Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, October 12, 2012

Martin Amis, "The Shock of the New"

I HAVE DEVOTED more time than I should have to trying to parse the final paragraph of Amis back-page essay for the September 2 New York Times Book Review.  His ostensible subject: the 5oth anniversary of Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.  He concluded so:

In his 1973 book on Joyce, “Joysprick,” Burgess made a provocative distinction between what he calls the “A” novelist and the “B” novelist: the A novelist is interested in plot, character and psychological insight, whereas the B novelist is interested, above all, in the play of words. The most famous B novel is “Finnegans Wake,” which Nabokov aptly described as “a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room.” The B novel, as a genre, is now utterly defunct; and “A Clockwork Orange” may be its only long-term survivor. It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration. Anthony Burgess, then, is not “a minor B novelist,” as he described himself; he is the only B novelist. I think he would have settled for that.

The B novel is defunct? I have to presume Amis is aware of the work of Harry Matthews, Paul Auster, Anne Carson, Ben Marcus, Tom McCarthy, Selah Saterstrom, Blake Butler, Miranda Mellis, Laird Hunt, and quite a few others, so he must be saying that even though such novels are being written, they somehow do not count. 

And if A Clockwork Orange is the only B novel that still "survives," among the non-survivors, apparently, are the entire oeuvres of Samuel Beckett, William Gaddis, Thomas Bernhard, David Markson, David Foster Wallace...not to mention Woolf, Joyce, and even, as I reckon things, Amis's  beloved Nabokov.

So he can't really be saying that, can he?

Or is he just a thick idiot?

I suspect that the only Amis novels with half a shot at intriguing posterity are precisely those in which he most nearly approaches "B"-ness: London Fields, perhaps Success or Money. I think he may end up his generation's Wyndham Lewis--there are always going to be people (including myself, to be honest) drawn to his distinctive style, bristling and envenomed, but there's just not enough oxygen in his (or Lewis's) novels for anyone to read them for any other reason.  And here he is pissing all over the Bs. Who does he think he is?

Well, he thinks he's Martin Amis, obviously.