News

Review: Experience by Martin Amis

The review below was originally published in Red Pepper some time in 2000. I came across it recently while reminiscing with the aid of The Wayback Machine.

The publication in 1995 of his novel The Information was accompanied by a wave of journalistic tattle perhaps unprecedented for a British novelist. The scoop, the skinny was this: Martin Amis had forsaken his longtime agent Pat Kavanagh. So what? Well, Kavanagh happened to be married to none other than Julian Barnes, Amis’s fellow novelist and close friend. Still unimpressed? Get this: he ditched Kavanagh in favour of Andrew Wylie, a shark-like figure famed and feared in the publishing industry for the remorseless tenacity with which he pursues ever more lucrative deals for his charges. The clincher, though, was not the £500,000 advance Wylie was rumoured to have secured for The Information. No, the real sensation was what Amis was said to have spent a dizzying fraction of the money on. Wait for it.

He got his teeth fixed.

The story, it seemed, had everything. It had, at any rate, the serviceable trinity of treachery, avarice and vanity, sins of sufficiently wide currency to propel even a literary novelist into the 48-point notoriety of the tabloids. But it had, of course, been routinely distorted. For some, there was white-hot catharsis in this tale of intellectual might succumbing to the most ordinary of weaknesses, and no nuance that might intervene would survive.

In Experience, Amis sets about coolly subtracting from the scandals to reveal a version of events that conforms to his observation, in an early passage, that life offends the novelist with ‘its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity’. His horrendous dental overhaul, for instance, was provoked not by a mid-life quest after an imago with impeccable pearly-whites, but by the discovery, after years of timorous procrastination, of a tumour.

But the book is no mere screed of vindication. Amis’s press ordeal was as quotidian as it was injurious, and its rebuttal is not unnecessarily protracted. Nor is he so susceptible to slight as to have been sent lurching to the bureau by the teeth affair alone. In approaching the autobiographical dredge of the psyche, his main preoccupations are disarmingly universal. ‘I do it,’ he writes, ‘because I feel the same stirrings that everyone else feels’.

The best of you is still here, and I still have it.

If one urge is foremost, it is Amis’s apparently straightforward wish to commemorate his late father. Kingsley Amis, of course, was himself a celebrated novelist; Amis fils introduces their relationship as ‘a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son’. Here is a writer of formidable gifts, then, paying tribute to another, but here too is a son who bore a complicated love for a father who could oscillate between gregarious hilarity and remote petulance. Nor can the strands be fully separated. The younger Amis has an intimate knowledge of his father’s œuvre, and his close readings (which are admittedly partisan, but far from uniformly reverent) often give way, without sharp demarcation, to anecdote or reminiscence, as the child reclaims the vanished parent by means of this purest of communions. ‘The best of you is here,’ he affirms, ‘and I still have it’.

A loss that could not be mediated by a literary legacy was that of Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington. Lucy’s remains were discovered in the house of Frederick West in 1994. She had disappeared in 1973. The absence of this adored figure, pensive and gifted, recurs in Amis’s recollections like an ache. The possible magnitude of her suffering at West’s hands haunts him. He is much concerned with innocence and its extinction (he has long insisted that Paradise Lost is ‘the central poem in our language’), and Lucy Partington, whose innocence was cancelled out by its appalling opposite, becomes the focus of these meditations.

Towards the beginning of his memoir, Martin Amis, a writer of unique power to polarise opinion with his knowing stylistic swagger, lets it be known that he has undertaken to write, for the first time, ‘without artifice’. He does not mean, of course, that he will abandon all formality and hose the reader with unchecked consciousness. In fact, Experience is more formally exquisite than ever, with instances of the familiar linguistic brilliance almost distracting in their frequency. What he means is that he will abstain from the comforting devices of fiction and confront life in all its crazed variety. He has done so, and produced a work of seductive candour and considerable emotional weight.

We Are Scattering the Crows

Be it therefore enacted by the Oireachtas as follows:

Article 41 of the Constitution is hereby amended as follows:

Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.

— Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015, ratified by constitutional referendum on 22 May, 2015.

