Some journalistic pieces aren't rubbish

March 01, 1994|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Special to The Sun

"Writing journalism," Martin Amis writes, "never feels like writing in the proper sense. It is essentially collaborative: both your subject and your audience are hopelessly specific."

And hopelessly limited further, he might have added, by time and geography. Nothing is more ephemeral, more dispensable then a newspaper story -- with magazine pieces coming in a close second.

Even the best-considered write- up from 15 years ago is destined not for the scrap heap of history, but for post-modernism's mountain of artifacts -- few of which will even be recalled and used for condescending, ironic conflation.

Writers are creatures not just of time, but of place. Mr. Amis is a Briton, one of the island's foremost novelists, and a champion of both its finer and more public (as in "pub") fascinations. It is no surprise, then, that he includes pieces on darts, snooker and a soccer club in "Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions," his compendium of 16 years of reporting for a heaping handful of British and American publications.

Equally unsurprising is the shrug many Americans will give to much of Mr. Amis' subject matter. Reprinted essays on a Rolling Stones concert in 1976, the Cannes Film Festival in 1977 and a Frankfurt book convention in 1981, ridiculously dated as they are, will inspire only a yawn.

Still, this is Martin Amis, modern novelist and worldly commentator; his legions of fans recognize him as one who bridges the gap between literary craft and pop-culture accessibility. He's the reader's writer who thinks deeply, observes with a jaundiced, thoroughly hip eye and eschews the Brit lit stuffiness of his father's generation.

Given all that, it's no wonder that a few of the stories assembled here won't wind up on pub tables as tomorrow's fish-and-chips wrappers.

The best of the 33 selections are like the best of his novels ("Money," "London Fields," "Time's Arrow"): a bit world-weary and cynical, very trenchant and witty. And always very, very clever.

Mr. Amis is eminently quotable. His opening line in his portrait of Isaac Asimov is typical: "Professor Isaac Asimov," he writes, "sat in the lobby of his New York apartment counting his fingers."

Although similar witticisms abound in this collection's highlights, Mr. Amis is capable of profundity as well. A straight treatise on Madonna deconstructs her perfectly. The pop star is nothing more than a Pepsi with a navel, a product of corporate America's marketing fetish. "The elements of the popular culture that she has melded together," Mr. Amis contends, "may look random and indiscriminate. In fact, they could have been assembled by a corporate computer."

A lengthy but consistently rewarding appreciation of Saul Bellow's "More Die of Heartbreak" is undoubtedly Mr. Amis at the peak of his powers. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever, sang the poet," he writes regarding a scene in Mr. Bellow's novel. "A thing, or a piece, of modern beauty is a joy for about ten minutes, if that."

Yet there are lazy, annoying habits one is surprised to find Mr. Amis falling into. His sketches of famous writers (Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess and J. G. Ballard, among others) are indeed sketchy. His method is almost identical for each (as he admits in his introduction to the book): Mr. Amis describes the celebrity's abode, they go to lunch, drink too much. In one case, a hangover is noted in a postscript.

His travel reports are usually weighted down by boredom, then partially saved by a well-turned line. (On St. Luciens: "Although you wouldn't call them hostile, they are no more friendly than I would feel, if a stranger drove down my street in a car the size of my house.")

Perhaps part of the problem is expectation. With novels, we may expect wisdom, richness, some unquantifiable inner truths -- or at least sustained entertainment. With compendiums of journalism such as "Visiting Mrs. Nabokov . . ." we're left with merely adorned facts.

My reaction to Mr. Amis' non-fiction is almost identical to the one I had reading "Imaginary Homelands," a similar collection of essays by Salman Rushdie (who is profiled here, by the way): Great writer, limited by reality, a strict focus and the skin-scarring shackles of writers everywhere: The Deadline.

For Mr. Amis' fans, "Visiting Mrs. Nabokov . . ." should be a void-filling stopgap while waiting for the next novel. For the uninitiated, a flip through the author's fictional back pages, full of anything but hopeless limitations, might be a better idea.

Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions"

Author: Martin Amis

Publisher: Harmony

Length, price: 274 pages, $20

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