Martin Amis - The War Against Cliche

These are ambivalent times for the Amis acolyte. A new long novel has been the subject of heated rumour for some time (the magical words "Martin Amis - Novel" even, briefly, appeared on Amazon's pre-release list in 1999) and is long overdue. However, fans have had few causes for complaints of lethargy or neglect: the rousingly titled War Against Cliche is Amis's third book in as many years, hard on the heels of the short story collection Heavy Water (1999) and the surprisingly tender autobiography Experience (2000). The Amis purple patch seems set to continue with a long essay on Stalinism, scheduled for 2002.

Cliche is a collection of Amis's book reviews and spans the period from 1973 to the present day. What is immediately apparent, and illuminates the entire book, is Amis's enthusiasm for literature, and a sense that this stuff is important. Worthy novels are lavishly praised. Junk, or trex, is given a good kicking. Great relish is taken in tracking the career path of the novelist: Norman Mailer's crippling alimony bills forcing a ridiculous prolificacy; Malcolm Lowrey's one novel heralding a terrible alcohol-induced decline ("he once drank a whole bottle of olive oil mistakenly thinking it was hair tonic"); D. M. Thomas, after years of neglect and penury, celebrating a hit US novel with a bottle of cooking sherry and a weekend in Anglesey, before embarking on a torrid affair with Margaret Drabble, compiler of the Oxford Guide to English Literature (the mind boggles).

We can tentatively place Amis's criticism as Leavisite in that a clear belief in the EngLit canon is central to the reviews (and is even reflected in the section titles: 'Great Works', 'From the Canon'). He is constantly trying to categorise and classify (interested readers should seek out the memorable analysis of reading material on a translatlantic flight in The Information). Novels are graded A (traditional: having plot, characters, motivation, etc. - War and Peace, say) and B (wilfully experimental, "spunkier and more subversive" - Ulysses). Novelists are compared to sportsmen, memorably in the case of Nabakov and Joyce as tennis pros:

Joyce appeared to be cruising about on all surfaces at once, and maddeningly indulged his trick shots on high-pressure points - his drop smash, his sidespun half-volley lob. Nabakov just went out there and did the business, all litheness, power and touch. Losing early in the French (say), Joyce would be off playing exhibitions in Casablanca with various arthritic legends, and working on his inside-out between-the-legs forehand dink; whereas Nabakov and his entourage would quit the rusty dust of Roland Garros for somewhere like Hull or Nailsea, to prepare for Wimbledon on our spurned and sodden grass.

or in the case of Borges and V S Pritchett

If fiction is imagined as a globe, with realism at its equatorial belt, then Borges occupies a spectral citadel in the North Pole, while Pritchett sweats and smarts in the tropics.

Often the quality of prose in Amis's reviews outclasses the books themselves. Taking Andrew Harvey to task for a lazy description of Indian dogs ("mangy flearidden dogs nosing for food in the gutters"), Amis casually tosses off the following: "Indian dogs are in fact highly distinctive creatures: they look like abruptly promoted rats, bemused by their sudden elevation, and pining for a quiet return to the rodent kingdom". To borrow the sports metaphor, it's like a little kid splashing around in the shallow end only to be drenched in the bow wave of Ian Thorpe, kicking out a 100 length training run before breakfast.

There is much to be learnt here in comparing the two sections "Some English (i.e. British) prose" and "Some American prose". Initially BritLit seems to be adequately represented at the forefront of the avant-garde: J G Ballard, Anthony Burgess and (heading towards the mainstream) Iris Murdoch. But there is a clear lack of depth. We are quickly into minor figures (Angus Wilson), rapid depreciation merchants (C P Snow) and airport-literature (Fay Weldon). It is perhaps a pity that Amis hasn't been tasked with reviewing the vibrant new generation of UK writers: Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith, Iain Banks.

Amis's fascination with American literature has already been widely documented via the series of profiles and interviews in The Moronic Inferno (1986) and Visiting Mrs Nabakov (1993). American novelists are large, high turnover operators, more exalted than their UK counterparts, and more involved in the fabric of US life: its politics, its film industry, its celeb culture. Happily, Cliche gives us more on the faintly ridiculous and volatile figure of Norman Mailer and is particularly good on Mailer's catastrophic entry into electoral politics: his standard stump speech for his New York mayor campaign ended "So fuck you all". When the votes were counted, he came nowhere. Gore Vidal is more warily treated, perhaps Amis is yet to recover from Vidal's devastating opener when MA travelled to interview him in Italy in 1977: "Oh to be in England, now that England's here". John Updike, earning his own chapter, is praised, perhaps overpraised. Saul Bellow, along with Nabakov one of Amis's outright heroes, is rightly allocated a subsection in "Great Works".

In its 500 pages there are many incidental pleasures that make this one of Amis's most enjoyable reads to date. He even entertains in his review of Critchon's The Lost World - something the novel utterly failed to do. Thomas Harris's Hannibal is given a savage kicking. There is a noble attempt to retrieve Phillip Larkin's reputation from the backlash he received after his death. But for all the laughs and swaggering prose, the reader is left with a sense that this is Amis entertaining the OAPs at a Casablanca pro-am cash cow; a sense that War Against Cliche won't be featuring in the review compilations of 2020. If Amis is, in turn, to get promoted from the "Some English prose" minor league to the "Great Novels" premiership, we need those new long novels.

Chris Sampson, July 2001


Amis's reviews seek out and castigate the use of cliche. But one of the reviewers [Terrence Blacker in The Independent] put up an eloquent defence of the cliche:

The brilliant childhood that leads to adult disappointment, the bullied child who becomes a comedian, the teenage tantrums, the marriage that is too early or too late, the love that is at first sight or on the rebound or just never happens, the job for life that robs you of freedom, the freedom that means you can never settle down, the way you mean to give your children the chances you never had but somehow repeat the old mistakes, the separations, the pain, the starting again or failing to start again, the inappropriate behaviour, the daring or lack of it, the meeting with the right person at the wrong time or the wrong person at the right time, the missed and taken chances, the lost memories, the decline, the fall: every step along the way is a cliché.

Of course this is a (deliberate?) misunderstanding. I expect most of us could empathise with at least one of the cliches listed (I hit 6 and I expect "decline and fall" are out there, waiting for the wrong time). But as Amis said in the introduction to Experience, "Look at life: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it's always the same beginning; and the same ending...". We have to live cliche; we don't want to read about it as well.


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