Experience the Difference

Martin Amis' Experience

Experience the Difference

Martin Amis' Experience

Experience the Difference
New books dissected over email.
May 31 2000 7:16 PM

Martin Amis' Experience

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Andy,

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I can't continue where you ended because I hope you'd do the same for me.

The literal reader--in England or America--will no doubt pick up Martin Amis' new book and read "Martin Amis Experience," as if it were, like the Dame Edna Experience, an extravaganza. On the spine they will read--on the American edition--"Experience Martin Amis," as if this, like a catch phrase for an airline ad currently doing the rounds on TV, was an invitation to "Experience the Difference." Then, they will see "Memoir" and think autobiography, and though the book in their hands is about love and about loss, they will say Experience is partly about teeth, but mainly about English social life and chitchat. And don't all English people have rotten teeth, anyway. You could say, quite fairly, that this is John Leonard's conclusion in the New York Times Book Review. Well, yes, there's about a lot about England in Experience, but it's an England that's seen from far off, though lived close-up. More narrowly, it's a memoir of three years in the mid-1990s, a period that Amis describes as his "mid-life crisis." The end of a marriage, his father's death, the removal of "battlements"--that's teeth--the discovery of his murdered cousin's remains, and a good many other losses as well. A lot happens and it happens very quickly.

Amis is brilliant at writing about himself--his self-consciousness, his fears, his hatreds. About his post-University years in London:

My headaches and faceaches (and my vestigially sebum-rich complexion) made me feel like a student. There was still the suspicion, despite all the current evidence, that you would not only fail but actually go under. Perhaps everybody had this: Christopher Hitchens called it "tramp dread."

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On his fear of losing his teeth, which was, until his operation, a lifelong fear:

I sometimes believed that sex and teeth would be coterminous. Love would end. In some of my more tremulous fantasies I thought that I would slip out of the country and head off to a land--Albania? Uzbekistan? South Wales?--where no one had any teeth either.

But there are two Martin Amises in Experience--maybe a third if you count the Index ("Caribbean, as recreational slum," "climacteric, defined," "crocodile, dental problems of"). There's the narrator and there's the commentator who sits at the bottom of the page making contributions, interventions, observations about literature, or as on Page 146, expanding on his own character and that of Kingsley Amis.

This was another film [Psycho] that had a notable effect on my father. I was especially pumped up for it, after this conversation with my mother a year earlier:

--Mum. Why is Dad following you about and making you go to the bathroom with him?
--Because we saw a very frightening film last night.
--What was it about?
-- ... It's about a man who thinks he's his mother.

Her answer satisfied me. I thought: Yes. That would do it.

Actually, there's a fourth Martin Amis: the teen-ager, Mart, whose letters to his father and stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard, intersperse the first third of the book. This, from February 1968.

On to the literary syndrome (yawn). I've decided that translations really must be a good idea after reading "Exile's Letter" by Ezra Pound, who, I admit, isn't often awfully edifying.

Well, see you in five weeks time then. Alright? Right Goodnight (Alan Freeman's Catch Phrase).

Lots of Love then, and write soon,
Mart

By the way I'm reading "The Outsider" by Albert Camus (pronounced: Albong Camwow)

So, in a sense, Experience is an Extravaganza. It's also very Different. But yes, Andy, it's about love and death, and about a father and son whose relationship was unique and not just because they were novelists. Perhaps we should write about that tomorrow.

Yours ever,
Inigo

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This week, a discussion of Experience: A Memoir, by Martin Amis (click here to buy it and here to read an excerpt). Andrew O'Hagan is the author, most recently, of Our Fathers (click here to buy it). Inigo Thomas is master of Slate's "Omnivore" column.