It is Martin Amis's investment in style that has made him the most high ly regarded writer of his age, which is what led HarperCollins to invest half a million pounds in his new novel. And the new teeth, which have become such a p rominent part of the story, did not come free either. Amis says that, like most things about him, they've been much misunderstood. By ANTHONY QUINN. Portrait by ROBIN BARTON
The Amis Interview has become, over the years, a little genre of its own. I interviewed him here once before, around the time of London Fields, since when there have been drastic, and highly public, changes. New partner, new agent, new publisher, new deal, new book, new teeth - but, comfortingly, it's the same old gaff, with the pinball machine, the casual disarray, the family photos and the frayed, lumpy sofa where the interviewer customarily sits. (Not this time - I get the black canvas chair, on which you can lean your elbows and steeple your fingers, la Amis.) The first thing Amis does is show me a short, neatly typed fax which John Updike had sent to Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker, which recently featured an excerpt from The Information. Updike was in the middle of reading it: ``What a competition young Amis is!'' he writes. At 45, Amis may not be young any more, but kitted out in navy tennis gear and chunky Nikes, he's plainly a competitor. So how was tennis? ``Terrible. I don't seem to have the... will, somehow, even to get to the net.'' The drawl is still there too, deep, relaxed, metallic, kippered by tobacco (he's a competitive smoker). Not young - but in pretty good shape. Though famously short, he's also lean and compact. He has the phantom traces of a tan. Unlike in his photos, there's no rock-star scowl or pout. He smiles, rather uneasily - the new teeth are still under construction, and seem to move a fraction of a second behind the rest of his mouth.
But leave the dental drama for later. What we're here for is the new book, a harrowed and hilarious revenge comedy, and his best (I think) since Money, 11 years ago. As most of the world knows by now, The Information is about envy and competitiveness - thus much of a piece with the Amis canon. Ever since he announced himself to the world as a brattish 23-year-old, armed with The Rachel Papers, Amis has placed jealousy squarely at the centre of his work. It was there in Charles Highway's pursuit of the Rachel, annoyingly contested by her American boyfriend DeForest. The theme was enlarged in the pungent rivalry between Terry Service and Gregory Riding in Success (1978), between John Self and Fielding in Money (1984) and then Samson Young and Mark Asprey in London Fields (1989). Like the latter pair, Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry are novelists, one an abject loser, the other an unstoppable achiever. But is writerly envy different from any other sort? ``I think it differs from sexual envy or financial envy'', he says, ``in that it's infinite, boundless. Because it spans all time and all space. As a writer you'll never know the answer to how good you are, because that's all going to take place when you're dead. And it's part of the equipment of being a writer that you mind about that.''
Amis is an unusual case, though, because he grew up as a writer's son. I ask him if he ever felt competitive with his dad. ``No, I don't think you feel it with your elders. Far from wanting to kill the father, there's an impulse to exalt him, the father being all older writers. I think the impulse is much more to kill the son. I just don't know how I'd feel if one of my sons became a writer - I think I'd be pleased.'' Richard Tull exists in a state of permanent antipathy and imminent collapse, imagining ``newsflashes about his most recent failures; panel discussions about his obscurity, his neglect.'' It's an agonisingly funny portrait of failure - not something you imagine Amis knows much about. ``Oh, the most exalted writers know all about failure,'' he counters, ``you get the flavour of disappointment early in life. My third novel was turned down in America, and I just thought `Fuck you'.'' But he proved resilient, and eventually triumphant. ``All any writer has is a share of the truth - even Tolstoy. But to be any good you have to think you're the best of your generation. If you gave every writer in England a scopolamine test - the lie detector test - they would all under hypnosis reveal that they thought they were the best, even though some do better imitations of being modest. Without that ridiculous competitive pride I don't think you've got a chance, really.''
If Richard is pitiful, then Gwyn - fted, rated, supersuccessful - is thrillingly loathsome. The comedy derives, as in so much of Amis, from brilliant, ludricrous exaggerations and counterpoints. So, while Gwyn is fawned over by interviewers in his baronial Holland Park mansion, Richard is ``jackknifed over his sickbag, searching for assassins in the Yellow Pages.'' When the pair fly to America, Richard skulks in Coach eating peanuts, while up in First, Gwyn is ``practically horizontal on his crimson barge, shod in prestige stockings and celebrity slippers''. The tragicomedy of The Information consists in Richard's maniacal attempts to even the score. He's going to hurt Gwyn, at any cost. This is another of Amis's signatures; his plots tend to hinge on some fiendish set-up. I wonder aloud if this is a personal fear of his own - has he ever imagined someone plotting against him? ``No... but it does go back to that line in Other People - `Everyone fears they are a joke which other people will one day get.' The fear of ridicule is right at the centre of the male consciousness - you know, the idea that you're it.'' It strikes me that Amis's savage humiliation of his characters might be a kind of talisman, a way of keeping harm from himself. ``Perhaps you do it to pro-pitiate evil energies,'' he muses. ``You think, if I write about it, it won't happen to me. But it's just as likely to be the other way around.'' He seldom feels paranoid, he says, except when he smokes dope - ``then it's roiling paranoia''.
