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.

The Second Plane

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.


  1. Style can be mere ornament or it can be its own substance; it can lead one towards or away from content. There doesn’t have to be a clash been phrase-making and serious enquiry. So, I have no problem per se that Amis uses his overblown prose (something I’ve always been allergic too, I must admit) to aestheticise his anger and what he is angry about. But once we’ve accepted that, as a writer, he can write as he chooses about any subject, we then need to move on to what he has to say. And the whiff of his now dangerously reactionary politics makes the air fetid.

  2. Normally, re style, I would say that it’s an intrinsic element of content – certainly that accusations which some authors attract of ‘style over substance’ are almost invariably unfounded (usually it means the critic just doesn’t like the substance) – but I suppose I would hold that more for fiction, with its intentions toward art, than journalism, which is what we’re dealing with in The Second Plane.

    There seem to be two common explanations given for Amis’s ‘rightward drift’ – first that he came back to London after a couple of years in Uruguay and didn’t like what he saw, and second that he’s simply turning into an old curmudgeon like his dad Kingsley (former member of the Communist party, later exchanger of Thatcher-worshipping love letters with Philip Larkin).

  3. I’m a fan of Martin Amis and think his novels are wonderful, but on the subject of Islam it often feels like a writer flexing his literary powers while saying very little of practical purpose. Instead the essays are full of self-dramatising language and offensive generalisations. Amis writes about the subject to stay relevant, not over any concern about where the Muslim world is headed. His sense of himself as some kind of embattled scribe trying to reveal the truth to an ignorant world is just embarrassing. The fact he also brings into play questions over rising demographics in the Muslim world is repellent. On such an important subject ‘style’ should not be key or take precedent, good sense should be the writer’s primary aim.

  4. The fact he also brings into play questions over rising demographics in the Muslim world is repellent.

    I agree, Gavin, though strictly isn’t it the case that he himself doesn’t put these figures forward but quotes them from another author from a book which he’s reviewing? Of course that’s no defence, as it’s clear that Amis is pointing at the quoted figures and saying, “See? See?”

    The problem is that in this instance he does seem to equate all Muslims with Islamists, when studies show that only a small minority (no more than a third, even in the most alarmist polls) of Muslims would support, for example, Sharia law alongside existing law in the UK. So the notion that a 50% Muslim population would mean 50% of the population supporting an Islamic state is preposterous. Amis seems to justify this by saying that Islam has had its ‘civil war’ and “Islamism won.”

    There is a discussion to be had here about why a child born to a Muslim family must necessarily be considered himself a Muslim, and where the lines of religion and culture begin and end. However Amis, I accept, is probably not the man to have that discussion with. It does bring us back to Richard Dawkins, one of whose hobby horses is the use of phrases like “Christian children,” “Jewish children” and “Muslim children.” He points out that these are religions, chosen belief systems, and to apply these epithets is as foolish as to describe the offspring of David Cameron as “Conservative children.”

  5. Maybe Martin Amis, like his father Kingsley, did his best writing when he was young. I loved “Lucky Jim”, but didn’t like any of Kingsley Amis’ other books. Because of our optimism, we expect writers to get better and better as they get older, but there are many instances of a writer peaking at 30, and the rest of their career is a gradual or steep decline. For mathematics and chess the peak occurs in the late twenties.

  6. I have several Amis books on my shelf which I have yet to read but now you have moved me. Anyone who sees the dangers of religion and George Bush so clearly is someone I have to get to know. I am old enough to have read his father in college and that is the only reason, until now, I had for purchasing his books.

    Must get the speed reading going.

  7. Amis is right about Texas being its own country.

    They have the state flag EVERYWHERE, so you don’t forget where you are. They have a state pledge that the children recite after the national Pledge of Allegiance. Because they were their own country before becoming a territory or state, they can secede, if they don’t like how the US government is treating them.

  8. Well forget Adair. We can’t all like the same things. I have Time’s Arrow, Dead Babies, The Information, London Fields, Heavy Water, Experience, A Memoir and Koba the Dread which I have read. I forgot he had written that one.

    Re Texas – let them secede by all means. Who needs them. (and my sister lives there)

  9. Thank you for the balanced review. Did you by any chance see the discussion of it on Newsnight Review a few Fridays ago? I was suprised by how positive the panel was – Jeanette Winterson, who is becoming more reactionary in her middle age I think, was positively *fawning* over Amis.

    I have only ever read ‘London Fields’, which I thought was an abhorrent novel really, but incredibly good nevertheless. Perhaps it is necessary to seperate Amis the writer from Amis the thinker?

  10. A very good point, Victoria: I am always of the opinion that the writer’s qualities as a person are irrelevant when judging the writing (Larkin’s apparent racism, Eliot’s alleged anti-Semitism) but with essays and non-fiction that’s a difficult separation to make.

    I missed Newsnight Review (haven’t caught it in ages, where it once was essential viewing). Winterson loves Amis because, like her, he is a once-lauded and now much-derided stylist. She feels for him, I think!

