"We live in the age of mass loquacity," Martin Amis writes by way of introduction to Experience
, thereby placing the reader in a curious bind. How to feel about a memoir by a writer who deplores our current enthusiasm for memoirs? Can such a public appeal for private life be convincing? The son of misanthropic comic novelist Kingsley Amis, Amis the Younger's life story is "a literary curiosity," he tells us, "which is also just another instance of a father and a son." He's spent his whole life bathed in the dubious yellow glow of celebrity, from the cries of nepotism surrounding his first novel
's publication to the bizarre tempest in a teapot involving the size of the advance for The Information
, his choice of literary agent, and of course that famously expensive set of new teeth.
Here, finally, is Amis's chance to set matters straight--and if you're looking for his take on these controversies, you won't be disappointed. In fact, you should turn right away to the end of the book. After all, how many memoirs have indices--and how many indices are this entertaining? In addition to movers and shakers like "Travolta, John," "Brown, Tina," and "Bellow, Saul," one finds an extended entry for "dental problems," which includes "of animals," "sexual potency and," "Bellow on," and--more ominously--"tumour."
Yet it's as "a clear view of the geography of a writer's mind," not as a celebrity tell-all, that Experience succeeds. Organized not by chronology but by a strange thematic schema all Amis's own, this messy, tangential book moves backward and forward in time and comes studded with footnotes and interspersed with schoolboy epistles. As a result, it's much truer to the actual texture of experience than anything more "novelistic" could possibly be. Amis's charming, quarrelsome, almost entirely helpless father; the tragic disappearance of his cousin, Lucy Partington; the daughter discovered only as an adult; those teeth--the narrative circles around these events and personages in prose as virtuoso but often less chilly than that found in his novels. This is memoir as anatomy of obsessions, and in the most profound way, it illuminates the source and power of Amis's remarkable work. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
The big book on this new publisher's first list is an occasionally combative but more often sweet-natured account of a literary life with an extraordinary father. Even by English standards Kingsley Amis, whom his son rightly sees as the finest comic novelist of his generation, was a highly eccentric figure: a man who loved women in the flesh as much as he appeared to disapprove of them in principle, an alcoholic who managed to create a large body of clear-headed work, a man who couldn't bear to be alone in a house at night, but whose mastery of invective was second to noneAa difficult man to live with, it would seem, yet here recalled by Martin in the most fond and generous terms. The book revolves around a small group of seminal figures in Amis's life: his father; Saul Bellow, whom he seems to have adopted as a father figure; his young cousin Lucy Partington, who disappeared in 1973 and was later found to have been a victim of child-killer Frederick West; and longtime friend Christopher Hitchens. The controversial elements in his life aren't glossed over: the so-called cosmetic dentistry, about which the press so gloated at the time of Amis's parting from his previous agent for a larger book deal through Andrew Wylie, is shown to have been an attempt to correct, with extensive and painful surgery, a long-neglected condition of his teeth and jaw. His belated discovery of a previously unknown daughter is described with eloquent sweetness, and the account of the squabble with Kingsley's biographer, Eric Jacobs, over an account of the novelist's last days he gave to English newspapers is rendered more in sorrow than anger. There seems no doubt that a certain pugnaciousness in Amis has led to perplexingly hostile behavior toward him by the English press; it will be interesting to see how this candid, often funny and far from arrogant book will be treated there. B&W photos. (June)
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