Amis Martin

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

Whenever R.E.M. released any of their last half dozen albums, I used to say that they should call it Return to Form: that, after all, was what everyone was desperately hoping for – though without much hope. In reality there were always critics handy who would call it that anyway. Return to form is such a loaded phrase, ostensibly positive but carrying ahead of it the acknowledgement that the recent work has been sub-par. On the other hand, it does say that there was a form worth returning to.

And as for us – the consumers – because we have human loyalties, we want artists we admire to continue to produce good things, and it is tempting to overstate its quality to make our expectations fit. I consider myself a long-term liker of Martin Amis’s work, growing to love his stuff gradually (The Rachel Papers, Success, Other People) and then suddenly (Money) around twenty years ago. But I haven’t thoroughly loved one of his novels since 1997’s Night Train (the brilliance of which was revealed to me over four readings, with much assistance from Janis Freedman Bellow’s brilliant essay). Yellow Dog (2003) was messy, with great bits (Clint Smoker) and baffling bits (101 Heavy). House of Meetings (2006) I admit I can’t remember much about. The Pregnant Widow (2010) had a cracking prologue – a return to form! – but quickly turned into the only Martin Amis novel I haven’t finished since Dead Babies. Lionel Asbo: State of England was hammered by its title before the start, but it was often funny. And now – spoiler alert – I find myself questioning what I have just written, because I liked The Zone of Interest so much I wonder if I need to reevaluate my view of those recent works. It’s not just me. Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, a reliable critic, breached the embargo (which ends today) and reached for the superlatives. Mark O’Connell, another astute reader, found himself wondering, “Am I crazy or is this actually very good?”

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

The Zone of Interest tells us not much in its blurb, just that this is “a violently dark love story set against a backdrop of unadulterated evil.” But it would be impossible to write about the book without discussing its setting. Few readers will come to it unprimed, but for them Amis teases, pulls back the sheet slowly: we’re in the KL or sometimes K-Z, then the Kat Zet, then – oh no, oh yes – the Konzentrationslager. The term becomes fuller each time, until we cannot ignore it: we are in Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, or more accurately in the ‘zone of interest’ (Interresengebiet), an area 40km² around Auschwitz that was commandeered by the Nazis to shield the camps both from Allied attacks and from the outside world knowing about them. One of the curiosities of books about the Holocaust is that I always feel that no subject could be more written on and over, yet I invariably discover just how little I know. Amis, in his 8-page afterword (how often do new novels come with those? Maybe he knows it’s a return to form too), details dozens and dozens of books that have informed the novel, which I found astonishing. It seemed to me a character-driven story, and only on flicking back can I see how the research has gone in subcutaneously, not visible on the page (there’s no what we might call ‘As you know, Bernhard…’ dialogue) but clearly informing every line.

The principal characters are three narrators, whose voices alternate. First is Angelus ‘Golo’ Thomsen, nephew of Martin Bormann and employed at the Buna-Werke, the I.G. Farben rubber factory within the Zone of Interest. “Almost hourly, here,” says Thomsen, “you felt you were living in the grounds of a vast yet bursting madhouse.” Orders have just been received to build a third concentration camp – later known as Monowitz – on the site of the Buna-Werke, which causes additional stress for the already highly-strung camp commandant, Paul Doll – our second narrator, and known to his colleagues as “the Old Boozer.” It is not just the pleasures and sorrows of work that unites Thomsen and Doll: Thomsen, a big broad Amisian giant, is a renowned … what’s the German for ‘cocksman’? – and is deeply in lust with Doll’s wife Hannah. Thomsen’s observations on Hannah Doll are in keeping with their setting in a place filled with all the animal urges but not much love. She is “certainly built on a stupendous scale: a vast enterprise of aesthetic coordination,” and, more bluntly, “I said to myself: this would be a big fuck. A big fuck.” Doll has his own erotic interest, though limited: “You’re seldom tempted, because so few of the women menstruate or have any hair.” Golo Thomsen and Paul Doll both open their narratives with promises of variation: Doll reports “acute tension, then extreme relief – then, once again, drastic pressure” as a minor triumph over adversity makes way for the much greater headache of the construction of the third camp. Thomsen begins – starts the book – with Amisian repetition:

I was no stranger to the flash of lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt. Enviably experienced in these matters, I was no stranger to the cloudburst – the cloudburst, and then the sunshine and the rainbow.

