Saturday, June 3, 2023

RIP Martin Amis

The fiction has receded for me (with the possible exception of Time's Arrow) but I loved his Kingsley-and-dentistry memoir Experience and enjoyed a lot of the reviews IN The War Against Cliche

Here, however, is a sniping Arena piece I wrote in 1991 comparing Amis with Elvis Costello (who'd just released the awful Mighty Like A Rose), arguing they WERE both in the dubious game of the Novel of Our Time / The Album of Our Time and had a tendency to rail bitterly and impotently against "the moronic inferno" of pop culture.

Check out also this piece by the missus comparing Amis favorably with his chum Christopher Hitchens.

Elvis Costello / Martin Amis

Arena, 1991
by Simon Reynolds

Listening to his new album, "Mighty Like A Rose", I had an abrupt insight: Elvis Costello is the Martin Amis of pop. For the people who don't read many books and/or don't listen to many albums anymore, Amis and Costello are the only ones left who dare to go for the grand, over-arching vision of our time. They take the pulse of the age and diagnose the malaise. Nobody else has the ambition or temerity to take on this task, which is why Amis/Costello are seen, by some, as saving graces and solitary saviours.
Amis has made two magnum opus stabs at encapsulating the shittiness of the Eighties in "Money" and "London Fields", with their Dickensian anti-heroes John Self and Keith Talent: repulsive incarnations of the era, pimples on the zeitgeist's backside. Costello, too, has been lunging for the Big Picture's jugular for over a decade. Songs like "Pills and Soap", "Beyond Belief" and "Tokyo Storm Warning" are dystopian panoramas in the tradition of Dylan's  "Desolation Row". His albums are cross-sections of a diseased British body politic, drawing the dots between personal and political squalor, between the husband's brutal fists and the election-winning war ("Armed Forces" was originally titled "Emotional Fascism"). 

 Against this backdrop of degraded private and public language, Amis and Costello dramatise themselves as solitary bulwarks against the "moronic inferno" of popular culture. Amis flinches and shudders at the masturbatory nature of 'remote control' culture (TV, porn, video games). Costello has perennially diatribed against the 'bread and circuses' of tabloid culture, the "chewing gum for the ears" of conveyor belt pop. On his new album, "The Other Side Of Summer" is a predictably vituperative blast against rave culture:  "the dancing was desperate, the music was worse". In Costello's jaundiced eyes, the post-Aciiied scene is merely a culture of consolation, an anaesthetic/amnesiac refuge from an intolerable reality. "Invasion Hit Parade" similarly dramatises Costello as one of the few who refuse to collaborate with the new regime of "non-stop Disco Tex and the Sexolettes".

 For Amis/Costello, one of the reasons the world is in such a state is precisely because no one reads books or listens to albums anymore - or at least the kind of books and the kind of albums that tell you what a state the world is in (precisely the kind they write/record). Both mourn the disappearance of depth in a world of surfaces, slogans and cliches, the withering of attention spans thanks to blip culture. For Amis, the role of the author has been usurped by soap opera, gutter press, even style mags. For Costello, the problem is the decline of the songwriter in the face of a pop culture organised around videos, 12" remixes, the sampler and the dee-jay. In the embattled Amis/Costello worldview, the kind of reader they demand is an endangered species: people who've absorbed a lot of literature, who are schooled in the rock canon, and are thus well-versed enough to get the references that riddle the Amis/Costello ouevre. The prospect of a 'disliterate' population (technically literate, but who never bother to read anything) or, in Costello's case, a rock culture no longer based around the reverential interpretation of lyrics, is terrifying. A future based around TV/video/12 inch rather than novel/album bodes a nightmare world of emotional illiterates, like John Self in "Money" who doesn't have the self-analytical skills to know why he's fucked up, or the teenage girl in "The Other Side of Summer" who's "crying cos she doesn't look like like a million dollars", but "doesn't seem to have the attention span" to work out how media and advertising have messed with her mind.

