Martin Amis Resisted Every Cliché — Except for Lurching Rightward as He Aged

An often brilliant writer, Martin Amis dedicated himself to fighting a war on cliché. At his best, he produced comic parodies of upper- and working-class life. At his worst, he followed the dominant political currents to the right and embraced its platitudes.

Martin Amis speaks at a book even in Coral Gables, Florida, 2014. (Johnny Louis / FilmMagic)

In one of his funnier essays, included in the collection The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis launched a leisurely assault on the novelist Thomas Harris for his abortive latest installment of the Hannibal Lecter series, Hannibal. The author had lost it, developing a laughable romantic infatuation with his cannibal creation. He’d “gone gay” for Lecter, Amis cackled. (Amis was fond of gay jokes: witness the fun he had at the expense of Robert Bly’s masculinist manifesto Iron John, when he realized that “iron” was rhyming slang for “poof.”)

Just eight years later, Amis wrote an admiring, spaniel-eyed essay lamenting the downfall of Tony Blair. Blair was on his way out thanks to an apparatchik-led coup, prompted in part by the leadership ambitions of his successor, Gordon Brown, and an attempt on the part of party grantees to rebrand Labour after a decade of hawkishness and neoliberalism. In his eulogy for Blair’s career, Amis admits confiding in the former leader that he had been “feeling protective of my Prime Minister” amid all the public nastiness. There you go, I thought: another talented author goes gooey over a serial killer. The battle against cliché is conclusively lost.

Perhaps the war was always mistaken by its protagonist. Philip Roth says somewhere that every novelist is a mimic, and this was Amis’s special forte: the voice. But who was he imitating? The lurid, compelling comic voices of John Self (Money), Keith Talent (London Fields), Lionel Asbo (Lionel Asbo: State of England), or Clint Smoker (Yellow Dog) — they don’t exactly resemble any living person in creation. They resemble fantastic thought experiments, garishly surreal examples of people who might exist in a distorted universe. He loved appropriating, embellishing, and deforming working-class idioms. He took his language from the polar ends of the class system and ignored the middle class because “there’s nothing going on there.” He loved his yobs, rough men with native intelligence, tormented by the demands of masculinity, aging, lust, and depression. In Amis’s cities, as The Information begins, “men cry in their sleep.” He loved his male characters and their dilemmas. He loved his female characters less. Where they do not subsist as shadows of their male counterparts — Nicola Six and Jennifer Rockwell are their own people — their force is masculine.

But none of Amis’s characters persuade by being true to life. Listen to the hedonistic, Anglo-American advertising yobbo John Self in Money describing the aftereffects of a few days of heavy drinking and bad eating: “Ten minutes later I came out of that can on all fours, a pale and very penitent crocodile, really sorry about all that stagnant gook and offal I went and quaffed last night.” Who talks like this? No one, but you still want to hear him confess. The language is voltaic. The same can sometimes be said even of what is widely regarded as his worst novel, Yellow Dog. The gangster Joseph Andrews, for example, is an exalted concoction of memoirs by “Mad” Frankie Fraser, Lenny MacLean, and Dave Courtney, a caricature in extremis that, like the character itself, persuades through force.

Amis was far less convincing, and utterly conventional, as a moralist. And he was a moralist, firstly, about writing. Not that his novels and short stories were intended to be edifying. As he put it in a note to Einstein’s Monsters, their only purpose was to give “various kinds of complicated pleasure.” Style, though, which was “not neutral” but spontaneously gave “moral directions” through accentuation and contrast, was at war with cliché.

In the same year that his Blairite rhapsody was published, an ingratiating Charlie Rose asked Amis if he might say a word about the enemy: cliché. And say what you like about Amis, he looked and sounded like a genius next to Rose, a man who would lose a battle of wits with a broken clock. It was, he explained, the “dead freight” of verbiage like “the heat was stifling,” or “he went ballistic,” or “seen it, done it, got the T-shirt.” This was “herd writing, herd thinking.” Similar phrasing comes up elsewhere, as in his memoir Experience, where he rues the “thought-clichés” and “herd formulations” of his youthful correspondence.

The invocation of “war” implied that something potentially heroic and risky was taking place here, as though it wasn’t simply part of a writer’s ordinary vocation to refresh the language. But if Amis gave the impression of having noticed the pile of dead semantic wood for the first time all by himself, he was completely earnest. He would prefer to be mannered and redundant than use a familiar term, which sometimes made his prose laborious. For example, what does it add, in Lionel Asbo, to call Calpol “the syrupy suspension of the purple paracetamol” or a car, in London Fields, an “A to B device”?