But these promises of highs and lows are wildly optimistic: for most of the book the only way is down, and we get there with our third narrator, Szmul. He opens his narrative with no hope at all. “We are the saddest men in the history of the world … we are infinitely disgusting, and infinitely sad.” We are the Sonderkommando, the Jews who work in the gas chambers, who cheated death in order to spend their time scurrying over dead Jews for valuables. “Nearly all our work is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders.” Szmul’s chapters are short: he is a man who has almost run out of things to say, whom language has begun to fail.

Language is central here. That might seem a needless observation, but one thing few deny of Amis is his ability still to swing a sentence with all his original power. Here, the language fits the subject and story in several ways. There is the blunt physicality of the descriptions: Szmul’s list of tools above, or “smashed-up, forty-kilo corpses,” which says everything in five words. There are the euphemisms: Doll’s role is in “Protective Custody”; the Wannsee conference, which rubber-stamped the Final Solution, was about approving “the proposed evacuations to the liberated territories in the east.” There is the doublethink: Doll reflects that after Szmul has outlived his usefulness, he “would have to be dealt with, by employment of the apt procedure.” At a lower level, too, Doll’s language distorts: his descriptions of body parts are untranslated (Titten, Brustwarten – those places where you might expect a man like him to become tongue-tied). This apt discord extends to modern phrases unexpectedly used: “This was going to be an absolute nightmare!” reflects Doll, on the building of the third camp, and we might detect pretty savage irony there too. Amis adds lightness of a sort with an extravagant range of very long German words (“tinkertoy accumulation” as Tod Friendly in Time’s Arrow put it), a comical excess of language from Kriegsgefanngnisse to Klempnerkommandofuhrer to, beautifully, Militarbereichshauptkommandoquartier.

Comical excess is a trademark of Amis’s, but can you have comedy in Auschwitz? (Can you have a love story set there?) Can it be funny? Can it meet comedy’s requirement of triumph over adversity? (The cloudburst, then the sunshine and the rainbow.) Certainly there is comedy of sorts here: discomfiting, ugly comedy, like the broad irony when Doll, speaking of the Sonderkommando like Szmul, writes, “Ach, I can hardly bring myself to set it down. You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comedy works because it only serves to highlight the horrors. The Germans worry about how they are going to keep order, keep the new arrivals in a state of blissful ignorance about their fate. Once, when struggling to dispose of the bodies of Jews, the German soldiers try blowing them up. Paul Doll, wondering why he can hear “popping, splatting, hissing,” asks and is told:

“It went everywhere. There were bits hanging from the trees.”

“What did you do?”

“We got the bits we could reach. On the lower branches.”

“What about the upper bits?”

“We just left them there.”

Is this real? Did Amis dare to invent it? Anyway the use of “it” to describe the remains of Jews is a euphemism of another sort, a kind of protective custody for the Germans to prevent them from associating their actions with people. Similarly, Doll uses “Stücke” (literally, “pieces”) to describe the Jews when accounting for them and calculating his requirements for the third camp at Auschwitz.

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest

The Germans worry too about how quickly the Jews who are selected for work in the camp die, not for humanitarian reasons, but because it is inefficient, and there are passionate exchanges between those Germans for and against treating the working Jews better, in order to prolong their productivity. They worry about the smell of the corpses, how far it will travel and signal the truth. There are so many horrible details – the smells, the selections for who will work and who will die, the use of surgeons during interrogation – that it does seem surprising that the characters in The Zone of Interest remain so strongly in the foreground. Thomsen and Doll are on a collision course, Hannah Doll is trapped between them, and Szmul is in hell, disgusted by his sense of self-preservation, and for others a welcome conduit for disgust. “Why don’t you rise up?” Doll asks him. “Where’s your pride?” Then:

Ach, if they were real men – in their place I’d … But wait. You never are in anybody’s place. And it’s true what they say, here in the KL: No one knows themselves. Who are you? You don’t know. Then you come to the Zone of Interest, and it tells you who you are.

“No one knows themselves.” A theme here is the ineffability, the unknowability, of what and how in Auschwitz. (We don’t even ask about the why: “Here there is no why,” Amis reminds us via Primo Levi in his afterword: the phrase also gave the title for a chapter of Time’s Arrow.) We see it as a clash not just of civilisation against barbarism but between worlds: a world which makes sense and a world which does not. Thomsen sees his cat catch a mouse which, while dying in its jaws, “seemed to be smiling an apologetic smile.” What, Thomsen, wonders, was it saying? “It was saying, All I can offer, in mitigation, in appeasement, is the totality, the perfection, of my defencelessness.” What was the cat saying? “It wasn’t saying anything, naturally. Glassy, starry, imperial, of another order, of another world.” It is perhaps the “hidden world” that Thomsen believes in, running alongside our own and existing “in potentia; to gain admission to it, you had to pass through the veil or film of the customary, and act.” (Nicely understated, the “customary”, to describe what the Nazis deviated from with the Final Solution.)

