Martin Amis’s Comic Music

James Wood in The New Yorker:

“Drop me down anywhere in America and I’ll tell you where I am: in America.” Perhaps you need to be a slight stranger to this country to formulate American ubiquity in this way—as comic tautology, as wry Q.E.D. Quite often, in the last twenty years, I’ve found myself driving along some strip development in Massachusetts or New York State, or Indiana or Nevada for that matter, and as the repetitive commercial furniture passes by—the Hampton Inn, the kindergarten pink-and-orange of Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A’s chirpy red rooster—I’m suddenly seized by panic, because for a second I don’t know where I am. The placeless wallpaper keeps unfurling. And then Martin Amis’s sentence from his great early book of journalism, “The Moronic Inferno” (1986), appears in my mind, as both balm and further terror: well, wherever exactly I am, I’m certainly “in America.” So at least I laugh.

One definition of literary value might be the number of any given writer’s phrases or images that appear unbidden in the mind as you are just going about your day. For me, Amisian jokes and tags have for a long time made up part of the useful poetry of existence. When I’m bored or otherwise unhappy about reviewing another book, those wicked lines about the book reviewer Richard Tull, from Amis’s novel “The Information” (1995), swing into view: “He was very good at book reviewing. When he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed.” Whenever I see a photograph of Saul Bellow, I recall, with a smile, Amis’s description of the American novelist as looking “like an omniscient tortoise.” Encountering smokers in contemporary novels or movies, I think often of John Self, the narrator of Amis’s novel “Money” (1984): “ ‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.”

More here.