My sentence is for open war


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My sentence is for open war” [Paradise Lost II l.51]:

Schizophrenia, Meritocracy and the Style of Martin Amis

By Kevin Crowley, Oxford University, 2006

Moloch’s proclamation in Pandemonium is a favourite sentence of Richard Tull, the embittered writer of The Information (1995), and would be a fitting epigraph to the collected works of Martin Amis with its abrasive, confrontational style. Richard decides that Moloch’s sentence is “awfully good”1; the pun on the word ‘sentence’ emboldens the novel’s theme of meritocracy in literature. Amis believes that the distinction between good and bad literature is fundamental. With only mild sarcasm in a 2001 interview he said that his victimisation by the press was “because I’m a genetic elitist, a living V-sign to democratisation”.2 Amis cuts a controversial figure in contemporary literary circles; he is one of the most successful popular literary novelists of the past thirty years, lauded for his verbal virtuosity but derided for arrogance, greed and misogyny. Thus, Amis has often been at the source of contention, enjoying and suffering the graces and pitfalls of celebrity: he was thrust into the media limelight early in his career for being the son of Booker prize-winning and knighted novelist Kingsley Amis, maintained the attention through the success of his novels in the 1980s and was derided in the press for his divorce in 1993, infamously paying £20,000 for a new set of teeth in 1994, and for high-profile spats with writers Julian Barnes in 1995 and Christopher Hitchens in 2002. As such a newsworthy and public figure, his fame has exaggerated his literary disputes with reviewers and writers alike. Criticisms of his character have often spilled over into criticisms of his style, but it is solely the subject of Amis’s style that is the focus of this thesis. Meritocracy in literature is intrinsically problematic as Richard laments, “you cannot demonstrate, prove, establish – you cannot know if a book is good. A sentence, a line, a phrase: nobody knows. The literary philosophers of Cambridge spent a century saying otherwise, and said nothing.” (The Information p.136) Richard knows that ‘good writing’ exists but lacks the critical framework to prove it; this pursuit of an enigmatic meritocracy is central to Amis’s own writing. Firstly I shall show how Amis’s prose is influenced by Vladimir Nabokov’s theory of artistic inspiration and by postmodernism, through their common associations with schizophrenia. As such, I shall analyse the ways in which his prose wars against the cliché and so emerges as innovative but fragmented. This often criticised fragmentation is embraced by Amis because it is transparent to its own artistry, drawing attention to its own virtues. In the introductory chapter to Understanding Martin Amis (2004), James Diedrick notes that style is morality for Amis and discusses the effect of parody and the parallels with the literary theory of Bakhtin. In the latter half of this thesis, I shall analyse these three observations in more depth, and shall bind them together in proposing that the aggrandisement of his own style, and denouncement of other styles, is Amis’s defence against the death of morality.

(i) Schizophrenia and Postmodernism
Amis’s writing is heavily influenced by Vladimir Nabokov; in Experience (2000) he notes a speech where he said: “Nabokov was my novelist of the century.”3 Therefore it is worth looking at Nabokov’s theory of artistic inspiration to examine the extent of his influence on Amis’s style. In his essay, ‘The Creative Writer’, Nabokov splits the process of artistic creation into two stages: vostorg, “a complete dislocation or dissociation of things”4 and vdokhnovania, “their association in terms of a new harmony.”5 Nabokov calls vostorg a “pure flame”6; it is a war against familiarity in which inherited concepts and connections are disassembled. The creative stage, when “cool vdokhnovania puts on her glasses”7 is when the fragments of vostorg are collected, refined and then assimilated anew. The Information’s Richard Tull’s art is constructed in this way:
He was an artist when he saw society: it never crossed his mind that society had to be like this, had any right, had any business being like this. A car in the street. Why? Why cars? This is what an artist has to be: harassed to the point of insanity or stupefaction by first principles. The difficulty began when he sat down to write. (p.11)

