Posters of this memoir’s book jacket, with Amis as a small child nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, were plastered all over the Tube. Some critics really went to town, reviewing the author’s personality rather than the book – not least Julie Burchill. “What a clogged-up, clod-hopping, plate-juggling great show-off he is,” she wrote. This first memoir from Amis nonetheless movingly covered his relationship with his father – the comic novelist Kingsley Amis – and the disappearance of his cousin Lucy Partington in 1973 (who was murdered by Fred West) as well as Amis’s discovery of an unknown daughter, Delilah. Less profound material, such as his dental problems, also featured. And he paid tribute to the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard, his stepmother – the person who made him a writer by making him read Pride and Prejudice.
London Fields (1989)
This might be the most misanthropic of Amis’s novels, although that’s a packed field. Nicola Six is bored of life and plans to be murdered in a way she has foreseen, on her 35th birthday. It’s sometimes described as a postmodern whodunnit or a murder mystery without a motive but its fans have commented that the plot is not the point. Simon Schama has said of it: “a rendezvous with desire, craziness and death; what more could you want?” Bizarrely, Nicola Six is played by Amber Heard in the ill-fated 2018 film adaptation – which also features Cara Delevingne, Billy Bob Thornton and Johnny Depp.
Money is considered by many to be the ultimate 1980s novel. John Self, its protagonist, is an adman who travels between London and New York fuelled on a diet of porn, junk food, alcohol and pills. He is, he says, “addicted to the twentieth century”. Amis has said that the “throb or glimmer” that began this novel for him was simply the idea of “a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film”. Those who find Amis funny find Money very funny indeed, not least the disastrous tennis match Self embarks on. A character called Martin Amis also appears, attempting to save Self from his fate.
The Rachel Papers (1973)
Published when Amis was only 24, this first novel may have fallen out of favour – partly because of its verbose descriptions of female genitalia – but it is a good place to start if you want to savour his raw comic talent. As Charles Highway’s 20th birthday approaches, he nerdishly plots the seduction of a girl called Rachel whom he falls in love with. Many of the reviews compared this debut unfavourably with the novels of Amis’s father, not least The New York Times, which called The Rachel Papers a “crotch-and-armpit saga of late adolescence.” The 1989 film starred Dexter Fletcher – who bore a passing resemblance to the young Amis – Ione Skye and James Spader.
Time’s Arrow (1991)
Time’s Arrow is the only one of Amis’s novels to have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is regarded by many as a masterpiece of experimental fiction. Some find the idea of a novel about the Holocaust told backwards gimmicky but Amis pulls it off. This marked the beginning of a trend in Amis’s fiction: the use of historical misery to demonstrate his dazzling skill and it is less successful in The House of Meetings (2006) which was set against the backdrop of Stalin’s gulag. Rose Tremain was nonetheless smitten enough by this earlier novel to write: “Time’s Arrow turns the bored, banjaxed, broken-hearted old reader into a breathless, bedazzled young reader.”