<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 145 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 12, 2004

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Mart for Mart's sake


The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000
Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape £20, pp512


Tied through a quirk of birth to the writing life, Martin Amis is unusually interested in what it means to be a novelist, in what it means to dare to cover the world in language - in your own language, in a style that is inimitably and ostentatiously your own.

Conrad famously said that any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line. In this sense and this sense only, Amis's prose has a Conradian urgency: he has always been aggressively competitive, seeking to invent his own idiom and discover daring new ways of writing about the modern world.

'I don't want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,' he once said - and only a writer as anxiously self-evaluating as Amis would have called his new book The War Against Cliché , a title that, at once, seeks to elevate (himself) and to challenge (others).

But an essential loneliness underscores his quest for absolute originality. So much of what he says and does is motivated by the same questions: What am I worth? How good am I? In one of the essays he suggests that the canon, in which he is steeped as a reader and of which he so longs to be a part, is exclusively the work of writers in early middle-age, from which he has passed.

If so, Late Amis, judging from Night Train (1997) - his noir-ish novella about a murder investigation without a murderer - and Experience, seems set to be characterised by a peculiarly sombre music, a darkening of mood and tone, a tauter, more controlled artistry and by a diminished desire for cruelty and self-enthronement. In an essay on Saul Bellow, first collected in The Moronic Inferno but not republished here, Amis argued that Bellow wrote in a style fit for heroes: the High Style.

What Amis is, in essence, is a turbocharged cartoonist; no matter how hard he struggles to import seriousness into his work - through writing about the nuclear threat, the Holocaust, Fred West or the new physics - his characters remain trapped between two sets of inverted commas, for ever destined to be lost in the monotonous sublime of caricature, mere puppets controlled by a master who never allows you to forget that you are in the grip of his superior, knowing intelligence.

Can Amis - changed by the death of his father and humbled by experience - do the same? He certainly owes it to his talent to try, to start writing against, if not extinction, then his own overfamiliar preoccupations, to free himself finally from the entanglement of his own obsessions. So, go on, Mart - let it unfurl.




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