MA & masculinity

Amis and masculinity

© 2000 by James Diedrick

Excerpts from "Martin Amis Dresses in Drag" and "The Spectacle of Masculinity in the Work of Martin Amis."


(from Martin Amis Dresses in Drag," my review of Night Train in the 16 November 1997 issue of the Authors Review of Books):

. . . For all the press about Amis's testosterone-poisoned prose, his novels have always come to anatomize masculinity, not to praise it. In his very first sentence of published fiction, Amis gave voice to a callow youth whose words pair braggadocio with insecurity: "My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn't think it to look at me. It's such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name, and, to look at, I'm none of these" (The Rachel Papers, 1973). Insecurity often turns to terror for Terry Service, the lower-middle class orphan who narrates one half of Success, and who helps give frenzied voice to the most emotionally naked of Amis's novels: "I want to scream, much of the time, or quiver like a damaged animal. I sit about the place fizzing with rabies" (1978). Even John Self, who strides through Amis's masterpiece Money (1984) like a grotesque colossus of male appetite, undergoes a momentary gender-bending transformation under the influence of Martina Twain, who makes him feel, fleetingly, "like a flower; a little parched, perhaps, a little gone in the neck, and with no real life to come, perhaps, only sham life, bowl life, easing its petals and lifting its head to start feeding on the day."


(from "The Spectacle of Masculinity in the Work of Martin Amis": A Lecture Delivered at "Books & Coffee," Albion College, November 30, 1995):

Those of you who have seen any of Quentin Tarrantino's films know that it is impossible to discuss them at any length without introducing certain four-letter words into the discussion. The same is true of Martin Amis. I realize this is an academic occasion, and a certain decorum should be observed, but I do want to warn you that some of the statements I'll be quoting contain some salty language.

I want to begin by quoting two instances of the "C" word, one published in 1973, at the beginning of Amis's career, and one twenty one years later.

The first is the first sentence of Amis's first pubished work of fiction, The Rachel Papers, an autobiographical novel about an 18-year old London mod, a precocious intellectual who bears some striking similarities to his author:

"My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn't think it to look at me. It's such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name and, to look at it, I am none of these."

The second appeared in the London Evening Standard just last year, when news leaked out about the $800,000 advance Amis received for his latest novel The Information. When A.S. Byatt, author of the best-selling novel Possession: A Romance, heard the news about the advance being asked from, among others, her own publishers, she had this to say in an interview with the London Evening Standard. "I always earn out my advances and I don't see why I should subsidize his greed, simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone. He must believe that his name is so extraordinary that anyone will pay an extra ,250,000 simply to have him on their list. It's folie de grandeur." Reaching for a metaphor to capture his excesses, Byatt labeled Amis's behavior "male turkey cocking."

I begin with these two statements to emphasize that masculine self-display, and masculine folly, have always been central to Amis's life and career. And they are partly responsible for the cloud of suspicion that hangs over Amis's literary reputation.

It isn't that Amis has failed to earn praise for his work. His first novel won the coveted Somerset Maugham prize for fiction, and most of his his next seven novels have been praised in some of the most influential literary journals in England and America. His novel Time's Arrow was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1991, and Pat Barker, whose novel The Ghost Road just won this year's Booker Prize, has said of Amis that he has been unjustly passed over for the to honor. "With a sort of more exotic ethnic mix in his bones," she said recently, "he would have been Bookered by now, you see." [this is a reference to the fact that recent winners have included novels by the Anglo-Asian Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nigerian-born Ben Okri, and the Indian-born Salman Rushdie].

The problem for Amis's reputation has more to do with his treatment of gender than his ethnic background. What I want to confront today is the charge of misogyny that has been levelled against Amis, a charge that is most often presented as a casual aside rather than a systematic indictment. In reviewing Amis's third novel, Success, the British journalist Graham Fuller rightly complains that the novel's two women characters are little more than caricatures; "Ursula and Jan are pawns, a thin, mindless, upper-class waif and a voluptuous, sardonic, working-class strumpet." But then Fuller follows up with this unsupported assertion: "In keeping with their creator's misogyny, they're discarded once they've served their purpose."

I want to argue with Fuller's assumption here, but I want to do so rather indirectly, by suggesting several reasons why Amis's fiction has been indicted in this way.

