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April 9, 2002

Review: "The War Against Cliché," by Martin Amis

Arrogance sparks resentment. And after ten acclaimed novels, Martin Amis has reason to be proud, but in The War Against Cliché he seems to outdo even his own standards of showmanship and uncharitable judgment. From the overly confident title, to the individual essays in which, one after another, a sort of competitive fervor dominate, The War Against Cliché announces its own importance with dash and seems to challenge the reader to find just one cliché in its pages.

Though there are a few clichés in the book (page 421: "[Naipaul] has bigger fish to fry") Amis for the most part emerges as the writer he wants to be— fresh, incisive, illuminating. In essays on topics such as masculinity, sport, chess, and poker, he entertains with lively prose and sharp wit. A characteristic passage has both devastating humor and a winning tone:

As for style, well, the First Lady should not be seen to be solemn. She can make jokes. But we don't want her sounding like a flake. Every joke, therefore, must

wear a joke badge: it must be accompanied by a plump exclamation mark. As in

"Sometimes Mother knows best too!" Or: "So much for her grasp of physics!"

This is Amis in a free-roaming essay on ex-First Lady Hilary Clinton and her book It Takes a Village, both topics that seemingly invite ridicule. Here cleverness is a virtue. But the majority of the War Against Cliché comprises literary criticism of serious authors (Saul Bellow, Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal), a business that demands a good deal more sincerity and restraint.

The fact is that Martin Amis's great talent is for highlighting what is ridiculous in a book and getting off a good joke about it. This is a talent that he nurtures rather than restrains in the book, leaving us with passages like:

Norman Mailer's new book bears all the signs—all the watermarks, all the heraldry—of a writer faced with an alimony bill of $500,000 a year.

Or:

While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw—that of outright unreadability. This reviewer should know, because he has just read it.

The only two authors spared such treatment, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, are Amis's literary idols, and his tone is indulgently delightful when speaking of their books. His essays on the classics are all—save the piece on Ulysses— second-rate criticism written in a chatty vein.

What becomes clearer and clearer as the book progresses is that the war Amis promised us is not actually being fought, insofar as a "war" against cliché implies seriousness and sacrifice. Game is more what Amis is involved in: competition, self-enjoyment.

That's not to say that Amis isn't a brilliant critic. Despite the insult and indulgence, there are passages of wonderful clarity and insight. He combines a number of rare virtues: a mastery of surfaces (form, style); an ability to bring a book to life and convey its essence; insight into a given writer's psychology. Even when being unsympathetic and brash, it is most often only in tone that he is off, not insight. He is also rarely less than entertaining.

His sense of humor is a perilous asset, though, and leads him to reduce and ridicule all too often, even where sobriety and reserve are indicated. Too many of the essays have the appearance of Amis vs. Book, or Amis vs. Author. Too often the reader feels sharply the disparity between his success in trashing a thriller, and his demonstrative clumsiness in dealing with a great work.

In a letter to Edmund Wilson after a positive review of In Our Time, Hemingway wrote to his new admirer: "I did appreciate the review. It was cool and clear minded and decent and impersonal and sympathetic." If these are the virtues of a literary critic, Amis is less than ideal. He is brilliant, keen, and enterprising. He reacts with vitality and enthusiasm to literature. In short, he has many of the virtues one would desire of a creative writer, but he lacks the reserve of a disinterested critic.