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Review: A powerful 'Experience'
(CNN) -- "My life, it seems to me, is ridiculously shapeless," Martin Amis confesses. "I know what makes a good narrative, and lives don't have much of that -- pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness." That may be true, but the account the British author gives in his memoir "Experience" demonstrates that his life has kept him quite busy.
Amis casts a long shadow across the contemporary literary landscape. Aside from being a novelist, journalist and critic, he has been acquainted with some of the most important figures in the field. Not the least of them was his father, Kingsley Amis. "Experience" would be well worth reading if he did nothing but reflect on what it is like to grow up in the company of such an overwhelming presence.
The relationship between father and son, however, is just a part of the story Martin Amis tells. Fundamentally, "Experience" is about coming of age. The author comes of age not once, but repeatedly during the course of his first fifty years. Growing up, he tells us, is something that happens in fits and starts.
His first dose of maturity came fairly early, when his parents divorced. They both remarried, forcing him to grow up still more. Events in his adult life matured him further -- his first job, his first novel, his first marriage, fatherhood, celebrity, divorce. None of them, however, prepared him for what he calls "Main Events."
He provides surprisingly few details about those events, perhaps because they were all quite well publicized, particularly by the British tabloids. One of them was the utter collapse of his teeth. In the mid-1990s, Amis traveled to New York for extensive and protracted oral surgery. Fleet Street dismissed it as vanity. But the author provides ample evidence to rebut that allegation.
"I know all about the expert musicianship of toothaches," he writes, "their brass, woodwind and percussion, and, most predominantly, their strings, their strings (Bach's 'Concerto for Cello' struck me, when I recently heard it performed, as a faultless transcription of a toothache -- the persistence, the irresistible persuasiveness). Toothaches can play it staccato, glissando, accelerando, prestissimo and above all fortissimo. They can do rock, blues and soul, they can do doowop and bebop, they can do heavy metal, rap, punk and funk. And beneath all this anarchical stridor there was a lone, soft, insistent voice, always audible to my abject imagination: the tragic keening of the castrato."
Other "Main Events" produced a different kind of pain. The year his first novel appeared, one of his cousins disappeared. Twenty years would pass before anyone knew that she was a victim of Frederick West, the serial killer. Amis writes movingly about the agony her disappearance caused, and the greater agony when her fate became known. Not long thereafter, Amis was hit with a double blow -- the loss of his father, and the discovery of a long-lost daughter.
Perhaps, as the author confesses, "Experience" doesn't have the kind of shape a narrative requires. But in this case, that is not a weakness. Amis has chosen not to recall events from his life chronologically. His memoir meanders -- though it never rambles -- back and forth across the years of his various growing-ups. It is filled with stories about people as diverse as Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. A reader broadly familiar with contemporary literature will be delighted by many of the anecdotes and wry asides. But such familiarity is not a prerequisite for enjoying the book. All that's required is respect for a writer who loves and commands the English language. Martin Amis does both in full measure.
The Martin Amis Web
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