What the Spellchecker Saw

In Which a Young Novelist of Feeling Makes Certain Confessions

Earlier this week, I was preparing to send a near-final draft of my novel, The Maker of Swans, to my editor. Before doing so, I performed a series of checks designed to ensure that the manuscript was free of errors. I’m fastidious about this sort of thing at the best of times, but at this stage of the process my rituals of textual hygiene occupy that shadowy region between rigorous professional habits and extravagant coping mechanisms.

In any case, one of the rituals I perform before sending out the manuscript is something I call a ‘flushed spellcheck’. That is, before running the spellcheck, I disable the custom dictionary to which I have added all the words that the spellchecker has–legitimately or otherwise–failed to recognise.

I use Microsoft Word, and its British English dictionary, while perfectly adequate for most purposes, doesn’t appear to have any grand ambitions in the matter of comprehensiveness. It’s pocked with missing entries–lacunae that are sometimes defensible (the OED also favours tranquillity, though tranquility, as is evident to all but the most depraved of sensibilities, is infinitely more graceful), but more often merely scandalising (the use of stockinged may attract certain criticisms, but whimsical novelty isn’t one of them).

To suppress the false positives that the spellchecker would otherwise report (I can think of almost nothing so nakedly inflammatory as a wavy red line under a refined but blameless lexical item), it becomes necessary to add these exotic word choices to a custom dictionary as they arise. The decision to click on Add to dictionary is usually arrived at with a certain brisk confidence (oh, come on, Word–what are you like?), but over the course of a hundred thousand words or so, there are going to be some marginal calls. There are going to be occasions when one acts not out of rectitude, but out of simple expediency (oh, just fuck off, Word).

In this way, a corpus of exceptions is accumulated that the spellchecker dutifully refers to each time it is invoked. This is a generally satisfactory state of affairs, but as one approaches the completion of a longish piece of work, a certain waning of confidence is perhaps inevitable. What if there were times when my judgement wavered? What if there were times when I told Word to fuck off not because I was filled with righteous rage at its latest assault on the sanctity of the language, but because I really needed a wee?

It is in such circumstances that the need for the flushed spellcheck arises. While disabling my custom dictionary the other evening, I took a few moments to scroll through it. At one level (the important and sane level), it’s just ephemeral metadata, of no conceivable interest to anyone but me. At another level, though–and this is the level I actually inhabit–it’s a fascinating artefact, like an ice core drilled from my own accreted language. It’s a sample that has been excised by means of more or less arbitrary criteria, yet one which manages to be oddly revealing about the novel from which it was extracted; about its diction (that starchy proprietress; that pleasureless, with its effortful suggestion of languor), about its aspirations (Poussin and Fauré–well, excuse me) and about its author’s weakness for certain stylistic tics (that excruciating concordance of un- words).

Still, I present it here in the spirit of philological candour, and in the hope that this kind of mortification may lead to some infinitesimal self-improvement. Make of it what you will.

ain’t

birthright

bucketfuls

Casaubons

curtainless

douter

er

Fauré

fissioning

Gallicas

halm

hup

innit

Ish

J’accuse

lakewater

lastness

lorryload

mistle

Mmm

nebulosa

orrery

palmful

parlourmaids

Pétrus

pewtery

pleasureless

Porlock

Poussin

priestlike

proprietress

ramsons

Raquin

recrossing

regather

rejoins

reknotted

res

ribboned

riverworthy

scritch

seatless

stockinged

sweetnesses

teaspoonfuls

Thérèse

thruppence

tongueless

tranquility

unbraids

unclimb

uncurtained

underglow

unfast

unflexes

ungathered

unignorable

unmeditated

unresting

unruptured

unshuttered

unswollen

untempered

unwarmed

unweaves

unwinged

Weidenfeld

For Seamus Heaney, August 2013

When Seamus Heaney died, I wrote the lines below on Twitter in improvised tribute. I didn’t think they amounted to much, formally, so I was all the more flattered when Liz Nugent chose them for this piece in The Irish Times.

You did this. You showed us we were right to think it our own, the language we found gleaming in ditches, the leavings of queens.

You paced out the avenue, took your ease in the drawing room. And this the home of the statesman, the trembling mage, the fairy-fancier.

When you opened the cabinets, certain items stilled you. A thick hilt, crumbed in fast blood. You passed over opera glasses, posied plates.

