Martin Amis has never been just one sort of writer. He’s arguably most recognized as the masterful novelist behind Money and London Fields, but he’s adept at nonfiction as well. His most recent book, The Rub of Time, is a collection of essays, literary criticism, and reportage published in the New Yorker, the Guardian, the Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere between 1986 and 2017.
In a telephone interview with the Straight, Amis reveals that his next work will be an autobiographical novel. It won’t be a memoir—he has already written one of those, called Experience, which was published in 2000. No, what Amis is working on now falls under the broad umbrella of “life writing”. And it’s not coming easily to him.
“I’ve been trying to write this book for about 15 years,” he explains, speaking from a Toronto hotel room. “It’s mostly about other people, other writers. I’m finding it more and more unsatisfactory, the idea of life writing, and I say so in the course of the novel. There’s quite a lot of lit crit in it, and I found a sort of pretext for the whole project by realizing that, in a way, it’s a novel that combines the essay-writing part of me with the fiction-writing.
“But it’s not fictional enough,” Amis continues. “There’s not enough freedom, because you’re writing about real events, and the subconscious doesn’t seem to have much to do in this project, as it doesn’t have much to do when you’re writing an essay. I’m gonna finish it, and it’s long, so I’m not really expecting it to be very popular or well-received. But I’ve got to get it done, and then I can get on with writing a novel about race in America, which is more exciting to me.”
That, indeed, is a topic that seems to animate the 68-year-old British author. For the past eight or so years, Amis has lived in Brooklyn, and it was with some horror that he witnessed the political ascent of Donald J. Trump (as documented in a pair of biting pieces in The Rub of Time), first to the head of the pack of Republican Party nominees, and then to the White House.
Like anyone possessed of a sense of decency, Amis was appalled by Trump’s courting of the more extreme elements of the American right, including the unapologetic white supremacists he notoriously described as “very fine people”.
“That’s an amazing thing to have done, to do it do so brazenly, to reopen the wound in American history that will never heal,” Amis says. “The central hypocrisy of the whole American idea—you know, committed to the proposition ‘that all men are created equal’, said in 1776, when there were five million Africans under chattel slavery in the South. Absolute hypocritical rubbish. And he [Trump] thought, ‘I’ll prise that wound open, because there is advantage.’ ”
Trump and his ilk are on the wrong side of history, a point Amis makes by invoking some of the more indelible images from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Specifically, he cites the example of then-six-year-old New Orleans schoolgirl Ruby Bridges—the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in 1960. Photos taken on her first day of school show Bridges, accompanied by four federal marshals, walking bravely past an angry white mob.
“And the side you’re on is of the hate-contorted faces, and not of the dignity of that little girl, the honour of that little girl?” Amis says. “What a shameless thing to do. And that footage of the young men at a lunch counter in a department store—four black men surrounded again by those hideous faces. And that’s the side you’re on. The outrageousness of that has taken a long time to sink in.”
(A relevant aside: in the wake of 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings, Amis found himself branded a racist, or at least an Islamophobe, for his views on Islamist terrorism. Amis took pains to clarify that what he opposed was not Islam itself, but the violence carried out in its name by radicalized fanatics. Answering readers’ queries in the Independent in 2007—included in The Rub of Time as “You Ask the Questions 2”—he wrote “The form that vigilante xenophobia is now taking—the harassment and worse of Muslim women in the street—disgusts me. It is mortifying to be part of a society in which any stratum feels under threat.”)
Amis says of the legacy of racism in the still-divided United States, “I can imagine the black population of America getting over it in about half a century, if all the institutional biases are removed. What I can’t imagine—what I think is inconceivable—is that the white population will ever, can ever, should ever, begin to forgive itself for what it’s done. How do you reconcile yourself with that repetitive cruelty of two-and-a-half centuries of slavery and a hundred years of Jim Crow?”
How indeed. And how does one go about writing a novel that addresses such questions? It would seem to demand a writer who is still in full possession of his powers. The theme of the aging wordsmith, of losing one’s original voice and vision in the face of advancing years, is a thread that connects several of the essays in The Rub of Time. Amis admits that he can already feel his own stamina diminishing slightly, but he won’t let that slow him down or—god forbid—stop him writing altogether.
“It’s your life,” he says. “It’s everything to you, apart from your family. But, you know, Philip Roth has done it. You just say, ‘That’s enough’, and I’m sure it’s because you’re feeling those powers slipping away. It’s very tragic, but I think that’s a dignified response to it rather than toiling on…I find it hard to imagine me doing that—but it’s an option.”