This other world that the Nazis have made for themselves, and for others, is, Thomsen discovers, endless, incapable of being seen beyond, like “the great Eurasian plain, which stretched over twelve time zones and went all the way to the Yellow River and the Yellow Sea.” We get a sense of men involved in a task they cannot escape, that has taken on a life of its own – they are engaged in a Vernichtungskrieg, a war to nothing. The Zone of Interest succeeds because it puts us there and gives us an alarming perspective, of the ordinary human feelings and actions of the people engaged in the worst horror of all. (Szmul observes that “I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour, every minute of human history, you would find no exemplum, no model, no precedent.”) They make occasional protests of detachment from what is happening – “I’ve never seen one good reason for all this fuss about the Jews,” says one of Thomsen’s colleagues, and his friend Boris adds, “Golo, who in Germany didn’t think the Jews needed taking down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous, this is” – but they have no power to stop it, and no interest in doing so anyway. Doll discusses the “need to do something” about 250,000 Poles with his notoriously violent colleague Mobius, and asks if they know what is in store for them. No, says Mobius, they hope they’ll just get dispersed. “But it’s too late for that.”

Again there is bitter humour as Thomsen and a colleague discuss the rationale for killing not just Jewish men, but women and children. “Those babes in arms will grow up and want revenge on the Nazis in about 1963. I suppose the rationale for women under forty-five is that they might be pregnant. And the rationale for the older women is while we’re at it.” So the jokes come hobbled; but no, we don’t expect comedy in a story about Auschwitz. Tragedy, however, comes pre-installed. The challenge for a novelist, whose job is to make things up, is to engage such responses in a new way, and in book which is all told from the point of view of those responsible for the killing. One of the most affecting scenes in The Zone of Interest comes when Szmul unearths from the ground and reads to his Sonder colleagues a testimony from another Jew (“who is gone now”) and which reports a young child challenging the Sonderkommando: “Why, you are a Jew and you lead such dear children to the gas – only in order to live?” But Szmul’s colleagues respond in protests as he reads, repeating the only word that makes any sense here:


Many of the men had tears in their eyes – but they weren’t tears of grief or guilt.

“Stop. She ‘made a very short but fiery speech.’ Like hell she did. Stop.”

“Stop. He lies.”

“Silence would be better than this. Stop.”

“Stop. And don’t put it back in the earth. Destroy it – unread. Stop.”

Martin Amis: Money

It’s a good idea, I think, to revisit favourite books from time to time and see how they are faring, how you and they measure up against one another. I did it last year with Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Martin Amis’s 1984 novel Money, probably his most highly-praised, has pleased me so much in the past that, more than a decade ago, I used its narrator’s name for my own online identity and have been stuck with it ever since. Vladimir Nabokov, a literary hero of Amis’s, said that “one cannot read a book; one can only reread it.” And furthermore, that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” This is, he said, because a first reading is consumed with the “complicated physical work upon the book”; only with rereading does a book penetrate directly to the mind. I first read Money in 1995, having felt ambivalent about previous Amises – The Rachel Papers and Success – but it didn’t take me long to realise that if the word “breakthrough” meant anything in literary terms, this was one. (Geekish sidenote: I’ve read Money a couple of times since, but what prompted this re-read was the type being reset for the first time since its original publication. This, perhaps madly, was important to me because I always have a strong visual memory when reading a book of where particular phrases or scenes appear on the physical page. Furthermore – bear with me – I feel that rereading a book with all the words laid out in the same way as before will somehow deaden the reading, and stop me from seeing the book in a new way. I hope that that is not a unique experience: or if it is, what the hell.) The new typesetting of this Vintage Classics (at last!) edition of Money gave me a good reason to go back to it. The cover to this edition of a book about a 1980s advertising executive is, suitably, by Saatchi & Saatchi.