You went over old ground, down two spits. Past the sweet tilth to the cold, sharded glut. To hoe blades, dim chalices, back teeth.

You were garlanded, and yet the least bedecked. You scored the rich hems of cardinals. Listened for the flit and thud, the dagger drop.

You smoothed out the unwritten leaf. Felt it chaste as sick day sheets. Of one weave with summer dresses, with the tatters after bombs.

Then the Night

The tweets collected below form an occasional if loosely structured series. They are generally composed late at night and it is difficult, in any given case, to rule out some degree of impairment on the part of the author. The attentive reader will also discern certain formal and thematic recurrences.

[These are drunk tweets. They’re basically all the same. — Ed.]

W&N Acquires The Maker of Swans

The trade announcement below originally appeared in The Bookseller.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson has acquired a gothic literary novel by Irish writer Paraic O’Donnell.

Deputy publishing director Arzu Tahsin bought UK and Commonwealth rights to The Maker of Swans, O’Donnell’s debut, from Lucy Luck at Aitken Alexander Associates.

Described as “both a dark, lyrical thriller and an allegory of the power and limits of art”, The Maker of Swans follows Eustace, the faithful but disillusioned servant to the gifted Mr Crowe, a man who was once the toast of the finest salons.

Now, the pair live amid the fading splendor of the Estate, where Mr Crowe’s great library gathers dust and his magnificent gardens grow wild.

With them lives Clara, a young girl who doesn’t speak, but who possesses gifts of her own, the extent of which are hidden even from herself.

Tahsin described The Maker of Swans as “an absolutely enchanting and magical novel and so beautifully written”.

“Paraic O’Donnell’s extraordinary imagination inhabits every page. I was mesmerised from the first to the last page,” she added.

The Maker of Swans will be published in April 2016.

Synaesthesia

It’s nothing really, just

a way of treasuring
things, a feasting

on the bright
world that borders

on the pathological,
on the unseemly

maw of wet nerves,
the gape that swallows

every spine, tingles even
in the absence

of signal, lusts for
every fluke of noise

covets wave
and particle alike

collapsing always,
coming home drunk

or high and falling
asleep in that deep

plexus
where all our seemings cross

where the overspill
was the light under

overpasses, was the solace
of amethysts
and deep kissing

where the numbers
of your birthday

were—write this down—
magnesium almost
and chlorophyll

and something like honey.

Proximity

 

The other lives are closest
in the heat. When we unshutter
the house, when sleep comes

and goes in the skin warmth
of the garden, even barefoot
and in its lightest shift.

There is a passing between.
Somewhere in the close fugue
of musk and clockwork.

Somehow, the spored dark
is punctured—a tiny syncope,
the merest finch-heart lull.

The knowing bursts in us.
A seed-split, then a tender
vining of lobes, the fibres

tonguing upwards, shudder
to completeness, unsealing us,
in surges, from elsewhere.

How else do I know,
like the nape and milk-breath
of my dreaming child

what it was to bear peonies
for all those last miles?
In the silvering dead

of the waded spate, to hold
still and nurture a goblet
of unexploded softness

to weaken almost enough,
but at her father’s door,
even with unraised eyes

to see, at last, her unseen white

to taste her rust

her deep and vanished red.

Satan’s Little Pony

I improvised this piece on Twitter. It’s about an unfortunate incident involving Satan’s horse.

In hindsight, of course, Satan seems an obviously poor choice when forming an owners’ syndicate for Cheltenham. I’m too trusting, I suppose.

Quite aside from being an archetypal cock, it turns out that Satan knows, in his own words, ‘perilously close to fuck-all’ about horses.

‘Take this early exchange, for instance.

‘Satan? Paraic. What ho?’

‘Oh, you know. One ducks, one dives.’

‘It was ever thus.’

‘Testify.’

‘So, Satan, old thing. Someone’s dropped out of our syndicate, and the leg of a very promising mare is going a-begging. What say you?’

‘A horse? It’s sweet of you, but I’ve been mostly vegan since Annette Bening joined us.’

‘Annette Bening is dead?’

‘I didn’t say that.’

These misunderstandings being overcome, a suitable bargain was at length struck in respect of said promising mare. Satan was in.

