, dyspeptic vision of the way we live now. As a portrait of an era, it's second only to Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanites.
And that's pretty much it.
After the success of Money, Martin Amis took a disastrous wrong turning. In a coup de tete reminiscent of Bertrand Russell's twenty years earlier, he suddenly became a passionate opponent of nuclear weapons. After reading Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, he decided that fear of nuclear annihilation was the great theme of late-twentieth-century literature. His earlier books, which had apparently been written in a state of blissful ignorance, were actually "nuked novels" which had, in their own inadequate way, expressed "unclear anxiety" about nuclear destruction. Henceforth, all his work would be about the bomb.
Overnight, it seemed, Amis had heard the clarion call from leftist intellectuals across the Atlantic to roll up his sleeves and start wrestling with that great beast of the apocalypse, the military-industrial complex. First, in 1987, came Einstein's Monsters, a collection of short stories about the terrible damage inflicted on the human psyche by the world's nuclear arsenal, and then came London Fields, his 1989 novel in which his usual cast of comic characters is overshadowed by a grave foreboding about Armageddon.
There had been signs in Amis's earlier work that he took himself a tad too seriously. His stylistic bag of tricks included an irritating number of Nabokovian devices: doppelgngers, puns, unreliable narrators. (Amis's narrators are fantastically unreliable, the plumbers and electricians of the literary world.) He even relied on the post-modernist trope of introducing himself as a character in Money. But nothing had prepared his readers for this. Suddenly, England's best comic novelist since Evelyn Waugh had metamorphisized into a preachy intellectual. We'd gone to bed with a brilliant, hilarious companion and woken up with Monsignor Bruce Kent.
Quite apart from everything else, Martin Amis was just plain wrong about nuclear weapons. In 1987 he published an essay in Esquire called 'Nuclear City' about a fact-finding trip he'd made to Washington. "If history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake," he wrote, "then the Reagan era can be seen as an eight-year blackout." He went on to dismiss Reagan as "a babbling, bloopering illusionist," singling out the insanity of his nuclear arms policy. But two years later, the Reagan Administration's high-risk strategy of pushing the Soviet Union to the verge of bankruptcy by escalating the arms race was vindicated. America's demonised military-industrial complex won the Cold War.
Alas, Amis has never really emerged from this cul de sac, in spite of broadening his reading to include evolutionary biology and astro-physics. Time's Arrow, an extended short story in which he turns the Holocaust on its head by reversing the flow of time, was an ambitious failure. His exhibitionist, self-advertising style wasn't suited to dealing with such a weighty subject. His 1995 novel The Information, for which he netted the notorious half-million pound advance, gamely tried to recapture some of his old comic brio, dealing with the promising theme of literary envy. Parts of it, to be sure, are as funny as anything in Money, but it lacks the earlier novel's heft.
His two most recent books, Night Train and Heavy Water and Other Stories, are his most disappointing efforts to date. Night Train is his first foray into genre fiction, a police thriller set in a "second-echelon American city" which is badly let down by his-for once-tin ear for dialogue. ("I am a police," it begins, a colloquialism John Updike singled out for criticism in his review of Night Train for The Sunday Times.) Heavy Water and Other Stories is a motley collection of squibs Amis has tossed out over the years that, for the most part, didn't even get reviewed in America.
So has the great white hope of British fiction finally punched himself out? It's instructive to compare him with his father, Kingsley Amis. Like Martin, Kingsley won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel and, like Martin, he experimented across a wide range of genres. However, Kinsley got better and better, maturing as a novelist and discovering his best material as he grew older, whereas Martin has struggled to extend his reach, taking on big, epic themes, but without ever maturing. On the contrary, as his ambition has increased, his novels have got worse.
To be fair to him, Amis seems to recognise this about himself. In an interview with The Guardian in 1995, he said: "You convince yourself you've learned a few basic rules but basically you're none the wiser...Pitifully, I'm the same now as I was when I was 18. Still the same and still unformed. Still immature."