Richard avoids presupposed ideas or inherited facts; he constantly interrogates his environment, reducing it to first principles and by doing so commits to vostorg. His trouble however, is vdokhnovania. Nabokov emphasis the perils of this stagnation at vostorg: “[l]unatics are lunatics just because they have thoroughly and recklessly dismembered a familiar world but have not the power – or have lost the power – to create a new one as harmonious as the old.”8 The inability to reassemble is akin to madness, a harassment “to the point of insanity […] by first principles”, as Richard says, because one lacks the necessary tools to engage with one’s environment. In Amis’s ‘Insight at Flame Lake’, a short story in Einstein’s Monsters (1987), Dan’s clinical schizophrenia has dissociated his comprehension of normality, what Nabokov terms the ‘commonsense.’ His suicide at the end of the story is the result of his inability to reassemble the world around him, or at least his inability “to create a new one as harmonious as the old”, in the words of Nabokov. Dan’s illness has forced vostorg upon him and he must go through the process of creation, similar to that of the artist, if he is to find a “harmonious” reality. The imposition of Nabokov’s model for the artistic process on the psychological condition of a fictional character could appear tenuous but the following textual examples shall demonstrate that there is something comparable to the artist burgeoning within Dan. David Profumo says that the story is “a question of translating the danger back into accessible human terms”9 and so a clear parallel with Nabokov’s vdokhnovania emerges. Dan’s ‘insight’, a word from the title that is italicised every time Dan uses it, is only productive if it can be conveyed to others. An example of this is when Ned ponders the “boom in child-abuse”10:

Himself a hostage to heredity, Dan naturally argued that if you abuse your children, well, then they will abuse theirs. It adds up. In fact it multiplies. […] I’m not sure how the math pans out on this, but maybe the kid is on to something. (‘Insight’ pp.62-3)
Dan has seemingly broken down the issue of child-abuse into its root causes and their effects, then he has fashioned this to fit with Ned’s proposition of the rise in reported cases. Key to the triumph of his insight is, to use Nabokov’s term, the “new harmony” which he creates. Whether his insight is correct or not is irrelevant; it is successful because it resonates with other people, in this case Ned. The acuity of this insight depends on a rigorous determination and examination of first principles. But Dan’s perception is too acute, as shown by his horror of the baby:
The baby gave a smile of greedy recognition, and I guess she was about fifteen feet away when, ‘before my eyes’, she started to grow. Within a second she was as large as a five-year-old; within a second more she was the size of a pig. I lay there as she billowed like a circus fatlady, the face growing faster than the body until it filled the room, my whole vision, until it seemed to burst the bounds of the house itself. Alarming? Not really. A routine case of size-constancy breakdown. All the baby had done was crawl toward me. (‘Insight’ p.57)

Dan describes the baby’s approach through first principles, so that this everyday occurrence becomes unfamiliar and therefore enthralling to the reader. The vision sheds its youthful naivety and becomes grotesque, even though to the reader and the outsider it is still a baby’s face, the epitome of innocence. Dan’s description includes the neologism, “fatlady”; and his use of the words “billowed” “body” “burst” “bounds” gives the sentence an irregular, threatening beat which evokes the assumed quickened heartbeat. This inventive language contrasts with the scientific dialect of “size-constancy breakdown”, a term which is made redundant by Dan’s triumphant description. Furthermore, Dan’s acute perception is embellished throughout the story by its contrast with Ned’s tired, banal anecdotes of the everyday. Dan’s harassment by first principles, a symptom of his schizophrenia, causes him to recede into himself and become unable to interact with others. “Only the mosquitoes love me. Only the mosquitoes love my blood.” (‘Insight’ p.65) This chilling opening of Dan’s last notebook entry coupled with his suicide enforces how necessary it is for the schizophrenic to engage with society, for his “new harmony” built from the “complete dislocation or dissociation of things” to be accessible to other people. Dan is confined to vostorg, unable to reassemble in vdokhnovania. Artistry and schizophrenia have therefore been shown to be similar in their reduction of their environment to fragments of first principles, but it is only the artist who can rebuild these fragments.

