Martin Amis, the novelist, polarizes readers. Some, such as this one, relish his ambition and his audacity — his big ideas, scurrilous notions, coruscating wit and inventive phrasings. Others view his novels in a different light, recognizing chutzpah instead of boldness, trickery instead of artistry, and excess instead of exuberance.
He is certainly unique. Only Amis could title a novel “Dead Babies.” Only Amis could write about a “murderee” in search of her murderer (“London Fields”) or a Nazi war criminal whose life story runs backwards (“Time’s Arrow”).
But Amis has more than one string to his bow. There is also Amis the nonfiction writer. Those who are riled or left cold by his novels would be wrong to dismiss him altogether. “The Moronic Inferno” (1987) and “The War Against Cliché” (2001) — to pick just two nonfiction offerings out of six — showcase the author’s fierce intellect, mordant humor and critical eye as he explores and dissects people and places, writers and books.
“The Rub of Time” is the latest collection of nonfiction, and serves as a must-have anthology for Amis aficionados and a worthy best-of compilation for everyone else. The discursive prose within — essays, articles, reviews, reportage — dates from 1994 to the present. All pieces were previously published in the likes of the New Yorker and the Guardian. The majority continue to stimulate, illuminate and, above all, entertain.
The book covers a range of diverse topics. Before we get to them, though, we have the opener “He’s Leaving Home,” Amis’ candid response — and scathing riposte — to the critics who scorned him for traitorously turning his back on England to settle in America, supposedly “the HQ of arrogance and glitz.”
Sections on politics straddle both sides of the Atlantic and encompass a character assassination of Donald Trump and his “cornily neon-lit vulgarity,” and a hatchet job on his bestseller books. The “Americana” section contains a riveting piece on gambling in Vegas and an eye-opening (and eye-watering) investigation into the porn industry.
Equally revealing are the “Personal” sections in which we find Amis responding — sometimes querulously — to readers’ questions, or recounting a book tour, or painting an affectionate portrait of his father, Kingsley, and his love of language. Unexpected yet by no means unwelcome subjects include sport, John Travolta and the House of Windsor. Particularly moving is an extended tribute to Amis’ fallen friend Christopher Hitchens.
Needless to say, the most immersive essays here are those on literature. Each of the three “Twin Peaks” sections gives an essay apiece on Amis’ literary lodestars Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow. Further scrutiny is lavished on Philip Roth, John Updike, Philip Larkin and Jane Austen.
Again and again Amis reinforces his points with eloquence and persuasiveness, utilizing backup quotes, sharp insight and a raft of memorable descriptions (“Rambo, that lethal trapezium of organ meat”). Provocative and thought-provoking, this is nonfiction with heft and bite.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Rub of Time
By: Martin Amis.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 392 pages, $28.95.