Who Is Martin Amis?
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that all is not well in today’s world; you only have to turn on your TV. A special kind of intellect is required, however, to go beyond simply complaining about modern manifestations of greed, an all-pervasive media, general amorality, and various looming catastrophes.
Martin Amis’ great strength is the ability to craft compelling, relatable stories centered around these themes. Significantly, though many of the best Martin Amis books, like Money and London Fields, were written in the eighties, they still resonate with readers today.
What to Expect from Martin Amis
Not only are his stories evergreen, but he manages to add humor (however bleak at times!), a human touch, and a kind of easygoing existentialism to all of his novels. Amis is not, however, an easy read; novels like these are the reason book clubs were invented. Though the language he uses isn’t unnecessarily complex, every paragraph and every character’s viewpoint is worth thinking about.
To help you get started, here are 10 of the greatest Martin Amis books, ranked entirely subjectively based on what I personally like:
Best Martin Amis Books
|Money||9.68/10||368 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|Time's Arrow||9.52/10||176 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|London Fields||9.46/10||480 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|Experience||9.38/10||432 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
|The Zone of Interest||9.22/10||320 Pages||Check Price On Amazon|
An Antihero Raised by Wolves and Television
Meet John Self: as the name not-so-subtly implies, he’s a kind of egocentric everyman. He’s also a classic Amis character, possessing absolutely no self-restraint and a moral compass that’s wonky at the best of times.
Despite his numerous shortcomings as a person, John Self as first-person narrator quickly gains the reader’s sympathy. Like Money’s other, equally flawed characters, he’s really just trying his best in a world he barely comprehends and is certainly not equipped to deal with.
You Are What You Buy
There’s no cash prize for guessing what this book’s all about; it’s right there in the title. In the world of Money and specifically John Self, a person’s worth is all about how much they earn and spend. Everything can be bought and sold, your bank account is also your identity, and everyone is a consumer first and a human being second.
Though not exactly autobiographical, Money was heavily influenced by the author’s experience on the set of the movie Saturn 3, for which he was the screenwriter. This is arguably Martin Amis’ best book, with Time magazine naming it as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time.
A Modern Classic
Like many of the top Martin Amis books, Money isn’t exactly a light or cheerful read. It is, however, hugely entertaining in places, even though many readers will be disturbed by the obvious parallels with contemporary life this book has to offer. Like Atlas Shrugged, this book is a must-read even if you plan to hate it.
Attention Pay You If Only But, Read Good A
Like a Zen koan, some books seem designed to confuse as much as they enlighten. This is certainly the case with Time’s Arrow. To start with, the story is told in reverse chronological order: events precede their causes. It’s also seemingly narrated by the protagonist’s subconscious or soul, which has no memory of what has already happened and is therefore about to be revealed in this backward tale.
Some readers will definitely be more comfortable with this format than others. At best, though, you will probably find it at least a little disconcerting. This sets the stage perfectly once you reach the origin of the story at the end of the book, which happens to be set in Auschwitz concentration camp.
More Than a Gimmick
Martin Amos is known for cheerfully breaking the rules of “good” writing whenever it suits him, but most readers won’t accuse him of being experimental just to prove a point. The reverse narrative does serve a purpose, such as injecting some lighthearted comedy into an otherwise grim story about the Holocaust, guilt, and denial.
As a literary device, though, telling a story from end to beginning gets old pretty quickly. For this reason, Time’s Arrow is the kind of novel you’ll either love or hate. If you do pick it up, commit to reading it through to the end – otherwise, it won’t make much sense at all.
A Gallery of Rogues
This is easily one of the most popular Martin Amis books, as well as one of his more approachable works. In 2018, almost two decades after the novel was first published, it was adapted into an utterly forgettable movie.
As is often the case with Martin Amis’ best books, the main characters aren’t exactly lovable or even admirable. The setting isn’t very pleasant, either, with the world basically about to end in one way or another. Nicola Six’s world is certainly drawing to a close: we’re told right from the start that she will soon be murdered. She, being psychic, knows this and is fine with it: the only mystery is who her murderer will be.
Funny, But Not in a “Ha-Ha” Way
Though Amis is a master of using humor to brighten up his otherwise gloomy stories, you’re better off looking to Tom Sharpe if you’re in it for the giggles. I personally find London Fields to be the funniest of all the best-selling Martin Amis books, but the chances of you having the same sense of humor are slim.
At the same time, this novel’s true charm lies in its deep and faceted philosophical and psychological underpinning. You’ll have to do some digging to discover this, though: in this book at least, Amis doesn’t include a character just to be the author’s mouthpiece.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Human Being
Martin Amis’ father, Sir Kingsley, was himself a famous poet and novelist. Though the relationship between the two was never especially warm, his father’s death in 1995 prompted Martin Amis to write a kind of memoir: Experience.