However, the distinction between vostorg and vdokhnovania is no so clear in the case of the postmodern artist.
The postmodernist only disconnects; fragments are all he pretends to trust. […] Hence his preference for montage, collage, the found or cut-up literary object, for paratactic over hypotactic forms, metonymy over metaphor, schizophrenia over paranoia. […] Thus Jean-Francois Lyotard exhorts, “Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.” The age demands differences, shifting signifiers, and even atoms dissolve into elusive subparticles, a mere mathematical whisper.11

Ihab Hassan’s elucidation of the postmodernist shows that fragmentation, the antithesis of totality, is more than just a forefather of “new harmony” through assimilation. Fragmentation is something to be trusted as a mode of representation in itself, hence postmodernism’s preoccupation with “schizophrenia over paranoia.” The vdokhnovania stage of artistic formulation is then complicated; the postmodernist does not wish to wage a war on totality only to create a new totality of supposed “harmony”. Frederic Jameson, in his 1991 study, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, argues that postmodern art has a specifically linguistic debt to schizophrenia.12 His explanation of the schizophrenic style begins at Lacan, who “describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain.”13 The chain of signifiers is based on the Saussurean principle that a signifier exists because it is different to other signifiers; meaning is brought about by the combination of these signifiers within a sentence: “[w]hen that relationship breaks down, when the links of the signifying chain snap, then we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.”14 Jameson then argues that this destruction results in “a sentence in free-standing isolation.”15 Schizophrenia in postmodernism is therefore a linguistic as well as a perceptive phenomenon. In Richard Tull’s stupefaction by first principles, “A car in the street. Why? Why cars?”, the italicisation is pertinent. It not only denotes a preoccupation with the essentiality of the object, but also with its name. First principles are both conceptions of things at their simplest, and the names of these things. Artistry is built upon the elemental of perception, and of language; for Amis, language is the artist’s raw material. Amis’s verbal ingenuity is what makes his style so unique and has earned him the media tag, “overlord of the OED.”16 His persistent innovation through Hassan’s “shifting signifiers” results in a fragmented style indebted both to Nabokov and to postmodernism. With these foundations, we shall see how Amis’s style equips itself for the war against cliché.

(ii) The War Against Cliché
In the Foreword to The War Against Cliché (2001), a collection of his reviews, Amis outlines his definition of good writing:
To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.17
Clichés of the pen, being manifestations of clichés of the mind and heart, are the most conspicuous failings of writing and it is these which Amis persistently strives to combat. It is his commitment to verbal ingenuity that attracts the most praise as well as the most criticism; a phenomenon which was no more apparent than in the media frenzy that preceded the publication of Yellow Dog in 2003. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst praised Amis for his linguistic proficiency:
Faced with writing of this quality, the temptation for the reviewer is simply to quote as much as possible without getting in the way: the “neutral madness” of a sparrow's eye; the sound of “unserious panic” coming from a playground; the “motion jigsaw” of a swimming pool.18

In Douglas-Fairhurst’s three examples, the adjective looks like it belongs elsewhere, pulling away from the noun’s usual context. The inherited, clichéd sense in which the noun is commonly interpreted is jarred by the adjective and the reader’s perception of that noun is altered. Unfamiliar lexical unions pervade his fiction: Charles Highway awakes from the “gentle coma”19 of a drug induced haze in The Rachel Papers (1974); foreigners who pass him in the street are “gentrified rats”20 according to John Self in Money (1984); the “disobliging turbidity of dead water”21 in London Fields (1989); and childbirth is dubbed an “ordinary miracle” (TI p.132) in The Information. This linguistic innovation is an example of Hassan’s “shifting signifiers” which are part of Lyotard’s “war on totality”; for Amis this is also a war against cliché. Unconnected words are Amis’s first principles, the fragments of language, and he seeks to put them together not only to create a “new harmony” but to make his construction striking in its originality. In doing so, Amis’s style draws attention to its war on cliché. Furthermore, Amis is a keen inventor of neologisms, which, like the unfamiliar lexical unions, force the reader to refocus on a common object in a new light. Again, examples pervade Amis’s writing, and even in his first novel, The Rachel Papers, he shows his propensity for this technique: “I’d like to […] bear down on her in the steamed-up dressing-room or, better, much better, in some nicotine-mantled puddle, and grind myself empty to her screams.” (p.134) The “nicotine-mantled puddle” provides more stimulation for the fantasising Charles Highway than the mere “steamed-up dressing-room” because it is his own fictional creation, carefully tailored to his desires.
A secondary OED definition of “neologism” is “[a] nonsense word interpolated in an otherwise correct sentence by a person suffering from a neuropsychiatric disorder, esp. schizophrenia.”22 This feature of Amis’s style is also one common to the schizophrenic; Dan of ‘Insight in Flame Lake’ also uses neologisms, as mentioned earlier. Invention is also active in Amis’s naming on a wider scale. A haircut in Money becomes a “rug rethink”23, Keith’s jacket in London Fields becomes a “windcheater” (p.180) and the writers of the Morning Lark (an ironic name) in Yellow Dog dub their patrons “wankers” (p.24) instead of readers. Also, his naming of characters is innovative and often humorous: ‘Keith Talent’ (London Fields) is clearly ironic; ‘John Self ’ (Money) is a blatant labelling of the character’s quintessence; ‘Mary Lamb’ (Other People, 1981) denotes the character’s innocence and naivety whilst becoming ironic at the end of the novel; likewise ‘Gregory Riding’ and ‘Terrence Service’ (Success, 1978) shows the characters’ social position before this is revealed as fallacious. A further way in which Amis innovates is by subverting clichés. “I’m a short fuse artist myself but even I need longer than that. It takes me at least a couple of seconds before I recognize the last straw. But to some people every straw is the last straw.” (p.109) Money’s narrator, John Self, reasons that if there is a “last straw” then there must be a series of straws before it, each one somehow indicating a level of anger. The cliché is illuminated as ridiculous, detached from what it ought to signify, and it is from this ridicule that Amis derives his humour. Through his unfamiliar lexical unions, use of neologism, ironic naming and subversion of cliché, Amis’s linguistic innovation in combating “clichés of the pen” is evident. But Amis is also concerned with tackling clichés of the mind and heart. An example from London Fields shows that he does this by developing extended metaphors of his own.

