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Wednesday, November 7th, 2001


The War Against Cliché

by Martin Amis

A review by Adrienne Miller

Every book-writing writer has "dream" reviewers and nightmare reviewers; the novelist Martin Amis is, it quickly becomes clear after reading any one of the dozens of reviews in this ridiculously titled new collection, among the latter. His reviews are astringent, punkily contemptuous, name-calling, reductive, pissy, prissy, preening. They are also (alas, alack) great fun to read.

Novelists often tend to be a bit...soft as book reviewers. (Maybe because they know how excruciating the whole process is?) Not so Mr. Amis, who has, as Edmund Wilson said of Vladimir Nabokov, "a weakness for malicious humor." Here's an example from "Lowry: In the Volcano": "While most schoolboys dreamt of becoming engine-drivers or cattle-punchers, little Malcolm [Lowry] dreamt of becoming an alcoholic. And the dream came true." And this on Norman Mailer: "One admires the ambition of Ancient Evenings because that's all there is to admire. That's all the book is: 700 pages of ambition" (from Amis's review of Tough Guys Don't Dance). You wouldn't call Amis a novelist, or critic, of ideas, but Amis himself would probably relish with this characterization it was his hero, after all, Vladimir Nabokov, who said that ideas were the refuge of the third-rate (not a direct quote). In a world of dishonest, careerist book reviews, Martin Amis is one of the few honest critics out there. Can you imagine The New York Times Book Review, for instance, calling a new offering from Philip Roth (Letting Go, in this case) "a miraculous mess of a new novel"?

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