the guardian Sat 10 January 2009
According to one view of the reaction among the western intelligentsia to 9/11 (if Amis will forgive the abbreviation; he prefers "September 11", for reasons he goes into in this book), the liberal left fell one way, and everyone else the other: the former began to beat their breasts about the ills that had befallen the Muslims, and suggested that America had brought this "vengeance" upon itself (one thinks of Orwell's denunciation of the "pansy left", ie pacifists during the second world war). The others ... ah, well, there are all sorts of others. As he quotes Tony Blair on the whole Iraq problem, there is no neutral position.
For some of us who still like to think of ourselves as on the left, this had the air of a calumny. Is it right to say, as Amis has done here, that "there are vast pluralities all over the west that are thirsting for American failure in Iraq, thirsting for regional conflagration, for a Fertile Crescent bridle-deep in gore - because they hate George Bush"? I haven't met any of these people. Then again, I don't get out as much as he does. He encounters a loopy anti-war audience when appearing on Question Time which, seemingly not content with the carnage in the Middle East, condoned the idea of America punishing itself for 9/11, causing Amis to imagine, for a moment, F-16s "yowling" in over Chicago ... and, momentarily, one is distracted into assent by the onomatopoeic brilliance of "yowling". You can think what you like about his conclusions: but you can't say he's forgotten how to write.
This, for some, is the problem: it is as if his style vitiates his right to pronounce on such matters, and is the common thread sewing his detractors together. Terry Eagleton has been quoted as saying that one should no more (not "no less", note) listen to novelists than one should listen to window cleaners about the events following 9/11 or the rise of militant Islam. Well, if my window cleaner could write a sentence like one of Amis's, I'd be recommending a change of career. Pace Professor Eagleton, but I am afraid this is the case, and it is going to be infuriatingly the case however egalitarian you profess to be: the ability to put words together in a pleasingly arresting fashion is actually a usefully reliable indicator that your mind is in good working condition. Well, almost: Amis did not cover himself with glory in his remarks, in an interview, about the desirability of making life difficult at a petty level for Muslims until they got "their house in order". When he writes, he thinks better, and there is none of that ugliness, or what, taken out of context, can be mistaken for ugliness.
There are, though, in this brief collection of 14 pieces, reviews, essays, so many things which, as the cliché goes, alone justify the price of the book. The grim, almost impenetrably black comedy of "In the Palace of the End" ("the spasms and archings of orgasm are so easily rendered inert and insensible by the climactic epilepsy of torture ... You don't need to get them in the mood. Everyone's always in the mood"), denunciations of the PC approach to literature ("this critical approach will eventually elicit what it fully deserves - a literature of ingratiation"), and, in its entirety, "On the Move With Tony Blair", his account of tagging along, with apparently almost maximal proximity, with the PM during his last days in power: London, Brighton, Edinburgh, Belfast, celebrating peace in Northern Ireland with Teddy Kennedy. This is great: "Kennedy said that he had been involved in the process since Bloody Sunday in 1972. (Blair's gap year: he was a velvet-looned Bee Gee with a guitar called Clarence.)" The tone in this piece is seriously playful, honestly star-struck yet as observant as his best journalism: he sees Blair being pressed, even in Belfast, on his "legacy" - the dead in Iraq: "And Blair's eyes minutely flinch, and seem to cancel themselves." But it is in his assessment of Islamism, the violent, retrograde and death-obsessed subset of the Muslim world, that he is at his most useful, insightful, and - to the possible shame of the unreflecting relativist - most brave.