Is there any reason for us to take an interest in what a novelist, even a very good one, has to say about current affairs? When — as seems to be the case — every major historian, political scientist, and journalist in the Western world has written about September 11 and its aftermath, resulting in more expert commentary on the subject than one could possibly absorb in a lifetime, is there any reason to read a novelist’s thoughts on the matter?
Possibly, if that novelist brings skills to the task that only an imaginative writer commands. In Martin Amis’s case, one doubts that he is the man for the job. He is undoubtedly a brilliant observer, but his work is characterized by an almost inhuman coldness and a preference for ruthless judgment over imaginative empathy, and he has never shown any particular aptitude for analytic thought or historical reflection. As he himself has said, correctly, “novelists don’t normally write about what’s going on; they write about what’s not going on.”
The Second Plane is Amis’s bid to join the folks who write about what’s going on. These twelve essays and reviews and two short stories, published between September 18, 2001 and September 11, 2007 — the sixth anniversary of the terror attacks — collectively establish Amis’s chosen position: that of an atheist and rationalist appalled by the “institutionalized irrationalism” of religion in general and Islamism in particular. “Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any race or creed,” he says, “let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful?. f God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”
Amis lays the blame for all terrorist acts in the Middle East on religious fanaticism. (Data collected by the Gallup World Poll, by the way, indicates just the opposite: there seems in fact to be no correlation between personal piety and radical views in Muslim countries, as John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have pointed out in their analysis of the Gallup material, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and the more radicalized Middle Easterners generally come from the best-educated sector of the population.) Amis denies being an Islamophobe, instead defining himself as an “Islamistophobe”: “Naturally we respect Muhammad. But we do not respect Muhammad Atta.” Good enough; but it’s clear that he doesn’t respect Muhammad either and in any case he quickly loses sight of the distinction and begins to speak of Islam and Islamism almost interchangeably. In reference to the subjection of women, for example, he writes of “the obscure logic that denies the Islamic world the talent and energy of half its population.” Here he indiscriminately lumps countries like Iran and Iraq, in which women make up a significant portion of university students and the work force, with regimes like that of Saudi Arabia. Amis rejects the liberal piety that would have it that all men are brothers: “all men are not my brothers,” he says. “Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother.” This kind of self-righteous piety suits Amis very badly; after all, he has built an entire career on witty, politically incorrect misogyny.
Most irritating of all is Amis’s habit of making broad generalizations based far more on emotion than knowledge. The experts he invokes — Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, John Gray, Sam Harris, Mark Steyn (and since when have Sam Harris and Mark Steyn been experts on the Middle East anyway?) — are almost exclusively Western; the only Arab writer he seems to have read is Sayyid Qutb, the “father of Islamism,” and he has obviously perused Qutb’s work more with an eye toward the author’s sexual neuroses than his political philosophy. He doesn’t seem to talk to many Arabs, either, though at one point he cites an unnamed Sunni military man as authority that “Iraqi’s ‘hate’ Iraq –or ‘Iraq,’ a concept that has brought them nothing but suffering” — a statement that would come as quite a surprise to the many Iraqi authors, bloggers, and journalists I have been reading since the war began.
Amis’s dramatic hyperbole in describing the September 11 attacks (“in that instant America’s youth would turn into age”; “this moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era”; etc., etc.) is a function of the stunning historical provincialism of the baby-boomers, who for half a century led an existence more sheltered than any in history and came to take it for granted. Our parents, who lived and fought through the Second World War, experienced not only Pearl Harbor but Auschwitz, Stalingrad, the enslavement of France, the bombing of London, the destruction of Berlin and other German cities, and the atomic humbling of Japan. That generation, I remember, was not as shaken up by the 9/11 attack as ours was, apparently seeing it more as one in an eternal stream of atrocities that have been committed by every race and creed in history than as some uniquely horrible and unprecedented act.
While so much of The Second Plane is jejune and overwrought, there are still some exquisite moments that remind you of how good Martin Amis can be when in his natural element. “On the Move with Tony Blair,” a piece originally published in The Guardian (and later added to and embellished) is a wickedly observant portrait of the Prime Minister as he makes his way through official functions in Washington, Belfast, and Baghdad — the kind of imaginative journalism that can only be done by a novelist. And the two short stories included here, though marred by a pompous didacticism that has no place in fiction, contain some touches that only a master can pull off. Here, for example, the author imagines the last moments of Muhammad Atta as his plane hits the Trade Center:
American 11 struck at 8:46:40. Muhammad Atta’s body was beyond all healing by 8:46:41; but his mind, his presence, needed time to shut itself down. The physical torment — a panic attack in every nerve, a riot of the atoms — merely italicized the last shinings of his brain. They weren’t thoughts; there were more like a series of unignorable conclusions, imposed from without?. ?. How very gravely he had underestimated life. His own he had hated, and had wished away; but see how long it was taking to absent itself — and with what helpless grief was he watching it go, imperturbable in its beauty and its power. Even as his flesh fried and his blood boiled, there was life, kissing its fingertips. Then it echoed out, and ended.
This is more like it. When Amis is capable of descriptive prose on this level, it is a shame for him to waste his energies on blimpish and obtuse political commentary.