By Dr Alistair Brown, Durham University
An amusement arcade is perhaps the last place you would expect to find someone like Martin Amis, one-time enfant terrible of English literature and formerly respectable Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. Notoriously witty, erudite, baffling, and perhaps a little bit unpleasant, it’s hard to imagine this vocal mouthpiece chuntering at a game of Space Invaders rather than at the literary establishment, bashing big red buttons rather than his keyboard.
However, in the early years of the 1980s, Martin Amis did indeed play Space Invaders, even writing a little-known strategy book about it, Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines, a work whose “shameful presence” was revived by Mark O’Connell in an article in 2008. When Nicolas Lezard of The Guardian reminded the mature Amis of the book, Amis glowered at him in a look with “more pity in it than contempt,” as if to imply that it should be expunged, or perhaps zapped, from his canon.
Ideally, the book might be well forgotten in order to preserve the patina of respectability around someone who is now one of Britain’s most established if still controversial writers. But is Invasion of the Space Invaders patina, or does it signify something more substantial? Ten years later, in 1992, Martin Amis went (metaphorically) up in space again as he collaborated on the script for the Tim Burton film, Mars Attacks! At that time living in Los Angeles and taking a break from writing fiction, Amis had been interviewed by Jon Davison for Premiere magazine. As described in a Times article, Amis and Davison hit it off, Davison went on to become the film’s producer, and Amis was duly commissioned to work on the project. Amis, who is a self-professed science fiction fan, had previously worked on Saturn Three (1980), about a maniac who builds a robot that goes out of control. Amis described the Mars Attacks! project as “an updated version of War of the Worlds, except that they don’t come to mess us up. They come in search of new markets. They talk and dress like Californian businessmen and bring all kinds of benefits, like cancer cures.” In the end, the script was substantially reworked and Amis denied having contributed so much as a single word. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Amis even considering writing about bug-eyed aliens.
However, rather than trying to expunge these works from the record, they are in fact well in keeping with Amis’s oeuvre. His writing has been consistently inconsistent, warring against cliché and refusing to settle into the cosy slippers of a single genre. Just consider the following: his short story and essay collection imagining the horrors of nuclear war, Einstein’s Monsters; the backwards-narrated Time’s Arrow that defamiliarises the Jewish Holocaust; the black comedy of the Thatcher-era London Fields and Money; and his most recent, self-proclaimed “state of England” novel, Lionel Asbo. Little has escaped Amis’s gaze during his career, which has hopped from one topic and literary approach to the next.
In this sense, far from being unusual, Amis’s diversity highlights a significant but misperceived trend of twentieth and twenty-first century literary thought, one that is sometimes overlooked when we try to separate out “literary” writers from “popular” authors in order to place every writer into his or her own categorical box, or when we employ terms such as “modernist” or “postmodern” to distinguish intellectual authors from the mass-market. As was pointed out in a recent podcast I conducted with the organisers of two modernism conferences at Durham University , we often use words like “modernism” to define writers who are aloof, intellectual; these words become synonyms for a high canon of literature, different to the low and popular stuff that the masses are reading. However, this obscures the often significant links between highbrow and lowbrow, between the “modernist” (i.e. forward-thinking) and the mainstream.
Writers such as Amis in fact possess an omnivorous appetite that happily digests both the haute cuisine of literary tradition and the fast food of any passing fashion. In the same way, in early twentieth-century modernism, James Joyce revelled in the language of advertising, which he ventriloquised through Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, whilst T.S. Eliot made his great poem The Waste Land out of the voices of radio and the music hall. Similarly, in the late twentieth century, we find genres such as cyberpunk which have been both popular but also share the deep philosophical concerns of Baudrillard and Derrida. William Gibson may have bashed out Neuromancer (the novel that inspired The Matrix) on a 1920s typewriter, but he, like Amis, was inspired by his experience of kids in amusement arcades. Low culture is, then, the breeding ground for the ideas that inform those writers we consider our most intellectual, modern and, by implication of these loaded terms, our “best.”
That the literary establishment is suspicious of the mainstream is indicated by the fact that Amis himself, never normally one to kowtow to critical convention, has tried selectively to edit out Invasion of the Space Invaders and downplay his role in Mars Attacks! in order to preserve a particular kind of reputation. However, Amis’s career trajectory, zipping around like an out of control rocket, is actually quite symptomatic. The most innovative writers have always been willing both to come down to earth, and to blast off to Mars.
Dr Alistair Brown is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University and does postdoctoral work in English at Durham University. Alistair’s blog can be found at The Pequod; he also edits Research English At Durham.