Martin Amis: Money (Vintage Classics, UK, 2012)

Money is a novel of pairings and extremes. This is common in Amis’s work: he is a “broad and comic writer” and describes – or at least reclaims the criticism of – his work as dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force.” The pairings are obvious in novels like Success – two brothers, one successful, one not – or The Information – two writers, one successful, one not. But they are there too less brashly (well, a little less brashly) in the underrated Night Train – Jennifer Rockwell and Mike Hoolihan, opposites drawn together – and House of Meetings – the brothers in the Gulag. Pairings enable Amis to highlight differences by contrast – a useful illuminatory tool when there isn’t much brightness in the worlds he creates. There are more pairings in Money than perhaps in any other Amis novel: John Self and his creator Martin Amis (who appears in the novel); John Self and his younger, fitter, happier business partner Fielding Goodney; Martin Amis and his New York counterpart Martina Twain – both mentors of John Self in their ways; the pairs of male and female actors in Self’s film; and other pairings which don’t become clear until the end.

John Self is an ad-man who is making a feature film to be titled either Good Money or Bad Money (the money men can’t quite agree). He flies between London and New York and each long chapter describes a trip to one or other city. Self is “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food”, driven by desires: for the fast food, the booze, the snout (“‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette”), for pornography. He is “addicted to the twentieth century.” Self is a great success – money is drawn to him – and a terrible failure. His jetsetting life means that he never feels at home. He wakes up each morning feeling worse and worse (“Refreshed by a brief blackout…”). Before he left London, he was told that his girlfriend, Selina Street, was cheating on him. And who can blame her? After all, he wants to cheat on her. “I can never find anyone to be unfaithful to her with. They don’t want what I have to offer. They want commitment and candour and sympathy and trust and all the other things I seem to be really short of.” He’s violent. “It’s hard. It’s quite a step, particularly the first time. After that, though, it just gets easier and easier. After a while, hitting women is like rolling off a log.” He goes to strip joints. “The chicks on the ramp provided some variety. None of them wore any pants. At first I assumed that they got paid a lot more for this. Looking at the state of the place, though, and at the state of the chicks, I ended up deciding that they got paid a lot less.”

You can see what Amis is doing here. “A broad and comic writer.” Jokes and fizzy phrases are the holy grail and nothing is off-limits, not even domestic violence (elsewhere in the book, Self tries to rape Selina). Is this OK? Maybe so, as Self clearly is a really terrible person – yet there is also an attempt to make us empathise with him. Maybe this is OK too: after all, Humbert Humbert rapes twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, but by the end of Lolita he is, to me, a sympathetic, or at least pitiable, character. Amis himself, in this fascinating interview with (the?) Patrick McGrath in 1985, makes it clear that he “always adored him.” Self does at least have some insight into his condition. On the one hand, he misreads his reader: “Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: It’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck!” But, he confides to us: “I long to burst out of the world of money and into – into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.” He shows impatience with the qualities that make him what he is:

Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.

Self gets some help with this from Martina Twain in New York, and from Martin Amis in London. Amis (“his face is cramped and incredulous”) appears as a character in the book: “a writer lives around my way … This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?” This Self-indulgence is reportedly the moment in Money which caused Kingsley Amis to throw the book across the room, though that may be no more literally true than the story that after a certain age, Amis Sr would not read any book that didn’t begin “A shot rang out.” Martin Amis the character helps distance the author from the narrator. Martina Twain, like Martin Amis the author, takes on the role of reforming, and re-forming, John Self. His enthusiasm for going on a date with her (he is still trying hard to be unfaithful to Selina) means she can get him to try new things, like reading Animal Farm. (“What the fuck are popholes?”) Martina, in contrast to Selina, has had money all her life, and her power for Self is indivisible from this.

Martin Amis: Money (Penguin, UK, 1985)

Money is everything to John Self. He is the poster-child for the ‘me decade’. That term, commonly associated with the 1980s, was coined in 1976 by Tom Wolfe, who went on to write that other great novel of 1980s money-men, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Money is set in 1981, and, like American Psycho published ten years later, it seems not so much a summation as a prediction. Books like these, cultural touchstones, help with the neat reduction of decades to one quality. In the 1980s UK of the book, money is a cushion, the only difference between happiness and misery. Men control it (“I am in a cab, going somewhere, directing things with money”); women are at the other end of it, paid, exploited, unaware. Often the relationship is defined in pornography. Self watches a film in a “porno emporium” – these are the days before the internet, before home videos even, made solitary pastimes more efficient – featuring a porn starlet named Juanita del Pablo and a nameless hunk. “By the time he was through, Juanita looked like the patsy in the custard-pie joke, which I suppose is what she was. The camera proudly lingered as she spat and blinked and coughed … Hard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this transaction – her, him, them, me.” Even Self’s stepmother, Vron, is “proud” of her appearance in what in those days was referred to as a jazz mag, “crouched over a flat mirror.” When he is looking at such magazines in a sex shop, a girl approaches him. “‘Why aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ ‘But I am,’ I said.”