At over 400 pages, this tome isn’t likely to be read by anyone who’s not already familiar, and possibly in love, with Amis’ other work. These very same people may be a little surprised: although his various family members, girlfriends, and acquaintances are certainly shown as unique and interesting people in their own right, the larger-than-life characters that populate Amis’ novels are (thankfully) absent.
A Small Slice of History
It’s still a pretty fun and interesting read, though. Rather than the pretentious blowhard his public persona makes him out to be, you’ll find the honest, intimate, and often poignant thoughts of a sensitive, observant, and deeply insecure man.
Experience also provides an insider’s view of the British literary scene of the past several decades. Several famous authors are mentioned by name and described in generally kind but unvarnished terms. As you would expect, there’s also quite a lot of material concerning Amis’ views on writing and literature, with Nabokov coming up more times than are worth counting.
Nice But a Little Pedantic
On the whole and like all of Amis’ work, this book is beautifully crafted. It’s not for everyone, though: passages are strung together by trains of thought rather than in chronological order, an epidemic of footnotes breaks up the rhythm, and the whole thing would probably have been better if it had been cut down to half its current length.
The Zone of Interest
Fun Times at Auschwitz
Whatever else you can say about Martin Amis’ writing, he’s not guilty of using banal or boring settings for his stories. The majority of the action in The Zone of Interest takes place in a Nazi concentration camp.
As in J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, each chapter is narrated from the points of view of three different characters. These are the camp commandant, a fellow officer who’s in love with the commandant’s wife, and a Jewish sonderkommando – a prisoner forced to assist with the more grisly aspects of industrial genocide.
A Love Triangle on the Fringes of Hell
As you would expect, The Zone of Interest is anything but a lighthearted book. Thankfully, it’s not as disturbing as it could have been, with no purely gratuitous descriptions of violence or gore.
Taking on the Holocaust – and more specifically, the lies complicit bystanders have to tell themselves in order to remain sane – as a subject is a tall order, even for a writer of Martin Amis’ caliber. Unfortunately, while still a good book, The Zone of Interest falls somewhat short of being a masterpiece.
Plenty of “What”, Not Much “Why”
There’s no insight offered, clichéd or otherwise, into the horrors brought about by the Third Reich or their effect on otherwise decent people. In a sense, this fits in with a common theme in Amis’ work: that reality is often nonsensical, with no unifying principle or order to be found.
In the afterword, Amis quotes Jewish-Italian writer Primo Levi as partial explanation for this, stating that understanding the Nazi horrors and placing yourself in the perpetrator’s shoes is simply impossible for most human beings. Sometimes, there are just no answers to be had. Even so, The Zone of Interest remains a profoundly moving book.
The Rachel Papers
Boy Meets Girl
Some avid readers, on discovering an author like this one, choose to plow through all the best-rated Martin Amis books in the same order they were written. This would be a mistake: The Rachel Papers, his first novel, is noticeably less mature than the rest of his work.
On the verge of going to Oxford, the brilliant, self-important, awkward, and libidinous Charles Highway (a kind of parody of Amis himself) runs into Rachel. Predictably, he falls in love. This is a one-way infatuation, though, as Rachel is already in a relationship. Charles therefore resorts to concocting a number of clever, manipulative, and ultimately comical plans to win the fair maiden’s heart. His notes on these schemes, along with his somewhat pompous ramblings on writing and life in general, eventually evolve into The Rachel Papers themselves.
Plenty of Raw Talent But Not All that Much Style
Not many readers will naturally empathize with the character of a barely post-adolescent young man, never mind one portrayed as unflatteringly as Amis does Charles. The fact that he manages to pull it off is remarkable and mainly due to a large dose of self-awareness.
This is also an intensely funny book when read in the right frame of mind. Even though it was critically acclaimed and won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award, however, The Rachel Papers isn’t the first Martin Amis novel you should read. You’re better off starting with London Fields or, for all its complexity, Time’s Arrow.
Ink and Envy
Like several of the best Martin Amis books, The Information builds on his own experiences and indeed his life as a writer. According to him, he based both the protagonist and antagonist on himself, at least in some sense. These two, Richard and Gwyn, are both novelists and have been friends for years.
Gwyn is wildly successful, though, while Richard is not. Now, if both Richard and Gwyn were well-adjusted adults, this would not be an issue…but Amis typically doesn’t write about stable characters who are capable of objectivity. Richard despises his friend’s insipid fiction and decides to take revenge for this perceived unfairness. However, every plot he tries, ranging from the petty to the violent, backfires until something has to give.
Almost Gets There
As far as characterization, wit, and clever turns of phrase go, The Information is easily on a par with Money. It takes more than that to make a truly great novel, though.
At times, the plot seems a little unfocused. This leads up to a somewhat unsatisfying denouement, especially when compared to Money’s stunning ending (no spoilers – you’ll just have to trust me). The Information is in no way a disappointing novel, but neither is it the greatest hit on Martin Amis’ book list.
