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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Martin Amis and Apocalypse

The late author had long warned of the danger of nuclear catastrophe.

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(360b/Shutterstock)

As I was lying on the lawn of Washington, D.C.’s Folger Park, my head propped on a hiking boot at the end of a 17-hour ruck across what seemed like every inch of our fair capital city, my friend and fellow sufferer Ed looked over and asked, “Did you know Martin Amis died?” 

Ed, a former Marine captain and a voracious, discerning reader, had come to know Amis’s work like I suppose many of our generational cohort (very late Gen. X) did: by reading Christopher Hitchens, a congenital name-dropper.

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Many of the Amis retrospectives published since his death have rightly focused on his mastery of prose—the precision with which he wielded the English language in order to get to the core of any issue before him. Famous for his fiction, Amis was also, in my view, the finest political essayist of his generation.

Amis once said that masculinity was “without doubt my main subject. The way masculinity can go wrong.” But there were many other subjects besides.

Amis’s excursions into nonfiction at times raised the hackles of his critics—of which there seemed to be legions, jealousy being what it is, especially among writers. Upon its publication, Amis’s meditation on Stalinism, Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, was dubbed “Stalinbad” by detractors, not least of whom included his friend Hitchens, who quipped that “Martin does not know the f***ing difference between Bukharin and Bakunin.” His later writings on terrorism and 9/11 prompted scurrilous accusations of Islamophobia and racism.  

Yet one element of his oeuvre, which has so far been overlooked in the commentary following his death this past weekend in Florida at the age of 73, was his preoccupation with the ever-present specter of nuclear calamity. On this topic, Amis remains prescient, especially given that, according to a former U.S. defense attaché to Moscow, “the odds of a nuclear weapon being used in Ukraine are greater than 50 percent.”

In his widely praised memoir Experience, Amis recalled the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of a 13-year-old, as:

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one long dankly gleaming twilight: darkness at noon, a color eclipse, an Icelandic winter morning… When the TV showed the kill targets, the concentric circles, the fallout forecasts, I bolted from the room. At school we had our nuclear drills, where, I repeat, we were invited to believe that our desk lids would save us from the end of the world.

Perhaps that early rub up against nuclear apocalypse accounts for the sense of looming catastrophe that imbues the best—Money, London Fields, and The Information—and worst—Yellow Dog and Lionel Asbo: The State of England—of his novels.

Those of us of a certain age will, in any event, understand. In the mid-1980s the nun who taught my fourth-grade class would routinely demand that we hide under our desks, on the off chance the Soviets were about to blow us all to smithereens. It did not seem, to the mind of an 8-year-old only a year after KAL007 was blown out of the sky, such an impossibility.

Nevertheless, unbeknownst to little ol’ me around the same time, Martin Amis was reporting from Washington, on assignment for Esquire. In his essay “Nuclear City: The Megadeath Intellectuals,” Amis observed that the language that the “experts” use to describe a nuclear apocalypse was, well, wanting

“Washington,” he wrote, “is nuclear city. In any imaginable exchange, however ‘surgical,’ ‘splendid,’ ‘cathartic,’ or ‘therapeutic,’ Washington would go (and so would San Diego, Seattle, and San Francisco).” The Cold War-era doctrine of mutually assured destruction meant that, “Washington stands there, like a king on a tumbrel, awaiting decapitation.” He concluded that “after forty years of concerted thought, no one has got anywhere with nuclear weapons.” 

Nineteen-eighty-seven also brought Amis’s short story collection Einstein’s Monsters, in which he asked:

How long will it take us to grasp that nuclear weapons are not weapons, that they are slashed wrists, gas-filled rooms, global booby traps? What more do we need to learn about them? Some people—and it does take all sorts, to make a world—are skeptical about nuclear winter; extinction is something they feel they can safely pooh-pooh.

What was true then, remains true today.

Maybe, then, Amis’s real topic wasn’t so much “masculinity” as such, as it was what the future can hold for human beings in the shadow of the bomb. Amis, whatever his faults, was acutely aware that nuclear weapons are at the heart of a sort of spiritual sickness, one with which we Americans have yet to come to proper terms.