The first comes under the category of guilt by association. Amis's father, who died just last month, was the novelist Kingsley Amis, who extended his career and his public prominence by becoming a caricature of the Tory reactionary, and milking his reputation for misogyny. [many of us in this room remember enjoying Kingsley Amis's academic satire Lucky Jim, but I re-read the novel a year ago and was sorely disappointed. Misogyny may not be the right word to describe the elder Amis's treatment of women in this novel; indifference bordering on contempt is closer to the mark]. An unspoken assumption among many of Amis's critics seems to be "like father, like son."

The second relates to what I consider a weakness of Amis's fiction--although he would probably claim it is an effect of his comic style, which relies on exaggeration and caricature. When it comes to representing believable women in his novels, Martin Amis is no Thomas Hardy. Martin Amis has never demonstrated a gift for representing women in his novels. The closest he comes to creating a three-dimensional female character is in Money, and even here she plays a relatively minor role in the novel.

The third is related to the second: like David Mamet and Quentin Tarrantino, to name two of his contemporaries, Amis's true subject is the shifting nature of Anglo-American masculinity, in all its comic and comically absurd forms. In his recent essay on John Travolta in The New Yorker, Amis writes about Travolta's performances in Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy. "In his thwarted frowns and glares, his tonguey cadences, his strutting uncertainty, in the italicizations of his forehead, Travolta contrives a mature commentary on what it is to be immature." Amis's novels similarly contrive mature commentaries on what it is to be an Anglo-American male.

the fourth involves Amis's favorite narrative technique. In one of his essays on Vladimir Nabokov, Amis claims that Nabokov's novel Lolita "constructs a mind in the way that a prose Browning might have gone about it, through rigorous dramatic monologue." This is precisely what Amis does in many of of his best novels, from The Rachel Papers to Success, Money, and Time's Arrow. As with all dramatic monologues, Amis's first-person narratives ask a great deal of the reader, who is expected to supply the moral vision that these charaacters typically lack. [this is not unlike Quentin Tarrantino's technique in a film like Pulp Fiction; Amis has commented that the "burnished heartlessness of the dialogue" of this film "is always pointing beyond itself, to the moral world it carefully excludes"].

To cite one example of this technique in Amis, I'll quote from his best novel, Money: A Suicide Note. In this novel the crude, loutish narrator John Self expresses the possibility that his relationship with Martina Twain might actually cause him to change. "I'm getting chicked. It would explain a great deal. I have tried in the past to feminize myself. I womanized for years. It didn't work, though on the other hand I did fuck lots of girls. Who knows? It if happens, it happens" (306). Unlike Self, Amis (and the ideal reader) recognizes that "womanizing" will not bring Self (or any male self) any closer to feminine, or feminist, understanding.

For some readers, the prevalence of such narrators in Amis's fiction suggests that it takes one to know one. These readers find many more correspondences between the author and his creations than I do. Read chronologically, in fact, I believe Amis's eight novels constitute a mature, ironic commentary on Anglo-American masculinity in many of its forms, from adolescent lust and narcissism to mid-life crisis and parental anxiety.

Instead of proceeding through each of these novels to support my point, which would take more time than any of us has, I want to end my formal remarks by quoting from a review Amis wrote in 1991. Amis's journalism, which ranges from literary reviews to essays on popular culture, is a treasure trove of acute observation and brilliant writing. More than this, it takes us from the unreliable narrators of his novels to his own authorial sensibility: witty, urbane, skeptical, eminently rational. And, I would argue, feminist [with certain qualifications].

The review I'm about to quote from is a review of Iron John, one of the Bibles of the recent men's movement, a book that was actually taught at Albion until recently by one of my former colleagues. As Amis says in his review, "Iron John, a short work of psychological, literary and anthropological speculation by the poet Robert Bly, ‘dominated’ the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year, and has made, as we shall see, a heavy impact on many aspects of American life" (London Review of Books , 5 December 1991: 3).

I wish I could read you Amis's entire, length review, because it is a marvel of satirical glee and deft phrasing (To hear Amis read a version of this essay at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, click here). But I'll content myself with two short quotations. First, the first two paragraphs:

In 1919, after prolonged study, the Harvard ethologist William Morton Wheeler pronounced the male wasp "an ethological nonentity." An animal behaviourist had scrutinised the male wasp and found—no behaviour. We can well imagine the male wasp's response to such a verdict: his initial shock and hurt; his descent into a period of depressed introspection; his eventual decision to improve his act. For nowadays, according to recent Scientific American, "interest in the long-neglected male is flourishing, a tribute to the animal's broad array of activities." Male humans will surely feel for their brothers in the wasp kingdom. After a phrase of relative obscurity, we too have rallied. In fact, we seem to have bounced back pretty well immediately, with all kinds of fresh claims on everyone's attention. Male wounds. Male rights. Male grandeur. Male whimpers of neglect.

