|"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