The trouble with love, he thought, or the trouble with this love anyway (it would seem), is that it’s so totalitarian. In the realm of the intellect, how idle to look for the Answer to Everything; idler still to find it. Yet with the emotions … what’s the big idea? Love. Love is the Big Idea. With its dialectical imperatives, its rewrites, its thought police, its knock on the door at three a.m. Love makes you use the blind man, makes you hope for death in Cambodia, makes you pleased that your own son writhes – deep in the Peter Pan Ward. Bring on the Holocaust for a piece of ass. Because the loved one, this loved one, really could turn the house into a bomb. (p.278)
The cliché of the mind, penned as ‘love conquers all’, is not decimated here, but grabbed with fervour and rigorously examined. Guy Clinch agrees with the ubiquity of love expressed by the cliché, but interrogates it finding that oppression of the self as well as a blinkered morality are unwanted by-products of such a rudimentary emotion. Therefore the idea ceases to be a cliché and provides raw, unmediated insight into Guy’s current state of mind. Amis’s war against cliché has been shown to exemplify the “shifting signifiers” feature of Hassan’s postmodernism, but this then leads to a fragmented prose style, to use Jameson’s terms, “a sentence in free-standing isolation”; a feature of Amis’s style that he is often criticised for.

In his review of Yellow Dog, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes that a common criticism of Amis’s novels was that they resembled “spasms of style that never quite fitted into a single design. The niggling doubt was that he worried too much that a flat phrase would sever his imaginative connection to the world, and not enough that all his carefully chosen words didn’t necessarily add up to a novel.”24 John Walsh makes this point in his chronology of Amis’s literary life, “[h]is fans had to concede that, while he was clearly the finest writer in the country, he was by no means the finest novelist.”25 The accusation is that whilst a fine writer can build the finest sentences, he does not necessarily construct the finest novels. Ceaselessly striving to combat the cliché leads then to a fragmented style, quotable but not necessarily coherent. Adam Mars-Jones criticises ‘Bujak and the Strong Force or God’s Dice’ in Einstein’s Monsters for this: “[t]he hyperbolic phrases Amis gives him promote every flinch into a stylistic swagger, every whimper into a growl.”26 Mars-Jones follows with a series of examples and furthers his critique from one of language to include Amis’s ability as a writer. He says that Amis’s style “represents a radical doubt about the business of writing, an authorial identity crisis that can be postponed by having each sentence declare the presence of the author.”27 The result of this, so it is argued, is “overkill”28; he is a self-obsessed foot soldier in the battle against cliché of every sentence who is unaware of the wider war of the novel as a whole. As I have shown, Amis is unrelenting in his many different approaches to the war against cliché in the construction of his sentences. However, I shall argue that in retaining the linguistic and perceptive fragments from which it was constructed, Amis’s style bears the scars of Nabokov’s theory of inspiration. These scars of destruction and reconstruction are evidence that the prose has gone through the necessary artistic process, they emphatically show the reader that the writing has won the war against cliché. Amis’s prose is therefore explicit in its own artistry; it relentlessly proclaims itself as ‘good writing.’

