The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis

Talk Miramax Books 2001 512 pp. 35.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


“All writing is a campaign against cliché.”  And what better person for such a jihad than Martin Amis, novelist, memoirist and, here, reviewer and essayist.  This new collection of odds and sods, taken from magazines and newspapers, spans thirty years of careful reading and astute rejoinder.  A man of enormous wit (often endearingly self-depreciating), blinding intelligence, and instructive passion, Amis could write about Michael Crichton and have something to say.  And he does.

The book is divided into eleven sections of convenience, with reviews and essays grouped by category rather than time period.  We have sections on the Canon (Coleridge, Austen, Milton, Donne), “Some English Prose” (Pritchett, Murdoch, Ballard, Burgess, Fowles), popular writers (Leonard, Harris, Wolfe), and so on. 

Amis started young, with a job at the Times Literary Supplement, and doesn’t look back fondly at all his literary judgments.  “Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power.  You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember.”

However, he’s not shy at attacking “the fat wet handshake and grinning dentures of bad art.”  He has little respect for Hermann Hesse’s “impregnable humourlessness,” or Hollywood scholar Michael Medved: “If Dan Quayle were a lot brighter, this is what he would sound like.”

Speaking of brightness, that is the most lasting impression this collection leaves: Martin Amis is the smartest guy in the room, and his capacity for judgment has been acquired through a series of long, hard slogs through books that most of us avoided in college.  As he says of Cervantes, “Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies.”

In addition to surveying many of Western literature’s greatest hits, Amis also pursues the popular.  He loves Elmore Leonard, as we all should, and slants an admiring glance or two at the aforementioned Michael Crichton, despite “the conveyor-belt jeopardies of his plot.”

If Amis has any contemporary competition whatsoever in the brilliant and acute essay department, it would have to be David Foster Wallace or Gore Vidal.  Vidal’s worldview doesn’t go unexamined: “As elsewhere in his writing, Vidal gives the impression of believing that the entire heterosexual edifice—registry offices, Romero and Juliet, the disposable diaper—is just a sorry story of self-hypnosis and mass hysteria: a hoax, a racket, or sheer propaganda.”

While the majority of the essays cover the breadth and depth of literature, Amis is not shy about the rest of the world.  In politics, he examines the peculiar sexual appeal of Margaret Thatcher.  “Mrs. Thatcher is the only interesting thing about British power politics; and the only interesting thing about Mrs. Thatcher is that she isn’t a man.”

In the fine arts, he gives us an encapsulated insight into the career arc of Andy Warhol.  “Once the artist urging us to re-examine the ordinary, Warhol is now the commercial portraitist celebrating the vendible.”

In music, how could we pass over the British perspective on Elvis?  “All that distinguished him was the full-blooded alacrity of his submission to drugs, women, money and megalomania, and the ease with which these excuses co-existed with his natural taste for spiritual conceit and grandiose Confederate machismo.”

And, of course, who other than Amis would be poised to offer the apposite observation on that well-known cultural artifact, the Indian dog?  “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.”

Admittedly, this book might be considered a hard sell: 500 pages, more or less, of book reviews.  However, this isn’t a desk-drawer-clearing to underwrite another series of alimony payments; this is one of our most entertaining writers in English exercising not just his critical powers, but bringing the entire force of his formidable writerly personality to bear on Nabokov, Bellow, both the Naipauls, Mailer, Roth, Lowry, and yes, Dickens.  Whether you read the book straight through or selectively observe as Amis confronts the crippled antelope (Robert B. Parker) or the roaring lion (James Joyce), his humor alone will make the trip worthwhile.  After all, he’s at war.