Toward the end of “The Second Plane,” Martin Amis’s new book on the roots and impact of 9/11, the British novelist describes a fellow writer as “an oddity: his thoughts and themes are … serious—but he writes like a maniac. A talented maniac, but a maniac.” Amis is describing Mark Steyn, a controversial anti-Islam polemicist, but he could just as well be describing another angry, Muslim-bashing firebrand: himself. Talented, yes. Serious, yes. But also, judging from the new book, a maniac.
Amis’s apparent break from sanity shouldn’t come as a surprise. Throughout his career he’s courted controversy with brilliant but furious and raunchy novels. More recently, however, the buzz around him has issued from another source: his mounting hatred of radical Islam—or, it often seems, toward Muslims in general. The trouble’s been brewing since 2006, when Amis, in an interview, seemed to advocate the deportation of Western Muslims if terror attacks continued.
Now, in “The Second Plane,” Amis returns to the theme. A chronological collection of 12 essays and two short stories written since 9/11 and previously published elsewhere, it presents his musings on the problem of writing after the terrible events, the larger meaning of the attacks, the motivation of Muhammad Atta and his cohort, and observations on the Iraq War, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, among others. Amis’s real preoccupation, however, is radical Islam: its origins, its perpetrators and the proper Western response.
He starts moderately enough, urging the West to respond to 9/11 in a “non-escalatory” way and suggesting that the United States might consider why it engenders so much antipathy. What’s striking about the early pieces—including one written just a week after 9/11 and a short story, published in 2004, that sympathetically imagines the plight of Saddam Hussein’s body doubles—is how Amis’s innate sense of justice and humanity shines through. He describes 9/11 and its aftermath as a “moral crash” and is quick to chastise the West for its excesses in response (including “extraordinary rendition … Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib … two wars, and tens of thousands of dead bodies.”) He criticizes all religion as violent and reactionary.
But as time, and the book, progresses, Amis abandons this evenhandedness—and soon sense itself, as though to prove his point that “terrorism undermines morality. Then, too, it undermines reason.” Regretting his early attempts to understand Muslim radicals, he blasts Western liberals for what he calls (quoting the author Paul Berman) “rationalist naiveté”: the assumption that even terrorists must have reasons for what they do. Though Amis insists he is not an “Islamophobe” but an “Islamismophobe”—and argues that “it is not irrational to fear something that says it wants to kill you”—his targets gradually shift from radicals to the Muslim world at large. As he paints with an ever broader brush, his tone becomes nastier—he suggests at one point that average Afghans are probably proud that their mothers and sisters are illiterate. Even his prose suffers: sentences become longer and more convoluted, the lexicon more obscure: “agglutination,” “sempiternal,” “ratiocinative.”
Amis’s own powers of perception and argument also break down. He relies on supposedly telling anecdotes that reveal only his own prejudices. The most bizarre is a passage in which Amis recounts a visit he made to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where the Muslim guard turned him away because it was a religious holiday. When Amis suggests that the porter let him in anyway, he writes, the man’s face becomes a mask “that was saying that killing me, my wife, and my children was something for which he now had warrant.” It did? This isn’t satire, or keen observation. It’s just bile.
All this will be painful for the legion of Amis fans who still love him for novels like “The Rachel Papers” and his masterpiece, “London Fields.” Those books were hateful, too. But Amis’s rage was always balanced by his inky sense of humor and delight in playing with language: he read like a hip mash-up of Dickens and Nabokov. His targets—Thatcherite fat cats, criminals or pompous literary critics —always deserved it.
No longer. Many novelists—George Orwell, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and, most recently, Nicholson Baker—have tried their hand at political commentary. But few have been truly great at both (even Orwell didn’t manage). That may be because the skills aren’t as transferable as many writers believe; you can produce a great novel from your armchair, but not great reporting. Whether that’s Amis’s problem, or just that he’s undone by his own pique, the result is grim and unenlightening. Amis’s most redeeming trait as a writer—his humor—is gone. In 1990, he explained the importance of comedy in his work by saying: “If you laugh at it, it evens things out, makes them easier to live with.” Amis isn’t laughing any longer. All that’s left is his rage.