(iii) Style and Morality
This stylistic proclamation is not dissimilar to Moloch’s in its ferocity, but where Moloch is anchoring for revenge, devoid of any ethical consciousness, Amis has, in some part, an moral purpose. As mentioned earlier, Jameson stated that schizophrenia was a linguistic as well as a perceptive phenomenon, and for Amis style and perception are inextricably linked. In Experience he writes: “I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified.” (p.121n) Morality skews perception and perception is relayed in style, therefore style assumes a moral hue. It would be overly simplistic to say that meritocracy in literature is fundamental because it denotes right and wrong, but for Amis, bad writing is a symptom of an indifferent attitude to human cruelty and suffering. The unexamined perception inherent within clichéd language serves as a receptacle for ideology, which, unchallenged, may continue or magnify its oppression. While the innovation and freshness of good writing may have no measurable impact on the injustice and immorality prevalent in the world, it encourages the reader to look more closely at their environment and be less accepting of common judgements that are often treated as fact. In order to examine how Amis’s best writing achieves this, it is necessary to see why his weaker writing fails.
‘Bujak and the Strong Force or God’s Dice’ suffers from Amis’s moral viewpoint on nuclear weapons which is declared at the outset of the collection. However, the Author’s Note rebukes this:
The introductory essay, ‘Thinkability’, is polemical, but the stories that follow were written with the usual purpose in mind: that is to say, with no purpose at all – except, I suppose, to give pleasure, various kinds of complicated pleasure. (Einstein’s Monsters p.ix)

But the pleasure derived from ‘Bujak and the Strong Force or God’s Dice’ is complicated by the polemical essay, which anchors it to one moral viewpoint. Therefore the story becomes a shallow fable exhibiting the folly of nuclear war. The narrator’s hope that Bujak’s “arms”29, which are “weapons of monstrous power”30 (EM p.27), would be a deterrent to oblivion is shown to be flawed when Bujak’s family is raped and murdered. Contrary to expectation, Bujak does not retaliate by killing the culprits because there would be no “reason”.31 Following this act of heroism, the narrator enforces the moral on the reader: “And now that Bujak has laid down his arms, I don’t know why, but I am minutely stronger.”32 The result is a monologic story in which the unity of style gives rise to a solitary moral, one which has already been expressed in the polemical essay. To further Mars-Jones’s earlier criticism, it is now apparent that Amis’s commitment to ‘good literature’ is undercut by there being no ‘bad literature’ in to compare it to. His moral appears trite because there are no oppositional forces, no other styles of writing. To enforce this point I shall argue that the reverse is also true; Amis’s best writing emanates when he differentiates between good and bad writing, which he does through parody.

(iv) Parody
Parody is the engine for Amis’s satire: Charles Highway of The Rachel Papers dreams of being a literary critic, a parody of the aspiring young artist; Dead Babies (1975) “is a perverse variant on the British genre of the country house weekend novel made popular by P G Wodehouse”33; Other People is a parody of the detective novel; Nicola Six of London Fields parodies the fantasies of whoever she chooses to let into her abode; ‘The Little Puppy That Could’, ‘The Immortals’ in Einstein’s Monsters and ‘The Janitor on Mars’ in Heavy Water and Other Stories parody science fiction; Night Train (1997) is a pastiche of American detective fiction; and Yellow Dog parodies a number of styles including those of the text message, the popular autobiography, the tabloid newspaper and the documentary language of the social historian. I shall analyse how Amis parodies the latter in Yellow Dog showing how bad writing is blind to moral awareness and an unerring symptom of misology.
When Xan Meo visits Lovetown, home of the American pornography industry, he notices that “people very often accidentally called Lovetown Fucktown.” Xan soon discovers that this evolution from ‘love’ to ‘fuck’ is not solely linguistic as is demonstrated by Karla White’s chronology of porn production.