It wasn’t long, however, before fresh cracks of mistrust appeared in the edifice of my partnership with the Lord of the Flies.

The horse’s name, for instance, soon attracted Satan’s displeasure. He was resistant to the notion that a degree of whimsy is de rigueur.

‘What the fuck kind of name,’ Satan wondered aloud, ‘is Belinda’s Dimples?’

‘You dislike the touch of gaiety?’

‘Generally speaking, yes.’

‘Whimsical names are quite the done thing, I assure you.’

‘Perhaps. But there is my position. One requires a certain…gravitas.’

‘Well, what would you suggest?’

‘The Splendour of Agony.’

‘Mmm. The thing is, Satan. It isn’t normally done to change a mount’s name.’

‘The Lodestar of Despond, then.’

‘Punters, in my experience, will tend to shy away from a runner called The Lodestar of Despond.’

‘I am as ancient as silence. I have dominion over every crawling thing. I am not appearing in the parade ring with ‘Belinda’s Dimples’.’

‘She’s named for Belinda Carlisle, you know.’

‘Shut up. Seriously? My chambers have been immeasurably brightened by Ms Carlisle’s arrival.’

‘Belinda Carlisle is dead?’

‘Again, not what I said. I do get to Vegas now and then, you know.’

We let the matter drop.

The real trouble, though, began when Belinda’s Dimples was felled by a sausage roll at a RoadChef off the M5.

This latter incident has, of course, come to be known as the Sausage Roll Heard Around the World.

Everyone has a theory about how that sausage roll came to be lodged in Belinda’s Dimples’ visual cortex. The truth is that we’ll never know.

What we do know is that when news of the untimely passing of his Cheltenham hope reached Satan, his demeanour was other than sanguine.

‘What the actual fuck?’

‘Satan. Yeah, hi. Listen–‘

‘You listen. I dropped two hundred large on a now-deceased lady horse. Discuss.’

‘Look. About that–‘

‘About fuck. I gave you a block of euro notes you could kill a dolphin with. I want it back. 48 hours.’

‘Satan, please. I lost a friend today.’

‘For a good extinction, I might get popcorn. Might. You and your she-pony? Do me a favour.’

And that, as it were, was that. We were cut off when Satan’s Range Rover went into a tunnel. And that wasn’t a euphemism. Not this time.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Just pay Satan his 200 k. Or, if you’re temporarily embarrassed, make it good on the gee-gees. Chin up.

Under normal circumstances, I might have steered just such a course. In this case, however, matters were complicated by Pippa Middleton.

I was obliged, for the preservation of Ms Middleton’s honour, to purchase a poultry farm near Tewkesbury. More than this I cannot disclose.

Given that I was over 150 grand to the good by Ladies’ Day, the acuity of the tragic contours will not escape the reader.

This is not to mention that the ‘poultry farm’ near Tewkesbury turned out to be a lay-by inhabited by three chickens and a poltergeist.

It was not, then, entirely unforeshadowed that I might be bundled into a crossover vehicle and conveyed to Satan’s ranch near Navan.

I say ‘crossover vehicle’. You’d think, if anyone has a Range Rover Evoque, it’s Satan, right? But no. A Nissan fucking Qashqai.

‘A fucking *Qashqai*?’ I managed. ‘This is the respect I get? And what the fuck colour do you call this? Rubex?’

‘Sedate him.’

I come to in a pine-effect jacuzzi. I become aware of a number of hysterical spaniels immediately to starboard.

‘The fuck?’

‘Darling,’ says Satan. ‘You look amaze. Where’s my fucking wad?’

‘Mwah,’ I say. ‘About that.’

‘Current.’

The world becomes pain.

I regain consciousness amid a dainty flotilla of spaniel turds.

‘I can do this all day,’ Satan says. ‘Render unto Lucifer.’

And there, mortifyingly, I remain to this day. Internet access is permitted because Satan wants me to ‘crowd source’ the 200 large.

I never hear from Pippa.

Ballooning with Dolly

An improvised tweet sequence about ballooning with Dolly Parton. I’m afraid I have no idea.

Ah, these evenings. One thinks of the vanished summers, of the receding glories of youth. Like the time I went ballooning with Dolly Parton.