When he wasn’t fabulating, however, Amis couldn’t resist borrowing from the pile, not of herd thought but of pundit thought. It would be a mistake to assume that Amis moved sharply to the right. Certainly, many of the people in his life flipped abruptly: his father Kingsley, the onetime communist, his best friend Christopher Hitchens, his writing mentor and former Trotskyist Saul Bellow. Amis, at most, evolved from left liberalism to right liberalism. At one point in Experience, a reactionary and choleric Kingsley tells him, “You’re a leaf in the wind of trend.” That’s about right.

And so Amis blew with the winds of change. In the ’80s, he aimed most of his fire at Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, neoconservatives, thermonuclear “megadeath intellectuals” (a term he took from Marcus Raskin), and the evangelical right. As middle age set in, amid the post–Cold War refulgence of ’50s anti-totalitarianism, he relitigated old disputes with illiberal ideology, starting with Time’s Arrow, his first novel about the Holocaust. After 9/11, he took up writerly arms against “Islamism.” And he did all this without evincing any sense that it had been done before.

Koba the Dread and, in novel form, House of Meetings informed the world of the enormities of Stalinism, which he insisted had been “forgotten,” above all by the Left. While “everyone” knew of the crimes of the Third Reich, “nobody” knew of Stalin’s terror: never mind the texts of David Rousset, Ante Ciliga, and Victor Serge exposing these crimes at the time. As the “war on terror” kick-started, Amis demurred from the invasion of Iraq — mainly, as he explained, because democracy was unlikely to take root in the arid soils of the Middle East — before pivoting swiftly to the indictment of “Islamism,” a term that was not always clearly distinct from “Islam,” in The Second Plane.

Suddenly, there wasn’t enough cliché in the world. In The Second Plane, he discovered that Islam was “medieval” and the Middle East filled with “ferocious anachronisms.” In an interview, he unhesitatingly called Israel “the only democracy in the Middle East.” (Amis was always a fervid friend of Israel, writing of his attachment and the early romance with a Jewish girl that sparked it: “I think about Israel with the blood.”) In “The Age of Horrorism,” he found that, alongside Nazism and communism, Islamism was “anti-semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational.”

On Islam, his expert witnesses were Paul Berman and Sam Harris, each a purveyor of coarse cliché. Unsurprisingly, the result was a string of racist idiocies. While he always claimed that his target was only a fundamentalist corruption within Islam, in interviews he confessed the urge to make “the Muslim community” suffer “until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let 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. . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.” Speaking to Channel 4 News, he insisted that airport security should “stick to people who look like they’re from the Middle East,” a passionate call for racial profiling.

The fear of being defiled by a Muslim, which is hard to read as anything other than a projection of his own violent urges, came up a lot. In a familiar Kiplingesque contrast, Amis portrayed Islamism as a thwarted, sexually repressed male, and the West as an unwittingly “attractive” female whom the Muslim would like to rape. In Experience, he described an encounter with a gatekeeper at the Holy Mosque in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, declaring, “I saw in his eyes the assertion that he could do anything to me, to my wife, to my children, to my mother, and that this would only validate his rectitude.” This, “I saw in his eyes,” recalls an old Christian saying about motes and beams.

Astonishingly, Amis saw nothing clichéd or parodic in what he was saying. It was all pioneering stuff for him. But becoming a cliché for so long must be demoralizing and debilitating: after a while, Amis put the obsession to one side and even briefly enjoyed renewed literary acclaim with The Pregnant Widow and The Zone of Interest. Still, the writing showed signs of impairment. In Inside Story, the clichés are on display like Ferrero Rocher. Life, we’re told, is “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

Donald Trump, he observes on one occasion, looks “put-upon and longsuffering.” Whatever minute effort it took to combine the words “long” and “suffering” into a single word was wasted. The Zone of Interest is at times mind-numbing in its effort to make trite observations sound interesting, but still manages to produce statements like “you can’t argue with logic of that calibre” and “the autobahn to autocracy lay clear,” not to mention various mock-Teutonic affectations such as beginning a sentence with “Ach.”

An emerging consensus about Amis on the Left is that he was always a depthless stylist; he had nothing to say but he said it charmingly. But it would be difficult to read the early novels, or The Moronic Inferno or even The War Against Cliché, and conclude that this guy had no ideas. It’s just that his gift often lay in revivifying, by redescribing, by restyling, the mundane and obvious. He was utterly conventional, a clichéd bien-pensant in most of his thinking. But when he was on form, he knew how to wake the clichés up. At his worst, he put word, thought, and reader right back to sleep.