 In the Amis/Costello universe, stuff is always dying: love, language, truth, the planet are all on their last legs. America has a particularly diabolic status; it's the leading edge of the apocalypse, the original "moronic inferno". The replacement of politics by advertising, the castration of rock'n'roll, a junk culture where porn is the biggest grossing leisure industry, mugging, yuppies, MTV - you name it, the US trailblazed it. Amis and Costello document a Britain slowly succumbing to the crappiest aspects of US mass culture but without the space and the naivete that is America's saving grace. In America, the born-to-run reflex is a safety valve for class antagonisms: people just move on. In Britain, rage festers and turns to bile. Amis/Costello have a vivid grip on the stuffiness of English culture: Amis is good on the modern British pub, stuck between the  fustiness of tradition and the plastic tackiness of the future. Costello could have been a Springsteen, but, growing up in more confined circumstances, became a poet of claustrophobia rather than of wide open spaces.

In their early days, both Costello and Amis were regarded as bitter and twisted misanthropes. Costello talked of how he only understood two emotions, "revenge and guilt"; Amis was reknowned for stories that left a bad taste in the mouth. Although both have mellowed somewhat with age, matured into a more compassionate and humanist outlook, their forte is still the banality of evil and the evil of banality: portraits of bastards, brutes, cheats and crushed inadequates, vividly etched with an insider's insight into what makes a shit tick. Revealingly, neither of them can "do" women. Whether manipulative or manipulated, their female characters are ciphers. Nicola Six, the 'heroine' of "London Fields" is even compared to a black hole, the ultimate misogynist metaphor for the femme fatale/vagina dentata.

But ultimately this misogyny is just a facet of a generally misanthropic worldview. Amis and Costello belong to a peculiarly British strain of the satirical imagination, a tradition that includes Evelyn Waugh, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies and Private Eye. In this fallen world(view), there are no heroes, only shits and shat upon - an odious, privileged minority and the loathsome, downtrodden multitude. "Good' characters aren't admirable, but despicably unwordly and naive, weak and gullible fools like Guy Clinch, the amorous fall guy in "London Fields".

 Amis and Costello give this black, bilious brand of satire an apocalyptic, fin de siecle twist. "London Fields" was at one stage  entitled "Millenium"; new Costello songs like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Up Doomsday" are panoramic panic attacks. Through Amis's  paranoid uppercrust eyes, the Portobello Road is transformed into a  hellzone of lowlife iniquity. Costello's distempered gaze pans across a culture rank with the stench of mendacity, rife with "professional liars" and "perpetual suckers", zombies and bloodsuckers. Like all apocalyptic visions, the Amis/Costello worldview is prone to overstatement, over-ripe imagery, a certain stylistic overkill. And one problem always looms for the professional prophet of doom: how to keep on upping the apocalyptic stakes. Both Amis and Costello's future would seem wedded to further deterioration of the social fabric, to the continued viability of 'The End'.

While "Mighty Like A Rose" suggests Costello is condemned to spurting exquisitely crafted bile in perpetuity, Amis has taken a sideways step towards an obliquer angle on the Big Picture. His work-in-progress "Time's Arrow" (previewed in Granta 31) borrows its premise from science fiction: the protagonist experiences time running backwards through the eyes of an American doctor called Tod Friendly. This has the salutary effect of making our everyday human procedures and transactions seem eerie and absurd: all power and energy mysteriously originates from the toilet bowl, kind-hearted pimps give money to whores who then squander it on old men, doctors make their patients sick and ambulances rush victims from their hospital beds and painstakingly insert them into wrecked cars. Although the device has been used before in science fiction and comics, Amis does it well: after reading the Granta excerpt, it takes a couple of hours for the uncanny feeling of time running in reverse to wear off.

Abandoning the omniscient, God's eye view for a baffled and bemused first person is a smart move for Amis, and timely too. The judgemental gaze (seeing through facades, looking down on folly) is too sneery and know-it-all for these dazed and confused postmodern times. In rock, fewer and fewer people look to a Big Figure, a Dylan or Lennon, to tell them "what's goin' on"; instead of a counter culture, there's an array of undergrounds orbiting a lost centre. Contemporary literature offers not The Truth, but a plethora of worlds each with their own singular truth, partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Still fatally hung up on the notion of author-as-oracle, Amis and Costello ply their magisterial trade in an ever-expanding void. 