What is the deep background on the "deep male"? From 100,000 BC until, let's say, 1792 (Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindications of the Rights of Woman), there was, simply, the Man, whose main characteristic was that he got away with everything. From 1792 until about 1970, there was, in theory anyway, the Enlightened Man, who, while continuing to get away with everything, agreed to meet women for talks about talks which would lead to political concessions. Post-1970, the Enlightened Man became the New Man, who isn't interested in getting away with anything—who believes, indeed, that the female is not merely equal to the male but is his plain superior. The masculine cultivation of his feminine "side" can be seen as a kind of homage to a better and gentler principle. Well, the New Man is becoming an old man, perhaps prematurely, what with all the washing-up he's done; there he stands in the kitchen, a nappy in one hand, a pack of tarot cards in the other, with his sympathetic pregnancies, his hot flushes and "contact" pre-menstrual tensions, and with a duped frown on his ageing face. The time is ripe. And now the back door swings open and in he comes, preceded by a gust of testosterone and a few tumbleweeds of pubic hair; the Old Man, the Deep Male—Iron John. [p. 3]

Then follows a lengthy account of the mytho-poeic content of the book. This is followed by these paragraphs:

Iron John, the Wild Man, smothered in his ginger hair, is the "deep male," the embodiment and awakener of, variously, "Zeus energy," "divine energy," "hurricane energy", "masculine grandeur" and "sun-like integrity." brandishing "the Varja sword" of sexuality, courage and resolve, and championing "the moist, the swampish, the wild, the untamed." Iron John is hard to find and awkward to contain and dangerous to release; but his mentorship brings huge rewards (all his treasure). The story’s single beauty—the location of the key to cage—is also its crux, for the boy must put aside womanly things in his journey from "soft" male to "hard." The rest of his development (learning to shudder, tasting ashes, warriorhood) comes over as a cross between adolescent fantasy and middle-aged encounter-group sessions, with many a crack-up and primal scream. The forest is an arcadia splattered with mud and blood.

What emerges? Feminist writers have done their job on Iron John, and intelligibly. It hardly needs to be pointed out that Bly is phallocentric to the ends of his hair, and rollickingly tendentious even in his imagery: "The King'" and 'the Queen' send energy down. They resemble the sun and the moon that pierce down through the earth's atmosphere. Even on cloudy days something of their radiant energy comes through." Yes, but the moon has no energy, and doesn't radiate; the Queen merely reflects the heavenly power of the King. Not that Bly is at all forgetful of women's interests. He wants to establish, or re-establish, a world where men are so great that women like being lorded over: "We know that for hundreds of thousands of years men have admired each other, and been admired by women, in particular for their activity. Men and women alike once called on men to pierce the dangerous places, carry handfuls of courage other waterfalls, dust the tails of the wild boars." After a few hours of that kind of talk, the women will get their reward in the bedroom: "Sometimes in a love affair, the lovers make love with the Wild Man—and Wild Woman—right in the room; and if we are those lovers, we may feel certain body cells turn gold that we thought were made entirely of lead." So there will be that: Wild Sex. Bly knows about women's ascensionism, but he thinks: "it is appropriate for women to describe it." "We will confine ourselves here to men's ascensionism." The dialogue had better start soon, before the yodelling gets any louder. [p. 5]

Clearly Amis sees at least certain wings of the men's movement as a backlash against feminism and the gains made by women. And he wants nothing to do with it. Instead, he ends his review by voicing a feminist perspective:

Feminists have often claimed a moral equivalence for sexual and racial prejudice. There are certain affinities; and one or two of these affinities are mildly, and paradoxically, encouraging. Sexism is like racism: we all feel such impulses. Our parents feel them more strongly than we feel them. Our children, we hope, will feel them less strongly than we feel them. People don't change or improve much, but they do evolve. It is very slow. Feminism (endlessly diverging, towards the stolidly Benthamite, towards the ungraspably rarefied), the New Man, emotional bisexuality, the Old Man, Iron Johnism, male crisis centres—these are convulsions, some of them necessary, some of them not so necessary, along the way, intensified by the contemporary search for role and guise and form. [p. 5]

This essay, like so much of Amis's nonfiction, serves as an important corrective to the reader who would confuse the narrators of his novels with their creator.


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