Amis has said that a writer's subject was not a choice but a recognition. But what about a writer's style? ``In the long run,'' wrote Raymond Chandler, ``the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time.'' It is this investment - the mile-high metaphors, the whiplash riffs, the chiming repetitions, the knockout punchlines - that has made Amis the most highly regarded writer of his generation - not his disquistions on the Holocaust or nuclear weapons or the end of the millennium. Yet he sees style as inextricable from subject. ``People commonly think, `How do you get style?' - it's a belief that you write out a plain paragraph and juice it up with stuff. It doesn't feel like that to me. The work on the page comes from saying the sentence in your head until it's right. Style has to answer to the kinds of perception you have, and although you can separate them for convenience or analysis, they're really the same thing.'' He shows me the draft of the novel, contained in a red ledger-sized book with notes on the left page and text on the right, written in his minute and rather dainty script. Here are the days and weeks and months of a writer investing, recorded in black and blue ink.
But it's another kind of investment - somewhere in the neighbourhood of £500,000, the asking price for the new book - which has kept Amis's name in the papers this year. As you make your way through The Information the ironies bristle, and ramify; it becomes impos-sible to read without the real-life drama panting down your neck. Here is Gwyn telling Richard about his new agent, Gal Apanalp:
``She's already got me a huge deal on my next one.''
"You haven't finished your next one.''
``Yeah, but they like to do these things earlier now. It's a campaign. It's like a war out there. World rights.''
It was a bit like a war for Amis. Having asked for half a million, he replaced his old agent, Pat Kavanagh, with New York-based Wylie, who likes to play hardball on his clients' behalf; as soon as the news was out, Amis's reputation sustained prolonged and heavy shelling. He now admits he was quite overwhelmed by the ferocity of media reaction. ``I just wondered, what got into everyone? It's impossible to make clear to a European or an American what this was all about - you can't explain it. In the American press it would have been a business paragraph. It's weird, because no one minds writers getting a lot of money for crap. There's also a lot of anachronistic assumptions about what publishing is - these are corporations now. Evelyn Waugh satirised the sentimental view of the publisher as a twinkly old boy who loves literature, and that was 60 years ago.''
The parallel which springs to mind is that of watching Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives in the immediate wake of his acrimonious bust-up with Mia Farrow; the whole cinema seemed to be snickering. When the first chapter of the book was excerpted in Granta, a rumour went abroad that Julian Barnes was the model for Gwyn Barry: since then, the friendship between Barnes and Amis has gone belly-up. When I ask him about this Amis stonewalls, the only time in the interview he does so. ``Life does imitate art in the weirdest way here,'' he concedes, ``because the book's about a literary enmity, and the deal created one that wasn't there before. I had someone on the telephone the other day asking if I based Gwyn on Julian Barnes `because you gave him this house in Holland Park with a snooker table in it,' and I said, `Julian doesn't live in Holland Park, he lives north of Camden Town.' You know, I can't even...'' He shakes his head in baffled resignation. ``It's so wide of the mark.''
And, also like Husbands and Wives, the novel has been ``rush released'' so as to catch the wave of topicality. Amis says he would rather have delayed publication until the storm blew over, but with all that money riding on its back it's the publishers who get to decide. ``Throughout the whole fuss I didn't say a word to anyone in the press, but I'm finding out that you can't play the shrinking violet any more - you have to enter the fray. I think what John Updike says is very true, that publicity is this voracious idiot - it gobbles up everything and just gets fatter, and jollier, the more grub it gets. It doesn't matter what kind of grub it is. But you have to learn to manipulate it, otherwise it will just manipulate you. Salman Rushdie has had to learn this, so has Norman Mailer. You can't be a no- comment guy anymore.'' None the less, I put it to Amis that when people read about Gwyn's fabulous wealth, the ``romping zeroes'' on his cheques, they're going to think - ``You should know.'' ``Well, the truth is - and it really is the truth - I am Gwyn and I am Richard. They're each of them little percentages of me. Comedy forces you to separate and exaggerate, but I'm just as much Richard, perhaps more Richard than I am Gwyn. And whatever else it might be, failure is more interesting than success.''