The leading edge in contemporary fiction and music aims to mirror chaos, not offer salvation from it (the kaleidophrenic whirl of Don DeLillo's writing, My Bloody Valentine's neo-psychedelia). But this cutting edge can be hard to grasp for those who cling to an oldfashioned idea of art as reinforcer of values or source of guidance. These people still look for an angry voice of sanity. Deploring the waning of literacy and the craft of songwriting, but lacking the energy to keep up with the state of the art, these middlebrow types look to Amis and Costello for reassurance: firstly, that the culture is still deteriorating; secondly, that they are on the side of righteousness. In reality, they're part of the problem.


steevee said...

How much do you still agree with this, re: both Amis and Costello? You can already hear the same bile at the moment's pop culture in "Watching the Detectives," "Radio Radio" and other early Costello songs, but it sounds much better coming from an Angry Young Man than a grumpy middle-aged one.


I agree with it to the extent to which I've never once felt a desire to listen to Mighty Like A Rose again. And in fact I've never wanted to play any record after Punch the Clock. But that's as much to do with his style becoming over-ripe - and the melodies deja vu (all the moves he can make with his voice having already been done with his amazing spurt of great records one after the other, almost unbroken). I do think the shtick - Costello as "angry voice of sanity", scanning the fatuity etc etc of our time - got tiresome. But on those early records, it seems urgent and you can feel that the statements being made after taking place in the very centre of an urgent truth-telling cultural moment (New Wave / postpunk etc).

The power of the statements made are related to the feeling that they are happening in the earshot of large numbers of people. So doing a song like "Oliver's Army" and getting to number 3 and appearing on Top of the Pops several times - it's the same as John Lennon doing "Imagine" or "Instant Karma". But as he gradually slips into a more marginal place in pop, than it starts to seem like railing impotently from the outskirts. "Pills and Soap" - regardless of the actual statement made (apparently he was trying to do his own version of "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash) there's a bit of why-are-you-bothering reaction. Nobody's listening, mate.

I once took a train from Manchester to somewhere else (can't remember) and it stopped at Widnes and I got a little thrill from being momentarily in the place in the lyric of "Oliver's Army" - "from Singapore to Widnes).

I never actually read London Fields, I got about 10 pages in and it already felt like whatever I'd liked about Money had become rococo. There's some great quote that Amis Jnr repeats from Amis Snr - maybe it's in Experience - he asks his dad what he thought about his latest novel, maybe it was Fields or something later - and Kingsley, "not every sentence has to be an explosion". Or maybe it was "like fireworks going off". I thought was a very good put-down of a certain kind of stylistic overkill that the son slipped into. It's more effective if you have some workaday sentences and then some really amazing sentence. It's like a sandwich - you wouldn't enjoy a sandwich if it didn't have bread wrapped around. You wouldn't want a lunch that was just the bits inside the sandwich.

Unknown said...

Love the sandwich metaphor!

Recently read a devastating piece on the passing of Amis Jr by Richard Seymour (who I've always liked) at Jacobin. Def worth a read:

I liked bits and pieces of Martin Amis as a young man but post 9/11 it was very hard for me to stomach some of his more bilious pronouncements. And I know this is unfair, but the expression on his face in photos, especially later in life, had an air of stern judgement, as if he loathed his readership even as he needed them.

Asif S


I think his sneery facial expression had something to do with not wanting to smile and show his teeth, which were in such terrible shape! But it certainly does fit the persona. And also seems to have survived the dental repair work that is so gruesomely depicted in Experience.

Stylo said...

You can get sandwiches without bread. KFC used to do double downs, a chicken sandwich where, instead of bread, they'd have two pieces of fried chicken. I don't know if they still do them.

I suppose Costello and Amis share a focus on their facility with form, as opposed to the straightforward "meaning" of their work. But it's dimensional. Amis advertised several of his novels as zeitgeist, state-of-the-world diagnoses, whereas I have struggled to work out the point of certain Costello albums. Mind, I'm quite a fan of Amis (I reread Money last week upon hearing the news), but not really of Costello, so maybe my view's coloured.