Hatefuck evolved very naturally in a way,’ said the voice of Karla White, ‘because there had never been … any love lost between the actors and the actresses. […]

Cockout is a sub-genre, or an anti-genre, within Hatefuck. Much prized for its rarity, Cockout occurs when the man actually succeeds in arousing the woman – to such a point where she stops calling him a piece of shit and starts offering encouragement or even praise. The father of Cockout, Lover, Trash My Ass, was an uncontrollable hit. Nothing like Princess Lolita, but very considerable business.

Very soon, “I cocked her out” became the pet boast of the porno male, “He cocked me out” the pet peeve of the porno female. But its rarity created pressure, giving rise to a further sub-genre, Bullshit Cockout. Bullshit Cockout is when the – usually very minor – porno female pretends, after grim resistance, to get herself cocked out. And a lot of ten-year-old porno started being recycled as, in effect, Bullshit Cockout, suggesting that that was what porno was, all along: Bullshit Cockout. (Yellow Dog pp.287-8)

Karla’s explanation of the generic phenomenon “Cockout” is built on the cliché of there being ‘no love lost’ between the actors and actresses. The reader can assume that Karla wishes to express that the industry is fuelled by individualism repressing any form of communality; but her use of the cliché is meditated, as shown by the pause, and reminds the reader that “love” was something that was always foreign to those involved. This individualism is relative, the competition between the crudely labelled “porno male” and “porno female” is such that skill and success are determined by conquering and shaming one’s colleague. Karla proceeds to tell the recent history of pornography like a reporter, using a terse, economic style as if she were describing contemporary trends in music or drama. Karla’s clinical report makes sentiment of any kind redundant as it adds no value to proceedings. This parody of the social historian destroys any link between intercourse and love. Amis’s word choice is particularly adept at propelling the parody. “Cockout” evokes the term “cock-up”: a mistake, something to be derided. Indeed inside the world of porno, any genuine arousal or pleasure in an actor shows his or her susceptibility to the affectations of other people, which is perceived as a lack of control and therefore a weakness. Similarly withholding the genuine, the title of the film that fathered “Cockout” spikes the passage with the word “Lover”, which then implodes through the following, “Trash My Ass.” The evolution of pornographic trends is categorised by the addition of a word, like modernism evolving into postmodernism. “Cockout” thus becomes “Bullshit Cockout”, a grotesque term for the portrayal of sex during which the participants seem to pleasure each other. Contemporary pornography, as Karla White presents it, is no longer an imitation or derivation of sexual intercourse but has become a substitute for it. Only in “ten-year-old porno” do the actors even feign satisfaction; in the present day, it is implied, this is not a requirement. Pornography, the sign, has murdered what it used to signify, and Karla’s style, lacking in interrogation, self-awareness and imagination, is similarly two-dimensional, devoid of humanity in any form. Amis’s parody demonstrates that using a received vocabulary necessarily limits one’s perceptions and therefore their emotional range; a result of which, as shown by Karla, is a morally repugnant perspective.Hence the importance of declaring war on the cliché.

To emphasise the shallowness of Karla’s reporting style, in addition to the many other styles which are parodied throughout the novel, Amis binds the passages together with his conspicuous, innovative voice. Amis’s customary style, as argued earlier, exhibits its virtue to the reader and so takes on a moral seriousness, as shown by the following example of good writing. As a parent of two young girls, Xan Meo’s conscience is plagued by the corruption of childhood innocence:
But it was when he was alone in the flat at night that he really did his work with the little girls. He lay there twisting, arching, squirming, seeing them hurt, harmed, taken, their flesh pierced, their bones snapped, the shells of their skulls meeting concrete or steel. They’re mine and I can’t protect them. So why not rend them? Why not rape them? (Yellow Dog p.216)