Yes, I still think of it with tenderness. I was a keyboard roadie for Jean-Michel Jarre, and Ms Parton’s LearJet was grounded in Biarritz.

I suppose that sounds terribly glamorous, but Jean-Michel, in those days, had 87 keyboard roadies and a substantial flotilla of balloons.

In fact, I rarely glimpsed the great man. My job was mostly lugging Moogs and keeping the condensation off while crossing the Alps.

Thus it was that I came to be casting disconsolately about for Mah Jongg partners in the foyer of the Hôtel du Palais.

Jean-Michel was unveiling a fourteen-hour concerto for laser glockenspiel at a local festival and I had finished my Danielle Steel novel.

There I was, then. Alone with my Mah Jongg set and my pistachio habit, a figure hardly likely to trespass upon the sphere of a goddess.

‘Why, honey,’ said a voice from within a nimbus of Chanel and zirconia, ‘if that ain’t the loneliest Mah Jongg table I ever did see.’

I stood, scattering pistachio shells and lurid paperbacks.

‘Ms…Ms Parton? Do you–?’

‘Play? Oh, surely. Well, normally leastways.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘So, you wouldn’t care to–no, I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re–‘

‘Aw hush. Like I said, sugar. Normally, I would in a heartbeat.’

At this point, Ms Parton sank morosely into the armchair opposite, a reproduction Louis XV.

‘Can I offer you–perhaps a little–?’

‘That’s sweet of you, darling, but–ain’t they dinky, these little Barbie chairs? I’m afraid I’m a little preoccupied, as you might say.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Yup. Having myself a regular off night. But what am I doing, unburdening myself on a strange gentleman?’

I was momentarily dizzied by Ms Parton’s turn of phrase.

‘No, please,’ I said, recovering. ‘Feel free to–I’d be happy to help with your burdens.’

Ms Parton put down her handbag. It was mesmerising. Like a diamond-encrusted badger.

‘Well, the thing of it is, darling, I’m grounded.’

‘Grounded?’

‘Grounded. Old Tertius, you see, my LearJet pilot–‘

‘Tertius?’

‘Tertius Culvert. He’s from Tampa. You know him?’

‘I don’t think–‘

‘His daddy worked for 3M, I think it was. Invented some kind of shorthand robot. Fine people.’

‘I’ve heard of 3M.’

‘You have? Well, bless you. Anyway, Tertius had himself a big old aneurysm and he ain’t exactly airworthy.’

‘That’s terrible. Is he–?’

‘Oh, he’s going to be fine. But the doctors say he can’t go above giraffe altitude for six weeks.’

‘Not high enough?’

‘Well, honey, I got to get to Trondheim by morning, and you can’t do that at giraffe altitude without hurting a bunch of folks.’

The next moment was one I still look back on in wonder. I stood, and with awkward ceremony, I offered her my elbow.

‘Ms Parton–‘

‘Dolly, honey.’

‘Ms Part–Dolly. Your balloon to Trondheim awaits.’

She regarded me unreadably. Then she slapped her hip.

‘Why not, gosh darn it? Chocks away!’

As we crossed the foyer, a dowager countess and her Pomeranian entered, admitting a breeze. Dolly’s hair stirred.

Everything glittered.

Such nights as those are given to us only once. Over Luxembourg, Dolly offered to jettison her Fabergé cardigan as excess ballast.

‘I won’t hear of it,’ I bellowed, dumping pieces of synthesiser overboard. ‘This is the spare Moog Modular. He’s never even played it.’

Of course, there were things I might have done differently. No one chooses to behead a pregnant zebra with Frenchman’s keyboard amplifier.

But those were different times. We were over Hamburg and there was no GPS in those days. I thought it was an S&M theme park, not a zoo.

Over the North Sea, we warmed ourselves around a promotional sparkler. I attempted ‘Jolene’, may God forgive me. Dolly giggled benignly.

As we neared Jutland, Dolly retired for the evening, bedding down without complaint among the propane canisters and the flight cases.

‘I do have a show tomorrow,’ she said sleepily. ‘But y’all carry on. I like it.’

And I did. I carried on. Softly but resolutely, I sang.

I sang to the sea, to the cold that only gulls know. I sang to the oil rigs, to the scattered birthday of flames in all that mortal grey.