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Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
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Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
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My Name is Red -
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The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
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Spreading Misandry
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The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000
By Martin Amis (Talk Miramax Books)


Once described by the New York Times as "a novelist with acid in his inkwell," Martin Amis has never been interested in making friends. Both his fiction and literary journalism have always featured a snarling sensibility grounded in a lifetime of voluminous reading, along with the firm conviction in the absolute inviolability of what he is saying.

In the mid-90's, Amis generated a rabid storm of publicity by having his famously mangled (but typically English) teeth fixed, leaving his wife for another woman and signing a megabuck book deal; but even without having done this, he would still reign, along with cohort Christopher Hitchens, as one of the bad boys of contemporary literature. Not that there is a lot of competition for the title in the buttoned-down, Ivy League-tenured state of contemporary letters. When Jonathan Franzen can turn the publishing world on its ear by simply saying that he doesn't want to go on Oprah, it's readily apparent that there isn't a whole lot of guile left in the literary community. It almost makes you long for the return of a younger Norman Mailer to run
for mayor and stab a wife or two...

Almost.

Also Reviewed This Month:
Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace -
Gore Vidal

Tishomongo Blues -
Elmore Leonard

Look at Me
by Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
by Jon Ronson

While working as an editorial assistant and finishing his early novels The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies, Amis, whose father, Kingsley, was celebrated enough to make his son a scion to literary life, wrote book reviews for The Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman. Many of the reviews contained in the book come from these early days, but there are also newer pieces from The Independent, The Observer, and The Atlantic Monthly. One can surmise from these early reviews that, as early as his early 20's, Amis was one of those rare creatures who managed to establish his voice at an early age, and has strayed little in the ensuing years. Moving up the ladder from struggling young writer trying to escape the shadow of his famous father to the accomplished writer of today, the one thing that ties his early reviews together which his more recent ones is that throughout his career, he has never shown any inclination to practice the art of the objective review. Time and again, Amis aims his arrows and lets them fly with the all the acuity that his prodigious talent allows. Often from the first few lines, it's easy to discern whom Amis likes and whom he considers a great waster of ink and paper. Saul Bellow, both Naipaul brothers, J.G. Ballard (of Crash: "possibly the most extreme example in modern fiction of how beautifully and lovingly someone can write 70,000 words of vicious nonsense"), Elmore Leonard, Philip Larkin and John Updike are some of those he heaps praise upon. Let us not forget, in our list making, Mr. Nabakov, over whom Amis gushes at every chance, particularly in the last pages of the book, which is a fawning treatise on Lolita: "In a sense Lolita is too great for its own good.", "No narrator in literature, I think, goes on about his physical splendor as passionately and comically as the narrator of Lolita."

He may be right in this last assertion, but it smacks of the kind of editorializing Amis dreams of
catching in someone else's prose, the easier to cut the writer down a notch or two.

Amis considers reading an art, and rightly so. "When we read, we are doing more than delectating words on a page, ¦we are communicating with the mind of the author." he says in a 1997 piece on Saul Bellow. As such, there are two traits Amis insists a work have in order to be deemed worthy of the adroit reader's gaze, and he treats both time and again with the same intensity. The first is a writer's use of grammar, and the second is the raw emotional impact of the prose itself. The grammatical aberrations he finds in some works and his disgust at having to point them out has no doubt made some editors weep: ''Even in the interests of pseudo-elegant variation, you cannot start a clause with a 'which' and then switch to a 'that.' '', or when he makes a plea in defense of expanded usage of the semicolon, which he claims is a foreign concept to the younger generations. Few contemporary reviewers can (or want to) write as passionately and convincingly of prepositions and clauses as Amis. Of course, Amis' own prose is packed
so tight, infused with so much emotive Strum und Drang that he is one of the elite group who can justifiably launch such criticisms while not fearing a flank attack from someone finding his own work thusly flawed, imperfect as his (or anyone's) body of work.

Amis doesn't just obsess over literature, though. He seems to actually have interests outside of the insular world of letters. One of the more entertaining pieces in the book is piece on soccer -- specifically, the breathless expectation any soccer fan whose team faces possible elimination from the World Cup qualifying rounds knows. He also touches on chess, nuclear weapons, poker and takes an early stab at the Guinness Book of World records.

While Amis has garnered as much criticism as praise, he's fundamentally right in treating the writing game is a battle. It's a battle between asserting grandiose notions of the Self (and therefore losing the audience in an exercise in navel-gazing) and losing the Self in the creation of the prose. Not only this, however, it's also a battle to create something new within the finite realm of language. Those who rely on cliche commit a mortal sin by giving up the fight before it even gets started. Unfortunately, much of what passes for writing relys on tired cliche and de facto plagarism to try and make its way in the world. Indeed, as Amis says in his review of Crichton's The Lost World, in the jungle of the world of leters: "Out there, beyond the foliage, you see herds of cliches, roaming free."

- Paul McLeary

 

 


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