When you read a book of essays you are hoping to get an insight into the subjects under discussion that you may not have arrived at by yourself; or you are looking for an opinion on something that you are not knowledgeable about yourself – you seek to educate yourself; or perhaps you want an introduction to something you are wishing to read more on later and an educated opinion in the form of a short essay as opposed to a huge and involved textbook is the perfect compromise.
I trust Martin Amis as a writer – he has one of those authorial voices which can take something bolted to a high concept and make it believable; he can move around within the skin pof various kinds of narratives and not seem uncomfortable. Who better to be looking at different books and summarising them for you? Who better to assess a body of work by a particular author? And who would be better placed to look at various social mileiu and give some kind of insight into them that cuts to the heart of the matter?
For myself there were a couple of places where my interest flagged – namely the sports articles and the assessment of Jane Austen who I have a particular loathing for, and while I like Saul Below the piece on The Adventures of Augie March got a bit much with the quotations piled one on top of the other. Amis did this a couple of times elsewhere, using the cumulative effect of quotations or lists of his own impressions to both create a forceful argument but seemingly to also overwhelm the reader to a degree; and though I understood the technique it didn’t work as well for me as the pointed remarks that he would make that were like a spotlight thrown on a flaw or an attribute of the subject in question.
I like that Amis is not afraid to go against accepted wisdom, that he is willing to skewer the over-inflated egos of certain sacred cows and is also equally willing to champion those who may have been overlooked. This book will give you a nice idea of how to approach certain authors and which of their works might be worth checking out first; of course you have to consider that the essayist is biased by his own interests, but I think Amis gives considered and reasoned arguments which allow you to see how he arrived at his opinions and that is all you can really ask for. He tackles Bellow, Burroughs, Ballard, Nabokov, Mailer, Naipaul and a whole host of greats – essentials in an essential book.