Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Amis of Old

The only book I brought with me on this trip -- because I was late running out my door and took an incredibly neurotic amount of time just to choose this one -- is The War Against Cliché, a collection of reviews and essays by Martin Amis. The breathless headline on the back cover reads, “Is there anything that Martin Amis can’t write about?”

Michiko Kakutani certainly thinks so. In Tuesday's New York Times, she capped off her review of Amis’ latest collection of essays with this paragraph:
Indeed “The Second Plane” is such a weak, risible and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes it convinced that Mr. Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism, as he’s thoroughly discredited himself with these essays as any sort of political or social commentator.
(“Weak, risible and often objectionable” is a great anti-blurb. I might try to collect those and have a contest for the best at the end of the year.)

It might be true that Amis has lost a bit of humor and is more narrowly obsessed since 9/11. He has company. But this best-of features a lot of his strengths, which are considerable. I’m not reading it in succession, but after about 75 combined pages, the first tour de force is his reading of It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton, which ran in London’s Sunday Times in 1996. It’s good enough on its own, but particularly entertaining in the midst of our endless primary season.

Amis begins with a brief character sketch that rings true:
...Mrs. Clinton is the most unpopular First Lady ever; and, more substantively, she is the first First Lady to stand before a grand jury. She is clearly the brightest and ablest of her line. And, in all senses, she is the most exposed. As the author of the failed health-care plan, Hillary assumed quasi-ministerial power while remaining unelected and unaccountable. ... She came to Washington, with her new broom, and the institutions duly defeated and deformed her.
Then he chews on the book itself:
If this book had been written by someone with a different address, then of course I wouldn’t be reviewing it. And neither would anybody else. A chatty manual about raising children along voluntarist and communitarian lines, it might have got a mention in the Times Educational Supplement, or in Pregnancy magazine. But, as the jacket copy patiently explains, Hillary Rodham Clinton is ‘America’s First Lady’; ‘she lives in the White House with the President and their daughter, Chelsea’. ... At no point did I find myself questioning the benignity of the author’s original impulse; indeed, the book is as sincere, in its way, as anything I’ve ever managed to finish.
In the book's foreword, Amis writes that, "Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power." Luckily, he hadn't yet tired of the corruption by 1990, when the Independent ran his review of The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, which begins like this:
The Green Movement needs a holy book. So does Viking Penguin. So do I. So do we all. Our need survives The End of Nature, in which Bill McKibben fails to fulfill the rolling prophecies of his publicity kit. The book is honest, decent, salutary; also largely unresonant. Also callow, and painfully stretched. Perhaps one ought to be easier to please than usual, when the subject is the death of everything.
Then there's this, in a review of Andy Warhol's diaries:
It would be hard work, and a waste of energy, to do much disapproving of Andy Warhol. He doesn’t take himself seriously enough for that -- or for anything else. It is worth remarking that at no point does he say anything interesting (or even non-ridiculous) about art. He’ll mention having ‘a good art idea’ or attending ‘an art party’; he’ll mention that ‘art is big now.’
Lastly (and best), Amis compares the opposite temperaments of Samuel Beckett and John Updike:
Beckett was the headmaster of the Writing as Agony school. On a good day, he would stare at the wall for eighteen hours or so, feeling entirely terrible; and, if he was lucky, a few words like NEVER or END or NOTHING or NO WAY might brand themselves on his bleeding eyes. Whereas Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think-pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlets and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem -- but can they hang on? Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.


Blogger Andrew said...


"Lazy and perverse."

Daniel Mendelsohn on Franzen's THE DISCOMFORT ZONE.,%20Jonathan&_r=1

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh please let's have an anti-blurb contest. Do they have to come from real reviewers, or do anti-blurbs from book "review" bloggers count as well?

Also, shouldn't we all wage the war against cliche every day? Who needs peace when there are cliches convening around ever corner ready to squelch our imaginations and puff up small talk into faux big-talk?

9:18 PM  

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