The Rub of Time review: stylistic essays played on male court
Self-declared ‘gynocrat’ Martin Amis applies patriarchal privilege to little real effect
Martin Amis: Despite his virtuosity and stylistic brilliance, in The Rub of Time boys play and women are watched. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Rub of Time. Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump. Essays and Reportage, 1986 - 2016
“I peaked at the age of 40.” This admission comes in one of two, joyously self-deprecating essays collected here about Martin Amis’s beautiful game. “I noticed that I was losing to my erstwhile equals; then I started losing to people I had never lost to; then I started losing to absolutely everybody . . . The ball comes over the net like a strange surprise: you just stand there and watch until, with a senescent spasm, you bustle off to meet it.”
As the choice of “bustle” suggests, his prose is in better shape. As in tennis, Martin Amis boasts a range of lightly executed master strokes, and sustains an entertaining game. There is the “looping forehand” evident in his analysis of the “comic and deflationary” pleasures of the greats of Jewish-American fiction (Nabokov, Bellow, Roth, firmly seeded 1, 2, 3). The “accurate backhand slice” is lethally deployed in his reportage for Newsweek covering the Republican Party conventions in 2011 and 2012. The defensive lob (“far and away my most effective weapon”) scores points in gossipy pieces about the effects of celebrity on his authorial ego (“People say that novelists, nowadays, are like rock stars. On what planet are they living? It’s been that way for years.”) Most of his neologisms are aces. “Jingobilly” for “the kind of patriotic folk music” performed for the Republican crowd in a Tampa Bay convention centre. “Horrorism”, served up to cover massacre by suicide bombing, cost him the match in a 2006 tournament about his views on Islamist terrorism against opponents, heavy-hitter Pankaj Mishra, and the unseeded Terry Eagleton. The sting of that loss smarts in several pieces collected here.
The trouble with these rankings is that the Amis centre court is exclusively reserved for the male tournament
Amis is as big a personality on the literary court as the players he lionises. The critical distinctions he draws between Vladimir Nabokov, the patrician émigré spinning “divine levity” out of his family’s flight from the Holocaust, and Saul Bellow, the loving immigrant with a visionary intellectual range and sentience, most often hit the mark. But the trouble with these rankings is that the Amis centre court is exclusively reserved for the male tournament. And this phallocentrism also informs his choice of critical terms. He approvingly notes Nabokov’s description of the generative “throb” or “shiver” necessary to fiction, an ejaculatory metaphor he adopts for his own creative process, despite the qualms he articulates about Nabokov’s thirst for pre-teen girls evident in six of his 19 fictions.
In The Rub of Time, boys play, and women are watched as ball girls. The contents page features two female writers, Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch, but their presence here is mediated through the narrow lens of male film directors. In “Jane Austen and the Dream Factory”, we find Martin Amis as Regency buck scorning the “Darcymania” inspired by screen adaptations, including “the bottomlessly horrible” Four Weddings and a Funeral, manfully endured in the company of Salman Rushdie. His review of Murdoch unconsciously colludes in rubbing out “the most intelligent woman in Britain”, an Amis family friend, by reading back through her fiction to discover “the fever of fragility” running through “its vigorous imperium”.A defensive player might counter that he recognises patriarchal privilege as his own back line, and masculinity his field of play. And it is instructive how he negotiates the sexual politics of his chosen greats through their minor works and correspondence, Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, Philip Larkin’s Letters, Nabokov’s Ada (“that incontinent splurge”) and The Original of Laura. His common diagnosis is that these texts fail due to the unpersuasive lack of distance between authorial desire or prejudice, and the narrative device. The charge-sheet is drawn up on the only valid literary grounds, those of style. These are aesthetic flaws without socio-political or moral consequence. He states, “the charge of misogyny etc is just a straight-forward category error”, an inappropriate question to raise of capital L “Literature”, and adds: “The right-on heroine . . . is of no conceivable interest to any genuine writer: besides, she is well-represented in any number of admiring narratives – and you can get all you want of them at the airport.”
The fact that a woman’s body has a head on top of it isn’t much more than a detail
In Time’s Arrow, the more successful of his two formally innovative novels about the Holocaust, the unreliable narrator notes of his Nazi protagonist and alter ego: “Women’s bodies bring out all his finer feelings. The fact that a woman’s body has a head on top of it isn’t much more than a detail.” The relationship is governed by synecdoche: a woman’s anatomical parts stand in for the (“w” as an optional extra) hole. As a competitor at the World Series Poker Tournament, Amis soaks up the Sin City atmosphere: “I am now old enough to inspect the attendant girls with an anthropologist’s eye: astonishingly, the average set of vital statistics would go something like 38E - 28 - 26,” but cannot resist a connoisseur’s postscript: “these top-heavy buttless wonders wouldn’t turn any heads in Rio where surgery ‘takes place below the waist’”.
Amis prefers to declare himself “a gynocrat” – rather than a feminist – yet when his finer feelings are evoked, the chivalric desire to protect women is still articulated in synecdochal terms. The Iranian, Neda Soltan, a “defiant individualist” killed while protesting against the re-election of Ahmadinejad, is iconised as “the gentle face of the modern” and in this rhetorical flourish, her individuality is erased. Similarly, Princess Diana is “a non-story, remorselessly and fanatically annotated by our own projections and desires”.
And yet, a gonzo joy is evident in enumerating all the acts and parts performed
An extended piece of reportage from a hardcore porn set concludes in accidentally punning terms: “I satisfied myself that porno is now so baldly misogynistic that the only desire it arouses is a desire to be elsewhere.” And yet, a gonzo joy is evident in enumerating all the acts and parts performed. In a phallocentric order, where chivalry allows sentimentality and hardcore pornography to co-exist, rubbed-out women provide a safety valve for bathos that would otherwise threaten to unman the hardened witness.
In his introduction to The Second Plane (2008), Amis announced: “Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is.” In an age when geopolitics and misogyny converge, to articulate violence against women in synecdochal terms – “grab them by the pussies” – then for all the reasons above, it’s Amis’s commentary you want to read. “Narcissus is auto-erotic, Trump is self-aroused.” Trump is “a gawker, groper, and a gloater” but in his choice of public venues for making passes at women, he betrays “a sexual yellow streak”.
For all its virtuosity and stylistic brilliance, The Rub of Time clearly reveals the chalk-dust in its game.
- Selina Guinness lectures in Irish literature at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and edited The New Irish Poets