“Narrow that phalanx”: Martin Amis vs. the space invaders

February 16, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Martin Amis has always concerned himself with games, sports, and other assorted pastimes. Here he is in an essay entitled “Chess: Kasparov v. Karpov,” which was originally published in the Observer:

Nowhere in sport, perhaps nowhere in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical. Oh, I have thrown 180 at darts – twice in a lifetime. On the snooker table I have brought off violent pots that would have jerked them to their feet in the Sheffield Crucible. As for tennis, I need hardly hype my crosscourt backhand “dink,” which is so widely feared in the parks of North Kensington. But my chances of a chess brilliancy are the “chances” of a lab chimp and a typewriter producing King Lear. Even at the most rarefied level, though, chess has a robust universality. The two Ks start a tournament tomorrow, but they will also be starting something else: scores are to be settled, grudges are to be purged. Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully, they will be hunting each others’ blood. That we can understand.

Here we can identify many of the signatures of Amis’s literary style: the brazen machismo, the colourful jargon (“violent pots”; “my crosscourt backhand ‘dink'”), the rhetorical flourishes (the two chess masters will not just be hunting each others’ blood, they will be hunting it “Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully”).

Now imagine that high literary style applied to classic arcade games.

In 1982, four years before the piece on the rival chess masters appeared, Amis published a little-known volume entitled Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. The cover of this curious guide is quaintly retro from the perspective of 2012: a tanned, earring-bedecked gamer sporting a glistening pompadour and what certainly passed for space-travelling duds in the recent wake of the television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (Google it if you’re too young to remember) leans against a gigantic arcade machine around which a threatening, vaguely electric-looking black form with menacing green eyes glares. The author’s name appears below in the bitmapped font that was au courant at the time for any text designer who wanted to convey a futuristic feel. The book’s introduction is by a young Hollywood wunderkind named Steven Spielberg.

Invasion of the Space Invaders is long out of print, and has been disavowed by its author. In a review of Steven Poole’s 2001 book Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, Nicholas Lezard admits he once suggested to Amis that Invasion of the Space Invaders was the author’s best book, a comment that was met with an expression containing “perhaps more pity in it than contempt.” Regardless, the book has become so storied in certain circles that one of the few copies to be found could command upwards of $400 in 2005.

I learned about Invasion of the Space Invaders from a fascinating article by Mark O’Connell posted at The Millions. O’Connell unearthed a copy of the book in a university library, and provides some excellent commentary about it. The passages O’Connell quotes are painfully funny, but also contain flashes of a filigreed style that can belong only to Amis: “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” The advice on how to win at Pac Man, O’Connell suggests, “might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide,” but the guide to prevailing at Space Invaders – “Rule one: narrow that phalanx” – is “technically correct.”

O’Connell’s piece is really valuable, however, for the way it contextualizes Invasion of the Space Invaders, a book he winkingly refers to as “the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction.” “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” writes Sam Leith in a review of a recent Amis biography; O’Connell’s piece is demonstrative of the truth in that aphorism. He provides a reading of the text at hand, but also opens his discussion outwards to encompass pervading themes and approaches in Amis’s other, more serious, work:

Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principal [sic] of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”

Even a great writer’s failed, flawed, or rejected writing can help us better appreciate and understand that writer’s unique significance.

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