February 1, 2008
Martin Amis: The Second Plane
Whatever happened to Martin Amis? You know: the comic novelist who could turn a phrase on a sixpence and make us laugh instantly (or better, smile for a long time) at things we shouldn’t be laughing or smiling at. By us I mean me, for if I wasn’t already an admirer of Amis’s work (the name I use here is a bit of a giveaway), why would I have bought this book which has been roundly trashed in the press? “Strong whiff of racial prejudice” … “disturbingly bigoted” … “wilfully ignorant” – and that’s just The Sunday Times.
This current wave of Martiphobia comes from allegations of racism for comments Amis made in an interview in 2006, apropos Islamist terrorism: “There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan…” An eyebrow-raiser, for sure, to those of us weaned on the teat of the liberal press, but Amis – always committed as a novelist to acknowledging that we sometimes think the sort of things we know we shouldn’t think – insists they were no more than this, and that the “urge evaporated in a few hours.” Instead, he suggests that what a writer says should never be their last word on a subject, but what they write should be. We should judge him, then, by The Second Plane. Let’s go.
The first question is whether Amis’s style and wit, his linguistic charm, has deserted him. What else do we read Amis for, after all? “Someone once said of my work, and I didn’t mind at all, that I deal in banalities delivered with tremendous force. That’s fine by me.” The chronological arrangement of the pieces in The Second Plane is key here. We see Amis on a journey, which begins – after the initial shock and awe of his response to the September 11 attacks – with business more or less as usual. The phrasemaking is there – “the television, when you dared to turn it on, showed Americans queueing for anthrax hosedowns, or the writhing moustaches of Pakistan, prophesying civil war” – as is the air of insouciant omniscience, as when he derides George Bush’s lassoing of North Korea into his ‘axis of evil’: “the zombie nation of North Korea is, in truth, so mortally ashamed of itself that it can hardly bear to show its face, and is not a part of anything.” He also misses no opportunity to have a wisecrack at Bush:
Bush is more religious than Saddam: of the two presidents he is, in this respect, the more psychologically primitive. We hear about the successful ‘Texanisation’ of the Republican Party. And doesn’t Texas sometimes seem to resemble a country like Saudi Arabia, with its great heat, its oil wealth, its brimming houses of worship, and its weekly executions?
We even see familiar traits in the first of the two stories in the book, ‘In the Palace of the End,’ where Amis imagines life for a double (twins and pairings being familiar tropes in Amis’s fiction) of the son of a Saddam-like dictator in a torture house. Here we have recognisably Amisian rhetorical reverses, a la Time’s Arrow:
I am wondering, as I always do at this time of day, why the body’s genius for pain so easily outsoars its fitful talent for pleasure; wondering why the pretty trillings of the bedroom are so easily silenced by the impossible vociferation of the Interrogation Wing; and wondering why the spasms and archings of orgasm are so easily rendered inert and insensible by the climactic epilepsy of torture. You don’t need to dim the lights for torture, or play soft music. People will respond. You don’t need to get them in the mood. Everyone’s always in the mood.
All these pieces date from 2004 or earlier: WTC attacks, Afghanistan; early Iraq. The bulk of the book, including the longest piece ‘Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind’ (originally published in the Observer as ‘The Age of Horrorism’), comes from 2006 and later: after, that is, the suicide bombings in London in July 2005.
Is it this, the proximity of violence, which shakes Amis and his words? Was the subject, before 2005, another interesting intellectual exercise but not a matter of personal experience? This has happened before. In the mid-1980s, for a time suddenly everything Amis wrote was about nuclear weapons, and imminent Armageddon. I was too young at the time to judge – I mean, OK, we all thought Threads was pretty scary – but now that stuff, including the stories collected in Einstein’s Monsters, looks pretty hysterical, almost embarrassing.
Certainly there is a steeliness, an (oxymoronic) humourless irony in some of the later pieces. Here is the key:
Religion is sensitive ground, as well it might be. Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief – unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses.
Ultimately, Amis’s curled-lip contempt for Islamism comes from a derision of religion. In this long piece he professes admiration for Islam itself (though in the preface, he regrets that it is “rather heavy on ‘respect’ for Islam”) but clearly this is a half-hearted position. His disgust at religious belief – “we are not dealing in reason” – bleeds through everything. Is this the source of attacks on Amis: the notion that he must respect other religious cultures, or cultural religions, when he clearly looks down on them?
Here is a piece from September 15, 2001:
I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite – or too devout – to notice: religion, and specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. … Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end. … To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.
Not by Amis, but by Richard Dawkins, writing in the Guardian. Dawkins’s message, right out of the trap, was the same as the one which Amis took some time to get to: religion is the problem here, religion gave us September 11. Like Amis, he has nothing but contempt for religious belief and, mostly, religious believers. Yet Dawkins has not suffered the same auto-da-fé that Amis has: indeed, the higher his anti-religious rhetoric soars, the more books he sells. Amis’s mistake then is in going off-message, in acknowledging the ‘unworthy’ thoughts that Islamists – fundamentalist Muslims – are often identifiable by appearance, or at least identifiable by how they don’t appear. He makes reference to this once in the book, again in the context of an impulsive, reactionary thought, but it’s one which looks as though it will haunt him for some time to come.
In any event, the book gradually returns to something like business as usual for Amis. There is a piece near the end, following Tony Blair in his last days as Prime Minister, which is positively jaunty. Others, mainly book reviews, are filled with Amis’s authoritative tone on the history and practice of Islamism which have been called into question by others (one accusation which Amis and Dawkins share is that they concentrate on the most extreme forms of religious belief in order to attack all branches), better informed than I am. But the overwhelming experience, when coming to The Second Plane and looking for all that racism, bigotry and intolerance, is: is this it? This tends to be the result when reading or seeing anything that one has been shrilly warned against: it’s not half as bad as they make out. In fact, it’s very good. Maybe I am too much of an old Amis-head to make a worthwhile assessment but I got as much pleasure out of this book as I think could have been intended. What can I say? I like his style.