I ask him if there was anything about l'affaire Amis he regrets - the manner in which he handled it, for instance. ``I regret the whole thing. I regret all the sunderings it entrained, though I never felt in control of it. I wanted it to be confidential, but it was very far from that - and the minute it was out I was just dragged along.'' He now identifies the Observer's Peter Hillmore (``that little shit'') as the man who spilt the beans by claiming that Amis had been at a party bragging about his half-a-million deal. But fences are being mended, too. He had a letter the other day from AS Byatt (``a peace-pipe - and I'll reply in kind''), the most vociferous of his antagonists when news of the deal first broke. In general he felt touched by the show of support - ``with one understandable exception'' - from his writer friends. "I was grateful to have survived it OK - I'm thick-skinned about it. But if I'd known what was going to happen, I really don't know what I'd have done. If I'd known someone in the Washington Post was going to say `this is the most famous set of teeth since Lincoln's...' this is in the Washington Post, for Christ's sake.''
Ah, those teeth: one day some grad student will write a paper called ```Sans teeth': Dental Imagery in the Novels of Martin Amis'' and mine a particularly rich deposit from The Information. Take a look. It might be in Richard's teeth, ``like a rank of men in macs on a stadium terrace'', or in a circus tiger's ``dirklike canines'', or in American cities which Richard envisages as ``a monstrous acreage of wedged dentition; with those big teeth they have, no wonder their gums whine with permanent maintenance and repair, all the deep scaling and root-canal work, the cappings, bridgings, excruciating extractions.'' Amis is due back in New York to have his implant surgery completed, at a cost of $20,000 - not for a dazzling smile, he says, but ``because I wanted to be able to eat''.
Not that this will cut much ice with the tabloid tattlers, who had already done their slings-and-arrows thing on Amis after he left his wife, Antonia Phillips, in 1993. The Sunday Times ran a typically egregious piece by Toby Young, who argued that Amis had forfeited his standing as a moralist now that he had a broken marriage to answer for. ``Yeah, I remember that,'' says Amis, thinly. ``He began the piece `It's been hard to resist feeling a certain Schadenfreude over Martin Amis' - yeah, I'm sure it was a noble struggle to resist, a real epic.''
These ad hominem assaults characterise a curious ambivalence in certain (usually male) responses to Amis: they can't hate the work because it's self-evidently good, so they hate him instead. Still, the question of his separation hangs in the air. Interviewing Updike some years ago, Amis got talking about divorce and offered this autobiographical fragment about his own parents' break-up: ``Divorce, in those days, was like a dreadful disease that everyone's parents kept catching. It occurred to me for the first time that this had determined the pattern of my generation.'' I wonder if he felt that he was repeating what had happened to him. A long pause. ``There's a great line in one of Kurt Vonnegut's novels - `Round about early evening, when their blood sugar is low, the children of suicides think about suicide.' When I asked him about it he said, `Well, it's the solution to every problem.' If one of your parents has done it, you think, `The pump doesn't work - I'll kill myself.' Or, `The roof is falling apart - I know, I'll blow my brains out.' The reason is, a taboo has been broken and becomes a pos-sibility. It's an option. What a divorce does is introduce you, very brutally, to the idea that the world isn't going to be how you want it to be. That probably stays with you forever. I don't know what the statistics are, but...marriage is...getting harder to do.''
The afternoon has fled. We're sitting in near darkness. I have one more question which is difficult to ask without sounding a toady. (And this isn't a noble struggle either.) All the time one reads young writers, and even not-so-young writers, trying to sound like Martin Amis, trying to ape the tilt and swagger of his prose. Does it please him to think of his influence, or is it a drag - a burden? ``It's mildly gratifying, if anything. It means you have something worth copying. Peer approval is obviously important. Men writhe and cringe in front of their peer group all their lives, and compete within it. But it's not what counts. There's only one thing that counts, and you're not going to be around for it. You hope to be remembered for a few years after you're gone, but there's no point in fretting about it. In a way it's liberating, because it makes you less interested in the immediate world - prizes and so on.'' The light's gone - I peer into the gloaming at young Amis, our great competitor. ``Unless a medium summons you from the hereafter and tells you, you're never going to know.''
`The Information' is published on Monday by Flamingo at £15.99
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