Money is a novel of extremes, with everything at its end-point, the streets populated with the madmen, the damaged, the motiveless: the moneyless. The notion of things never having been worse than they are now is always popular, and Amis interrogated it relentlessly in Money and some of the books that followed: Einstein’s Monsters (1987: nuclear armageddon), London Fields (1989: millennial environmental catastrophe), even, in a minor key, The Information (1995: intimations of mortality, the absurdity of the human project in the universe). Money, too, is a novel of great ugliness described with surprising beauty. It’s all in Amis’s shiny, hyperpolished, superprecise sound, full of lists and pairings (“in smiting light and island rain”, “tears of barbaric nausea”), variations and combinations (“blowjob knowhow”), repetition (“Fear walks tall on this planet. Fear walks big and fat and fine”) and comic brand names (cars called the Culprit, the Autocrat, the Boomerang, the Fiasco). The language is full of hardworking words like “heft” and “twang,” both of which recur throughout the book – indeed, heft and twang is a pretty good description of Amis’s high style. He likes his ellipses too – “I don’t know what it’s like to write a poem. I don’t know what it’s like to read one either…” – which to me seem a little like an author laughing at his own jokes, a mumbled exclamation mark. Self addresses the reader, too, involves us and claims our sympathy.

After all we are only human beings down here and we could do with a lot more praise and comfort than we actually get. Earthly reassurance – it’s in permanently short supply, don’t you think?  Be honest, brother. Lady, now tell the truth. When was the last time a fellow-Earther let you rest your head on their heart, caressed your cheek, and said things designed to make you feel deeply okay? It doesn’t happen often enough, does it. We’d all like it to happen a lot more often than it does. Can’t we do a deal? Oh boy (I bet you’re thinking), that head-on-heart stuff, whew, could I use a little of that.

Here is a book built out of language. A friend once observed (speaking about The Information, but it’s as true for Money) that where some authors make you stop and note something every few pages, with Amis it happens every few lines. Its intensity, its volume, its full-throated technicolor charge should be maddening and tiresome, but instead it’s energising: it transmits its own energy, generates its own electricity. Self, of course, is a slob and a yob, yet his narrative is sparkily eloquent. Amis said he made this work – and it does – by distinguishing between Self’s thoughts (pearls) and his dialogue (drivel). To paraphrase Nabokov, he thinks like a genius and talks like a child. Within the thickets of the language there is a plot, but it is twined in with the talk and the repetition so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem like a plot so much as a life. There is a delayed script, woe with Selina and Martina, trouble with Fielding and Frank the Phone (an anonymous voice who calls up Self to threaten him, and provides a counterpoint view of his behaviour), and tussles with arrogant actors which provide many of the book’s best sustained comic riffs, like the one where Self tries to persuade humourless leading man Spunk Davis to change his name.

“The thing is,” I said, “in England it means something else.”

“Sure. It means grit, pluck, courage.”

“True. But it also means something else.”

“Sure. It means fight. Guts. Balls.”

“True. But it also means something else.”

Amis was never a great plotter, but there is development as the book rolls on. Indeed, there is a sense of an ending from about three-quarters of the way through, which gives us one hundred or more pages of coming to a halt: everything moves so fast that it needs this much stopping distance. When Self appears to begin to settle down, he starts exercising, no longer drinks – well, no longer drinks all the time – but the balance of things always comes as a surprise, and only too late does he discover that when everything else starts to go right in his life, that money – oldest stalwart, truest friend – might start to go wrong. Even the language and imagery become more tender:

And in the morning, as I awoke, Christ (and don’t laugh – no, don’t laugh), I felt like a flower: a little parched, of course, a little gone in the neck, and with no real life to come, perhaps, only sham life, bowl life, easing its petals and lifting its head to start feeding on the day.

When I finished reading Money this time, I felt a little lost afterwards, having lived in such a rich world for such a long time. Who has more fun than we do? You could say, rightly, that Money speaks almost as much to the financial times of today as it did to the 1980s (“If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money, then money will no longer exist”), but that’s because it’s so alive in language that it will outlive us all. And no idiot will ever claim that Amis, Money-man for thirty years now, is famous for the wrong book. He has long been fond of saying that the only measure of success a writer should worry about (“there’s only one value judgement in literature: time“) is whether they’re still being read in fifty years. Well, Martin, you’re three-fifths of the way there: more, if you count the earlier books. Cut yourself some slack. You’ve earned it.

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.