The Amis Papers
Martin Amis deserves a better biography than this.
Taking my cue from Bradford’s scrutiny, I could not help but notice that he sometimes gets so tied up in nots that a curious reversal takes place. Of the creation of Money, Amis informs him that “it would be ridiculous to say I was in a trance. It was not automatic writing.” A page later, Bradford tells us that the book’s narrator, John Self, was created in a “‘trance-like’ bout of ‘automatic writing’”. It makes one wonder about the wider implications of translation into Bradfordese. Did Amis spend his time complaining to the biographer about all the chicks he hadn’t slept with?
By the halfway point any worries about routine infelicities (“We should wonder: what should a novel do for us?”) have given way to the suspicion that Bradford is himself in a trance of inattention. “Popular culture had arrived in all its popular, tasteless and profitable manifestations.” (What would popular culture have been like if it wasn’t popular?) Did Bradford not read what he had written? More to the point, did no one at his publisher? Apparently not, for on page 345 we get a Kafka-esque metamorphosis when Saul Bellow changes, mid-paragraph, into Joseph Heller.
You could argue that this is an oversight, an unfortunate bit of carelessness, and that it is unfair, when reviewing a book whose purpose is to give us the facts, to dwell on stylistic shortcomings. If Bradford were writing the life of a retired admiral, then this mitigating plea might work. As the subject of this biography has pointed out, however, style is not something added after the fact, like nice wrapping paper. It is the thing, the gift, itself. And once the sentences start running away from a writer, everything else goes as well – the writer’s impatience transmits itself to the reader.
I realised that due to my inattentiveness I had read about the composition of Money but had somehow missed the section about its publication and reception. I went back and checked – a larger scale version of the slight check that occurred when reading the book’s first sentence – and discovered: no, in the narrative scheme of the book Amis’s next novel, London Fields, was being left off the Booker shortlist and Money had still not been published.
Naturally, Money features at the end, in a feeble consideration of Amis’s literary “significance”. By then, however, there will be few people left in the house to listen. For every time Bradford quotes some bits from Amis – a few lines from an article, even a drawled response in an interview – they shine so brightly as to cast everything around them into not just darkness, but unrelieved dimness.
Geoff Dyer is the author of books including Working the Room and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.