A Tale of Two Brothers
Like The Zone of Interest, Success makes use of alternating narrators as a literary device. This not only gives Amis an opportunity to present a broader picture of events (and characters’ reactions to them) but allows him to play their different viewpoints and personalities off against each other. In the case of Success, these belong to two (foster) brothers, each with his own share of psychological baggage, sharing a flat in London. Though they’re very different people, each exemplifies one aspect of what would today be called “toxic masculinity”. (Success dates from 1978.)
I should also warn you that the main female character in the book, their sister Ursula, is overly sexualized but otherwise pretty two-dimensional. This is a flaw that’s been called out in numerous Martin Amis book reviews, of Success as well as his other novels. Both of the – frankly despicable – male narrators are completely unreliable, so readers have to stay on the ball if they want to keep up with what’s actually happening. They’re also wildly competitive with each other, and their inept efforts at pursuing “success” provide much of the humor in this book.
A Satirical Take on the Rat Race
Success is only Amis’ third novel, yet for all its similarities to The Rachel Papers, it’s miles ahead in terms of style and maturity. Reading both books provides thought-provoking insights into how a young but talented writer grows into his craft (assuming that you’re interested in knowing that kind of thing).
This is not one of the three best Martin Amis novels, but it certainly deserves its place in our top ten list and can make for a good introduction to his work in general. Anyone who’s had a little experience of British working-class culture, or indeed sibling rivalry, will find it hilarious.
Koba the Dread
Given that this author has taken on not one but two major novels on the Holocaust, it’s probably not surprising that he would turn his attention to another 20th-century atrocity. Koba is not fiction but possesses far more personality than the average history and has to be recognized as one of the best books by Martin Amis, despite its disturbing content.
One of the greatest riddles in modern history is how many well-educated and even prominent figures in the West managed to excuse or deny the horrific excesses of Communism in the Soviet Union. For a time, even Martin Amis’ father was guilty of this, though he had turned his back on the Communist Party by Martin’s seventh birthday.
Doomed to Repeat History?
Aside from Amis’ considerable wit and humanity, the strength of this book lies in how easily it shifts between personal accounts and factual history. In this sense, Koba reminds me a little of Alan Furst’s fiction, though Furst is way more entertaining. Koba’s main message could be stated as: even if twenty million deaths are a statistic to those in charge, twenty million families see them in an entirely different light, and the lack of general outrage over this brutality was and is nothing short of disgusting.
Though Koba is a good effort and an interesting read, we should remember that Martin Amis is no historian, nor does he have the personal experience of living under totalitarian rule that informs novels like We the Living. Those qualities are not why one should read Koba. Instead, we can take it as a warning of what has and might again happen when a nominally Utopian philosophy is rammed down people’s throats. With a new spate of interest in Communism among the younger generation, this book remains as relevant today as when it was published twenty years ago.
House of Meetings
Love in the Time of Pogroms
With only ten slots available on this list, there’s unfortunately no space for Martin Amis’ new book, Inside Story. Including that semi-fictionalized autobiography would have meant leaving out House of Meetings, though, and I just don’t have the heart to do that.
Like The Zone of Interest, House of Meetings is a story about a love triangle set against a backdrop of institutionalized oppression. In this case, we’re given a glimpse into life in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi concentration camp, but the themes are much the same. As in many of Amis’ novels, the narrator is one of the last people you’d ever want to share a beer with. He’s also far from reliable in his recollections – it’s up to the reader to figure out what may be embellished, glossed over, or simply omitted.
Feels a Little Like a Re-Run
Though beautifully written in Amis’ characteristic style, House of Meetings seems to lag behind most of his other novels in pacing and characterization. Considering that it’s 250 pages long, it’s just not always engrossing; you may end up plodding rather than cruising through this book.
Many of Martin Amis’ fans regard this book as a disappointment. It will be, if you expect either another London Fields or a complete departure from this author’s typical motifs and style. Accept House of Meetings on its own terms, however, and you should find it enjoyable if a little ponderous.
In real life as in his fiction, Martin Amis is a complex, controversial figure. He’s been accused, not unreasonably, of misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, and even bad dental hygiene. Reading only the work of people you like and agree with is no way to expand your horizons, though. Amis is a challenging author in more ways than one, but well worth reading even if you disagree with him on some subjects.
As in the case of Gore Vidal and Philip Roth, the best novels by Martin Amis straddle the border between popular fiction and serious literature while still remaining accessible to those of us who read just for fun. I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy any of his books – but you will certainly remember them.
Michael is a graduate of cultural studies and history. He enjoys a good bottle of wine and (surprise, surprise) reading. As a small-town librarian, he is currently relishing the silence and peaceful atmosphere that is prevailing.