I'm beginning to worry about Martin Amis. Make no mistake, this new book of 12 essays and two short stories shows that his writing powers are far from being on the wane, as some commentators suggest. The long story included here, "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta", lacks the focus and energy of the shorter story, "In the Palace of the End", but the essays are well researched and presented in Amis's typically provocative style. There are subjects, not just here but in other essays by Amis, that you would usually resist reading about, but not when Amis is the writer. You know that what you are going to get will be entertaining, witty, thoughtful and sometimes discomforting.
No, the essays are fine. I'm not worried about the second plane; I'm worried about the second shark. Here's the first line of the book: "It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment." It's a very good line. It's the advent of the word "sharking", the noun-turned-verb with its hint of menace and sharp angles and hurt: that's its defining moment.
Amis is good at manufacturing his own vocabulary. Remember "rug rethink" (haircut) and "gum gimmick" (toothache) from Money? He has entitled one of his books of essays The War Against Cliché, and you won't find any clichés in this new book. Except... let's remind ourselves what a cliché is. It's a "stereotyped phrase... something hackneyed" (Chambers). I believe that writers should be even more rigorous: if you've seen it before (even only once), don't use it.
Trouble is, I've seen "sharking" used before. And so has Amis, because he was the one who used it. And in a first line, too: "As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows." This is the opening line of Money, first published in 1984. So am I being picky here? Amis has chosen to use a coinage of his own for only the second time (as far as I know), and 24 years after its first appearance.
Anthony Burgess said he always felt that language was like another character in every book he wrote. With Martin Amis, it's the same. I should have added, above, that you always get language with Amis: illuminating, surprising, innovative language. And cliché-free.
Maybe worried is too strong. But I am surprised. In one sense, there is something admirable in being the inventor of your own cliché. But take care, Martin. Leave it for another 24 years before you use "sharking" again.
David Mackenzie, Sessional lecturer, London
The Second Plane is published by Jonathan Cape
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