I first read Martin Amis while I was working at B. Dalton Booksellers as a clerk. He had just published London Fields, and I remember being totally absorbed in the language and tone that he used. He was the first “postmodernist” that I had read and it was a completely new way of experiencing literature for me. Until then, I was a strong fan of realist fiction and was planning on writing a maters thesis on either Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, or Shakespeare. London Fields is a novel that is both apocalyptic and poetic. Having taught it two years ago, I think it’s as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1989, two years after I graduated from high school.
I have had the good fortune to meet Martin Amis on two occasions. Each time the encounter left me with something I had not expected from an author that was so famous (or perhaps “infamous” is the right word) and had such an influence on me. Amis’s writing is a large part of my early literary education, and I am convinced that without reading him I very well may have ended up going into marketing or advertising as I had originally intended.
The first time I met Amis was when he was doing a reading at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan’s Union Square. The book he was promoting was The Information, a splendid fictional account of the collapse of Amis’s friendship with fellow Brit, Julian Barnes. I love this novel perhaps more than London Fields because of the potential gossip the reader can mine from its incredibly complex and funny prose. I will never forget the night I first heard Amis speak in person. “It was a dark and stormy night,” describes perfectly the weather over Manhattan. I was dating a co-worker at the time (something I absolutely do not recommend) and she was, let’s just say, problematic. The Union Square Barnes & Noble was standing room only and was very excited to meet Amis. This was one of the first book signings I had attended, so I was still a bit star-struck with the thought of meeting authors. I remember Amis coming out and reading for about twenty minutes. He was funny, slightly droll, and charming. For those who don’t know, Amis is very short (about 5’5) and has a wonderful reputation with women—something I always admired about him. When the signing portion of the evening began Amis was seated at a table and the audience began to line up to have books signed. What I remember clearly is that Amis had a large hole in his sock that revealed almost the entire heal of his foot. I was a bit taken aback by this. In a way it cheapened the whole experience for me. This is something I have never forgotten and try as I might, I still cannot get the image of a hole in the sock out of my mind.
The evening got more interesting when my then girlfriend discovered that she left her purse in a cab and panic overtook her. I was wishing I had brought someone else with me and felt little sympathy for my companion. She was troubled and trouble. But this is a story for a different time.
The second time I met Amis was on a cold winter night in Cambridge three years ago. I was waiting in line to get into the venue and I suddenly see Amis walking right for me. No one else seemed to notice, but I looked at him, he looked at me and I said hello. I recall that he had on a black leather jacket, was smoking a trademark cigarette, and when he said “Hi,” I got a face full of cigarette smoke. I still think this is one of the best literary encounters I have had. Amis and I stood together for a second or two on a cold street in Cambridge and exchanged greetings. Cigarette smoke and all, it was magical and more than made up for my earlier memory of the hole in his sock a decade earlier.
Martin Amis is at times maddening. For example, in this week’s Huffington Post he is quoted as saying that he would have to be suffering from a brain injury to write a children’s book. He has also said that Muslim’s should suffer until they get their house in order. Absurd statements like the one above do impact his popularity, but we have come to expect that from authors of such stature. As much as I disagree with him at times, he does make sense a great deal of the time. The fiction of Martin Amis is not for everyone, but for me, he is an important figure in my literary education.