  11. I have always been a Martin Amis fan, even though he seems like such an egotistical butthead in interviews and appearances. What else do people expect? It’s Martin Amis–he built his reputation on the intelligent asshattery of his personality over the years. I agree that you have to separate the writing from the person, especially when that person often inserts foot in mouth like Amis does.

    My favorite Amis novel is “Success.” I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Damn, now I’m going to have to read it again too!

  12. Because of our optimism, we expect writers to get better and better as they get older, but there are many instances of a writer peaking at 30, and the rest of their career is a gradual or steep decline

    Thanks for this Tony, which I’ve just now seen (see my comment on the Irmgard Keun post). There’s no denying it is there, and yet how depressing this realisation is, mainly because it suggests that we’re all of us on a decline from that age. Looking at Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day recently, which still seems to me his most perfect novel, I see he published it at the age of 35 – and so wrote it in the years before. Martin Amis published Money at the same age. I’m 35 in six weeks’ time! I’ve passed my peak and haven’t even started climbing!

    It also raises the difficulty of assessing the work of favourite writers. How can we judge impartially a book by someone in whom we’ve invested such passion previously? Difficult to do. And yet there is hope: sometimes it’s worth paying more attention, to see things that we wouldn’t have noticed if the book was by someone unknown and about whom we have no preconceptions.

  13. [quote]I have always been a Martin Amis fan, even though he seems like such an egotistical butthead in interviews and appearances.

    Yeah,you’re 100% right xD Martin is very original artist.

  14. Er, yeah, why not! Interesting piece, and quite fair I think. I liked the comparison to Woody Allen: “His main tone is comic, but when he tries to expand his range it somehow doesn’t convince.” Certainly I am less an uncritical fan of Amis than I was when I chose this online name some years ago (pre-blog), but I shall still read The Pregnant Widow with interest and hope.

  15. I suppose it’s the fact that I didn’t much like either of his last two novels. I should qualify that by admitting I’ve read House of Meetings only once and can’t remember much about it (I know it was quite well received), but I do now think the broad critical consensus on Yellow Dog – that it was a mess – is on the money.

    I don’t know if it’s to do with my tastes changing or the qualities of the individual books – I still rate the novels from Money to Night Train (I have a particular affection for the latter). And I like his willingness to keep doing something different (which makes it odd that the bits of Yellow Dog that I did like – the Clint Smoker stuff – were the most trad-Amis). I have noticed a reduced liking recently for what we might call brash stylists – as when I read DeLillo’s White Noise a couple of months back, a book I can imagine loving ten years ago.

    Part of this too might be me trying to pre-load my disappointment for The Pregnant Widow. I dislike his insistence on explaining the title (this from the Amazon Product information):

    In the words of the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen: The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that what the departing world leaves behind it is not an heir but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

    But mostly I am concerned by the fact that publication has been delayed two (or was it three?) times. That, to me, suggests that Amis couldn’t get it finished to his satisfaction, which runs against a naive reader’s belief I like to have that great works come out smoothly, all in one piece. Anyway, we won’t have long to wait. It will be published in February 2010, and someone at Cape told me it was “classic Amis. It has got all the linguistic wit, comic dialogue and seedy scenes we could hope for and is set during the sexual revolution.” We shall see.

  16. The arc always tends to be similar, alas, but savvy writers side-step the whole deal by relinquishing the deadweight affectations they may have developed (and developed a strain of what makes them look for all the world like pitch-perfect lampooners of themselves). Look at Philip Roth: he’s stripped it down and kept a compulsive, relevant voice, addressing the concerns of his age in an apt register. You can’t do Amis’s preening, tireless omniscience and have it pass muster at the age of 60. Money and London Fields (my favourite – all the best and worst of Amis, a rollercoaster of relentless capriciousness and invention) have it in spades and that was where it all went, pretty much. His toying with playfulness in Yellow Dog didn’t deserve the opportunistic opprobrium metered out to it, but it was merely admirable futility. How great to have a pared-down version of Amis? Or, perhaps, we’re clutching at straws. Here’s hoping for something, but I’d imagine it’d be a little akin to Tom Wolfe frittering all the goodwill he had with the dire Charlotte Simmons.

  17. Thanks for the reply, John. I know when I stop looking forward to a once-loved author’s next book, it’s always because of a change in my reading tastes. Anyway, I won’t be reading The Pregnant Widow, but I hope it’s a return to form as far as you’re concerned.

  18. It seems any deviation from the politically correct narratives of our time is “reactionary”… all doubleplus ungood. Conversely, all concurring voices in this vacuous little echo chamber of ideas are thought of as “relevant” and “apt.” This stifling conformity of thought and expression is indeed a rich theme for literary exploration. Judging from the comments displayed here, Mr Amis’ instinct has never been sharper.

  19. I see Richard Ford was rather taken with The Pregnant Widow (one of the end of year lists, can’t actually remember which – possible the Guardian one?) and I did wonder if you’d considered putting a review up? I’m sure you will have read it….

  20. No I haven’t, Lee – I read about half of it and got frankly bored. I know that KevinfromCanada had more favourable feelings about it, which he attributed to being of Amis’s generation, so perhaps the same thing goes for Richard Ford. The prologue was terrific though.

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