I think it was the word “sharking” that distinguished Martin Amis in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. Writing in the Guardian a week later, he wrote, “It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment.” It was his defining moment, and that piece now provides the title to his latest anthology, this time of comment, journalism and short stories, The Second Plane. I’m not going to write a long review of it, but I will say this: I went mad on Martin Amis in 1988, devouring everything he’d already published, The Rachel Papers to Money, plus the collections Einstein’s Monsters and The Moronic Inferno. When London Fields came out in 1989 I bought it in hardback, that’s how much of a fan I’d belatedly become. I loved his prose style, as everybody did, his inventive new word-combinations and his evocation of deep global dread. (The teeth nightmare that opens Dead Babies is an image that will never leave me, nor the pivotal, existential soiled undergarment in The Rachel Papers, nor this phrase from Money: “The tooth is gone, but I am still here. On reading London Fields, I wanted to go and hang around Notting Hill and wait for the apocalypse while playing darts. I didn’t.)
Then came Time’s Arrow, which again I bought hungrily in hardback in 1991, and didn’t really like. It was clever – boy, was it clever! – but I found it hard to love. The Information was much better, but still not, for me, among Amis’s finest works. Then I stopped buying and reading his novels. Was that impertinent of me? Disloyal? Either way, I have maintained an interest in Amis, since his work brought me so much pleasure during a period in which I did an awful lot of fiction-reading. What I have read of his, has been non-fiction, and that has still seemed vital and nourishing. I loved Experience, his memoir, in 2000, which – along with Frank Skinner’s – really inspired me before writing my own. And his imagined short story, The Last Days Of Muhammad Atta, first printed in the New Yorker in 2006, and reprinted in the Observer magazine, I think, blew my mind. Thus it was with an eagerness reminiscent of those late-80s days that I scooped up my hardback copy of his new collection at the end of last week, knowing that its September 11 theme was going to be right up my alley. It was.
It seems to me that regardless of the recent hoo-hah over his spat with Terry Eagleton over whether or not he is a racist (he claims not to be an Islamophobe, but an Islamismophobe, but nevertheless admits moving to the right whilst living in Uruguay for two and half years), critical opinion has turned on Amis since September 11. Is that because of September 11? Certainly, this book implies that there’s a pre-September 11 Martin Amis and a post-September 11 one. Whether or not it actually changed the world – a truism I resisted with all my being at the time, but have now come round to – the sharking of the second plane certainly had an effect on the literary community. In perhaps the best essay herein (The Voice of the Lonely Crowd, from the Guardian, June 2002), Amis writes about the “de-Enlightenment” of the September 11 attacks: in other words, their effect on writers of fiction. Again, this has been dismissed in some quarters as solipsism, even egomania, but I could read a great writer writing about writing all day long. Perhaps it’s because … eek! … I’m a writer. Whatever. One of the most profound things I ever learned in Art History was that, after the Holocaust, when the world had seen the images from Belsen and Auschwitz, art was stopped dead in its tracks. This came back to me while reading this essay. “An unusual number of novelists chose to write some journalism about September 11 – as many journalists more or less tolerantly noted. I can tell you what those novelists were doing: they were playing for time.”
Whatever you think of Amis’s views on Islam and extremists and America, you don’t have to agree with him to see that the shift in geopolitics has energised him, hardened him, inspired him. Perhaps because I’d already stopped caring about him as a novelist, I have no problem with him apparently letting down his old allies. (Public opinion – by which I mean the opinion of a slim elite of books editors and critics, handed down through the usual channels – turned against Amis when he changed agents, fell out with Julian Barnes, and took an advance of half a million. Do the public care about such administrative details? I think not.)
Because I have conspiracy theory tendencies and fall into the general area of knee-jerk leftism (the group he disparages as the “nut-rissole artists” while frankly sucking up to Tony Blair for a piece of reportage for the Guardian that I never read in June of last year), I disagree with a lot of what Amis says, but that doesn’t stop this collection being, in my opinion, riveting.
As he says of Mark Steyn in a book review, “his thoughts and themes are sane and serious – but he writes like a madman.” Amis’s thoughts and themes are sometimes those of a madman, but he writes as if he were sane and serious. And he overuses the words “fabulist” and “boredom” and the phrase “cassus belli“, but we’ll let him off, as these pieces were written over six years. Perhaps he will write that “campus novel” while teaching at Manchester. I might just buy it.