Martin Amis, a giant of British fiction in the late 20th century, died on Friday at 73. As the former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote of Amis in her review of his 2000 memoir “Experience,” he was “a writer equipped with a daunting arsenal of literary gifts: a dazzling, chameleonesque command of language, a willingness to tackle large issues and larger social canvases and an unforgiving, heat-seeking eye for the unwholesome ferment of contemporary life.”
He was primarily known for unleashing that arsenal in scabrously witty and linguistically daring novels, but he was also an essayist, memoirist and critic of the first rank. The books below chart some of the peaks of Amis’s career.
This was Amis’s semi-biographical first novel, and it introduced him as an omnivorous wit and dark observer of life. The book is about Charles Highway, a wise-up teenager, and his first love, Rachel Noyes, in the year before he leaves for college.
The novel is a “crotch-and-armpit saga of late adolescence,” our reviewer wrote, describing Charles, an aspiring writer, as “a compulsive pimple-squeezer, nostril tweezer, used handkerchief inspector and wrinkle enumerator. … It takes a certain comic talent to make Charles the delectably unappetizing creature he is, and Martin Amis has it.”
Many readers consider this the best of Amis’s early novels. It tells the story of John Self, an British American director of television ads who comes to New York to shoot his first feature film. He’s a lout, he’s a slob, he’s a mess — and he is enormously fine company on the page.
“The book’s dash and heft and twang serve a deeper energy,” our reviewer, Veronica Geng, wrote. “A reimagined naïveté that urgently asks a basic, grand question: What on earth are the rest of us supposed to make of the spectacle of a fellow human getting totaled?” Amis himself appears in the novel as a character, “a high-minded ascetic type given to theoretical chitchat about the art of fiction and the phenomenon of ‘gratuitous crime.’”
Set against a decaying London, this glittering and blackly comic novel is a murder mystery about a murder that hasn’t happened yet. It involves Samson Young, an American novelist suffering from writer’s block, and a host of other characters, in whom a reader will find few redeeming qualities.
Our reviewer, Bette Pesetsky, called “London Fields” “a picaresque novel rich in its effects,” a “virtuoso depiction of a wild and lustful society. In an age of attenuated fiction, this is a large book of comic and satirical invention.”
The narrative conceit of this novel is deceptively simple: Chronology is inverted. Readers meet the main character, Tod Friendly, on his deathbed, and as the story progresses, his life unspools, moving from the hospital to the scene of his heart attack to much darker episodes. Friendly, readers learn, is the latest of the man’s pseudonyms: Years earlier, he was a Nazi doctor who escaped Europe for the United States.
The narrative structure poses unsettling juxtapositions — sanitation workers dispel trash, patients enter the hospital healthy and leave sick, and at Auschwitz, the mass killings appear to be acts of creation. David Lehman, writing in the Book Review, put it simply: “The very instrument of revisionist history is put to the service of heartbreaking fiction.”
It’s fitting that this novel about the consuming jealousy one writer feels for another was published to much tabloid coverage in Britain, in part because of how much money Amis was paid for it. “By turns satirical and tender, funny and disturbing, ‘The Information’ marks a giant leap forward in Amis’s career,” Michiko Kakutani wrote. “Here, in a tale of middle-aged angst and literary desperation, all the themes and stylistic experiments of Amis’s earlier fiction come together in a symphonic whole.”
In the Book Review, Christopher Buckley wrote: “Amis is quite dazzling here. ‘The Information’ drags a bit around the middle, but you’re never out of reach of a sparkly phrase, stiletto metaphor or drop-dead insight into the human condition.”
In 2019, the Times’s book critics included “Experience” among the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years. Reviewing the book when it was published in 2000, Michiko Kakutani praised it, predicting it would be best remembered for its “wonderfully vivid portrait of the author’s late father, the comic novelist and poet Kingsley Amis.” It’s a portrait “animated by cleareyed literary insight and enduring love and affection.”
In total, she said, “Experience” was Amis’s “most fully realized book yet — a book that fuses his humor, intellect and daring with a new gravitas and warmth, a book that stands, at once, as a loving tribute to his father and as a fulfillment of his own abundant talents as a writer.”
Amis brought the same ferocity and style to his criticism as he did to his novels. The reviews and essays in this collection are “consistently cogent, often illuminating and almost always entertaining,” Michiko Kakutani wrote. In them, Amis writes about Austen, Nabokov, Updike and many others. “Amis’s extraliterary interests, like chess and poker and nuclear weapons, are represented, but briefly,” Jenny Turner wrote in the Book Review. “This is a portrait of the artist as a reader of great books.”
Amis called his final novel “fairly strictly autobiographical.” It includes portraits of three writers who played crucial and cherished roles in his life: Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. The book is “an unstable and charismatic compound of fact and fiction,” Parul Sehgal wrote in The Times. In the Book Review, Tom Bissell called it Amis’s “most beautiful book,” in part for its description of Hitchens’s long death, which will leave “only the most hardened” readers unmoved.
Sehgal also emphasized that element of the book, writing: “It’s on Hitchens that Amis moves into a fresh register. A writer so praised for his style (but also derided for being all style), Amis accesses a depth of feeling and a plainness of language entirely new to his work.”