This passage bears a feature of common occurrence in Amis’s style: what Mars-Jones calls “the cadenced triptych of synonyms.”34 However, one who merely labels the cadenced triptych “hurt, harmed, taken” a series of synonyms fails to comprehend the style’s interrogative nature. These three adjectives are like concentric rings, becoming progressively closer to a parent’s worst fears. A “hurt” child is worrying but not necessarily serious. A “harmed” child is distressing because the hurt is more specific; it was caused intentionally. A “taken” child is worst of all due to the limitless possibilities open to its fate. Faced with such despair, Xan lashes towards the grotesque in questioning why he should not “rend” or “rape” his children because relative to the totality of possibilities of pain open to a “taken” child, the words “rend” and “rape” lose their significance. The measured way in which Xan searches for words to convey his feeling of unknowing and feebleness contrasts with Karla White’s finiteness and clarity. In saying “hurt, harmed, taken” Xan is using three words which leaver each other towards a singular, seemingly inexpressible sense of fear. Nevertheless, he pursues this fear, appropriating his language as he sees fit. Conversely, Karla appears oblivious to the immoral and inhuman farce of her physical and linguistic surroundings and so by acquiescing to them, she becomes an object of ridicule herself.
(v) Victory
Using Bakhtinian terms, Yellow Dog is enabled by its use of “heteroglossia”, the interplay of discourses and dialects. The effect of parody in exposing bad writing is embellished by the interrogative, Amisian voice that binds the novel together. Karla speaks in a monologue, as emphasised by the italics, while Xan, in the passage above, asks questions through the narrator thus creating an environment for the interrelationship of dialogue between author and reader. This distinction between monologue and dialogue is vital for Bakhtin, who argues that this environment is produced to its fullest within the form of the novel. In ‘Discourse in the Novel’, he praises the novel for its “dialogic orientation of a word amongst other words”.35 He later states that “[t]he word, directed towards its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships”.36 It is the combination of styles present in Yellow Dog that makes it more successful than ‘Bujak and the Strong Force or God’s Dice’, which, as I argued earlier, was monologic. The many accents, voices, concurrent plots and parodied styles in Yellow Dog create an environment where words can react with and against each other within the narrative as the novel becomes a battleground of linguistic warfare. But the presentation of this war is not without bias. As we have seen, style is morality for Amis and so the war of words has much more at stake; it is a defence against the death of morality. If we take Amis’s customary innovative but often overkilling voice as ‘good writing’, by his own definition, then the voices and styles that he parodies become the clichéd ‘bad writing’ that he is warring against. Their defeat, orchestrated of course by the author, subsequently serves to magnify the virtues of Amis’s customary voice. The sentence is made for open war, and we are left in no doubt whose sentence wins. In vaunting his own style, Amis is also exhibiting the morality within it; a style which constantly innovates, interrogating and exposing the depravity and barbarism of the world around us.

The literary press is quick to put this self-vaunting down to arrogance and narcissism but without ruling out these accusations I have offered further suggestions why this may be the case: his innovative sentence construction retains the stamp of Nabokov’s theory of artistic inspiration as evidence of its fine artistry; and through parody his voice emanates as superior, mocking other uninventive and unimaginative styles. Schizophrenia has been shown to influence Amis’s style, both as the perceptive vostorg stage of Nabokov’s artistic creation and as a mode of postmodern representation. The reader is confronted with a style that aggrandises itself to such an extent that they are encouraged to judge it, formulating their own, personal conception of what is ‘good’; themselves engaging in the war against totality and second-hand truths penned as clichés. By constantly reinventing it through his linguistic virtuosity, Amis attunes the reader to the intricacies of the world around us and so enforces the moral imperative for meritocracy in literature.


Amis, Martin, Einstein’s Monsters, (St. Ives, 1988).

Amis, Martin, Experience, (London, 2000).

Amis, Martin, London Fields, (London, 1999).

Amis, Martin, Money: A Suicide Note, (London, 2000).

Amis, Martin, Other People: A Mystery Story, (St. Ives, 1982).

Amis, Martin, Success, (Reading, 1985).

Amis, Martin, The Information, (St. Ives, 1995).

Amis, Martin, The Rachel Papers, (St. Ives, 1984).

Amis, Martin, The War Against Cliché Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 (London,


Amis, Martin, Yellow Dog, (London, 2003).

Bakhtin, M.M., The Dialogic Imagination Four Essays, (Austin, 1981), ed. Michael

Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.

Diedrick, James, Understanding Martin Amis, (Columbia, 2004).

Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert, ‘Dickens With A Snarl’, Observer 24th August 2003.

Fischer, Tibor, ‘Someone needs to have a word with Amis’, The Daily Telegraph, 4

August 2003.

Hassan, Ihab, ‘Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective’, Critical Inquiry (Spring 1986).

Jameson, Frederic, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

(London, 1991).

Jones, Lewis, ‘The living V-sign’, Daily Telegraph 26th January 2001.

Nabokov, Vladimir, ‘The Creative Writer’, New England Modern Languages

Association Bulletin, 1 (January 1942).

Oxford English Dictionary Online.

Tredell, Nicolas, ed. The Fiction of Martin Amis (Trumpington, 2000).

Walsh, John, ‘Twilight of the Idol?’, Independent 15th August 2003.

1 Amis, Martin, The Information, (St. Ives, 1995), p.62. All further references appear in the text.

2 Jones, Lewis, ‘The living V-sign’, Daily Telegraph 26th January 2001. Despite his satiric tone, Amis says this ‘with only a degree of sarcasm’ because it is clear that he despises democratisation. He calls it “insidious” earlier in the same article and in Yellow Dog he writes: “[Xan Meo] was however, quietly famous, as so many are now: many are famous (and even Meo could remember a time when hardly anybody was famous). Fame had so democratised itself that obscurity was felt as a deprivation or even a punishment.” Martin Amis, Yellow Dog, (London, 2003), p.8. All further references appear in the text.

3 Amis, Martin, Experience, (London, 2000), p.119n. All further references appear in the text.

4 Nabokov, Vladimir, ‘The Creative Writer’, New England Modern Languages Association Bulletin, 1 (January 1942), p.26

5 Ibid. p.26

6 Ibid. p.28

7 Ibid. p.29

8 Ibid. p.27

9 David Profumo, ‘Interview: David Profumo drops in on Martin Amis’, Literary Review, 107 (May 1987), pp.41-2 in Nicolas Tredell ed., The Fiction of Martin Amis (Trumpington, 2000) p. 82.

10 Amis, Martin, Einstein’s Monsters, (St. Ives, 1988), ‘Insight At Flame Lake’ pp.49-67; p.62. All further references appear in the text as ‘Insight’.

11 Hassan, Ihab, ‘Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective’, Critical Inquiry (Spring 1986), pp.503-520; p. 505.

12 This postmodern discussion is relevant in analysing Amis’s style: Hassan’s article was written in 1986 and Jameson’s study is largely of contemporary culture in the 1980s, Amis’s most prolific decade.

13 Jameson, Frederic, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London, 1991), p.26.

14 Ibid. p.26

15 Ibid. p.28

16 Fischer, Tibor, ‘Someone needs to have a word with Amis’, The Daily Telegraph, 4th August 2003.

17 Amis, Martin, The War Against Cliché Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 (London, 2001) p.xv.

18 Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert, ‘Dickens With A Snarl’, Observer 24th August 2003.

19 Amis, Martin, The Rachel Papers, (St. Ives, 1984) p.55. All further references appear in the text.

20 Amis, Martin, Money: A Suicide Note, (London, 2000), p.267. All further references appear in the text.

21 Amis, Martin, London Fields, (London, 1999), p.296. All further references appear in the text.

22 Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “neologism”.

23 As noted in Diedrick, James, Understanding Martin Amis, (Columbia, 2004), p.82.

24 Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert, ‘Dickens With A Snarl’.

25 Walsh, John, ‘Twilight of the Idol?’, Independent 15th August 2003, ‘Features’, pp.2-3.

26 Mars-Jones, Adam, Venus Envy, (London 1990), p.8; extracted in The Fiction of Martin Amis, p. 85.

27 Ibid. p.85

28 Ibid. p.84

29 Einstein’s Monsters, ‘Bujak and the Strong Force or God’s Dice’, pp.25-48; p.27

30 Ibid. p.27

31 Ibid. p.46

32 Ibid. p.47

33 Understanding Martin Amis, p.40.

34 Mars-Jones, Adam, The Fiction of Martin Amis, p.86.

35 Bakhtin, M.M., The Dialogic Imagination Four Essays, (Austin, 1981), ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, p.275.

36 Ibid. p.276


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