Jennifer Egan: I learned to be funny from Martin Amis

I learned to be funny from Martin Amis.

I don’t mean in person, I’m not funny in person, and I don’t know if Amis wasn’t either. Although our paths crossed a few times after he moved to Brooklyn, I never spoke to him long enough to know if the caustic hilarity of his 20th-century novels, which I devoured in the 1990s and then studied, trying to understand how his humor worked, was it a feature of Amis’s social personality or simply his writing.

Amis’s approach to literary comedy is characterized, above all, by excess: taking the action to an extreme, then taking it further, then further still, until events lead to a sublime synthesis of slapstick, stand-up and Cartoon. I try this often; it feels like an improv. A brief description of Money shows the strategy:

I showered and changed and arrived on time. I ordered a bottle of champagne. I drank it. She didn’t show up. I ordered a bottle of champagne. I drank it. She didn’t show up. So I thought what the fuck and decided that the best thing would be for her to carry me… And once I did, I’m afraid I have to tell you that I threw caution to the wind.

In the light of most readers, the narrator threw a bit of caution to the wind when he drank the first bottle. The joke lands when, after several further bottles, and who knows what else, the debauchery finally gets going. begin.

The same comedic approach underlies one of my favorite Amis scenes of all time, from Information: Two rival writers are passengers on a small plane that proves too heavy to climb above a thunderstorm. A red emergency light has come on. Amis ends the chapter: “Overhead, the cabin lights dimmed, flickered, and dimmed again.” He begins the next chapter:

When the smear of shit appeared on the pilot’s cream-colored behind, Richard knew for sure that all was not well. This piece of shit started out as an islet, a Martha’s Vineyard that soon became Cuba, then Madagascar, then ghastly brown Australia. But that was five minutes ago, and now nobody gave a shit. Not a single passenger, true, had taken the state of the pilot’s pants as a favorable sign, but that was five minutes ago, that was history, and now no one gave a shit, not even the pilot, who was yelling in the microphone, screaming into a world of neighing metal and screeching rivets, screaming in the very language of the storm: its fricatives, its atrocious stops.

What could have been an end point has now been passed, building us to a crescendo (pilot sobs requesting a “dodge apron,” heard by passengers as “dodge apron,” to hide the stain on his pants) involving eschatology, rhetoric, and wildly inventive language. I would call it classic Amis.

The excess serves as more than an aesthetic in Money and Information; it is also the subject of the novels. Its protagonists, along with those of Success and london fields—satisfying enormous appetites for sex, wealth, status, pornography, or some combination thereof—in terms likely to offend some 2023 sensibilities. But sanitizing Amis, à la Roald Dahl, would be impossible; let’s hope no one tries. Though the nauseating edge of her taunts can be read more sharply now, she was always there. There is a hidden side to Amis’ comedic excesses, and that is anxiety about a culture that tends inexorably toward the shallow and mediocre. Our collective yearning for wealth and status occurs, in Amis’s novels, at the expense of her own great passion, which was language: the power of words on a page. Amis wielded that power briskly, pushing, twisting, and squeezing language to exceed its limits. The sheer kinesis of his prose makes most other writers seem asleep by comparison.

Amis’s vocabulary was seemingly limitless. A quick scan of the words I marked in his book includes frosted, voulu, monorquismand mephitic, to name just a fraction. Such uses might seem gratuitous if Amis did not pay even more attention to the sensory qualities of language: its existence as pure sound. Consider this passage from Money, in which the protagonist reflects on the voice of a young actor named Spunk: “His voice, it had a certain valve or muscle working in it. I recognized that tension. He spoke in the same way at his age, fighting against my rebellious pains and my glottic occlusion. Glottal himself I pronounced it in a single syllable, with a kind of swallow or gag halfway. Spunk here was trying to tame his raspy word endings and his slippery vowels.”

Even when Amis’s novels revel in and rampage through linguistic excess, they harbor a refrain of loss, a lament that people are turning away from literature. Richard Tull, the protagonist of Information, is a high-level novelist whose books do not sell. “Her third novel by him was not published anywhere,” Amis writes. “It was not his fourth either. It wasn’t his fifth either. In those three short sentences we outline a Mahabharata of pain. Later, Tull takes a trip from the economy class section of a transatlantic flight, where he’s been stuck in a middle seat, to first class, where his friend, a simplistic best-seller writer, is sitting:

Richard looked to see what they were all reading and found that his progress across the plane described a shocking downward diagonal. At Coach, laptop literature was pluralistic, liberal, and humane: Daniel Derondatrigonometry, Lebanon, World War I, Homer, Diderot, anna karenina …And then he settled in the First Class intellectual slum, among all its stoned moguls, and the few books that lay carelessly on gently bloated stomachs were covered with hunting scenes or mature young couples in a whirlpool or swoon… No one was reading anything—except for a lone browser looking, with a frown of mature skepticism, a catalog of perfumes.

Information was published in 1995, when the word laptop it was still usable outside of the realm of personal computing. Today, Richard could fly through an entire plane without seeing a single book. Amis’s funniest fiction anticipates these changes, but it is not surprising that after 2000 his work veered toward obscurity.

A scene that had marked on Money involves the first-person protagonist of Amis visiting an old friend in jail. “Alec Llewellyn wore the low color of fear in his face,” Amis writes. “The eyes themselves (once wet, glandular-glossy, almost bubbly) were the eyes of a trapped inner being, living inside my friend and looking into the distance, to see if it would ever be safe to come out.” Llewellyn’s complaints are not about be in jail, but on the misuse of language in jail: “Listen. He says ‘Lights out at nine.’ Light-apostrophe-s. Apostrophe-yes! He says ‘A cup of tea or “Coffee”‘: coffee in quotes. Because? Because? In the library, the library, she says ‘you can’t spit’, you can’t two words and No In uppercase. It’s a mistake, a mistake.

“’Okay,’ I said uneasily, ‘so the place isn’t run by a bunch of bookworms. Or grammarians. Christ, get a hold of yourself.’”

I bookmarked that passage in the ’90s because I found it hilarious. Now I find it disturbing. Another lesson from Martin Amis: the two are never that far apart.