Martin Amis’s The Second Plane

A review of Martin Amis’s collection of essays and short stories, first published in Prospect magazine’s March 2008 issue.

Eight years into the 21st century, one issue has become a staple of writers’ discussions: what kind of literary response, if any, can be made to the murder of more than 3,000 people in America on 11th September 2001? Horror, war and murder are not new themes for literature. Yet, as commentators pointed out in the wake of the attacks, the written word had rarely felt so superfluous—perhaps because it had never been so decisively secondary to requirements. On 9/11, more televisions than at any previous point in history were flicked on. Whatever was to be written about this kind of terrorism would be done with one eye on the rolling news and one ear open for the next explosion, the fresh atrocity.

Yet if words were rendered irrelevant by 11th September, they were also in some sense crucial to it. For this was an act performed in the name of holy words. If literature is nursed by the hope that the right words are morally awakening, experience qualifies this by suggesting that in books we can find a rationale for any and every kind of act. Ed Husain made this point at a debate I attended at Manchester University in December, cheerfully entitled “Literature and terrorism.” It was, Husain recalled, books and pamphlets that had been partly responsible for his journey into radical Islamism: into an extreme reading of Islam which aspires to kill or convert all non-Muslims. Writing was the fanatics’ best friend: an absolute guarantor of personal righteousness. Literature had also, Husain said, played a large part in his return journey—in particular the works of Rumi, the Sufi poet—but this offers an equivocal comfort. If “good” texts invariably won out against “bad” ones, all we’d need to do to eradicate extremism would be to organise the global distribution of a few million volumes of Sufi poetry.

Also present at the debate were Martin Amis—as impressive a public speaker as ever—and the author and translator Maureen Freely, who talked eloquently about the importance of not being cowed into silence by terror. Yet it was, for me, a disappointing evening. Not because the discussion degenerated into an anatomy of the pseudo-controversies that have bred around Amis’s recent journalism (it didn’t, quite), but because there seemed to be an awful lot of terrorism and very little literature. Much time was spent by Amis and Husain on ringing declarations of extremism’s awfulness. Which is fair enough—but the very fact that such talk took up so much time did seem to suggest that more literary concerns had been marginalised. I asked Amis afterwards about this. “What literature does,” he replied, “is respond to reality. It is about the individual making sense of the world, and that part of the job is completely unchanged.”

Just how unchanged the job is—and how much sense the world now seems to make—can be measured by Amis’s 20th book, The Second Plane, a collection of his recent writings which bears the orthographically disturbing subtitle “September 11: 2001-2007,” as if seeking to imply that 11th September lasted six years. It is the oddest and most idiosyncratic collection Amis has ever put together; it is also a fascinating window into the travails of 21st-century literature.

In a typically pithy author’s note, Amis acknowledges that writing on the events of 11th September and their aftermath has become a “desperate fascination” for himself and many others. But where, he asks rhetorically, is the other side of the coin: where are the Islamist soul-searchings, essays and theses? “What has extremism ever done for anyone? Where are its gifts to humanity? Where are its works?” The questions, for Amis, do not need answering. The opposition of literature and terrorism brooks no dialogue. One seeks to augment, to enhance; the other already has its answers and its words, and seeks only to end the discussion.

This is all very well, except that it is impossible to fight a battle without engaging your enemy; and The Second Plane, far from majestically rising above the sterile non-event that is Islamism, sees nothing less than the ferocious redeployment of every weapon in Amis’s linguistic arsenal against it. Even if his public glosses claim otherwise, Amis’s private, writing self seems to acknowledge that Islamist terror is, in its way, the most dazzling, mind-altering kind of narrative art—”true terror is a language and a vision,” as Don DeLillo put it in Mao II—and its very existence is an affront to what generations of writers and thinkers have fought to claim as the best of the human.
In 2001, Amis’s collected essays appeared as The War Against Cliché. It is a title that, in the second essay in The Second Plane, he recalls finding almost comical in its futility in the aftermath of 11th September: “I thought: actually we can live with ‘bitter cold’ and ‘searing heat’ and the rest of them. We can live with cliché. What we have to do now, more testingly, is live with war.” And yet, within seven pages, Amis is mobilising one of the central themes of The War Against Cliché against militant Islam: “like all religions, it is a massive agglutination of stock response, of clichés, of inherited and unexamined formulations.” Old insights are being marshalled in the defence of reason.

Between them, the 14 chronologically arranged pieces in The Second Plane form an account that is, as Amis acknowledges, “incremental and can never hope to be intact and entire.” They are a restless sequence: essay, essay, essay, short story, essay, short story, essay, film review, book review, book review, book review, political portrait, essay, essay. On several occasions the tone is bewilderingly portentous—such as when Amis gives the date as “the eleventh day of the ninth month of 2001 (the duo-millennial anniversary of Christianity).” At other points, it is chasteningly precise in its condemnation of others’ equivocations: “A rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven’t managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion.”

By far the most intriguing piece is Amis’s portrait of Tony Blair, which recounts the time he spent in the then prime minister’s company in London and Iraq during the waning days of the latter’s power. Augmented in the book by some 40 per cent since its first appearance in the Guardian last June, the essay is a beautifully marshalled sequence of vignettes of the kind Amis does better than anyone: the alpha male in his glistening, sexy, faintly absurd glory. We see the Blair-limo with its “comically thick” steel cladding; the innards of No 10, which “has the appearance of a country hotel, with the furnishings of a Harley Street waiting room”; the ineffable glow of Blair-charisma, which means that “our acquaintanceship, at least on my part, is becoming mildly but deplorably flirtatious.” And beyond this, we see the power, whose lines of affect lace every moment: “I suppose that Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk… have been reluctantly obliged to gain an inkling of how politicians sometimes feel. But more generally a book review is not a plebiscite, a million-man march, a flag-draped casket, a country… consigned to flames and the sword.”

Amis is such a good writer, and grappling with his words such a delicious challenge, that it is dismaying to realise that the one thing he has not done—could not have done, perhaps—is to create a new style, a new technique. September 11th is precisely the kind of subject that Amis’s fiction has always striven towards: a detonation at the heart of western comfort. Yet for all its restlessness, the tone of The Second Plane is oddly constrained—its insistence on decorum and weight of voice tending towards repetition and recycling. In particular, the two short stories, which enter respectively into the psyches of the double of a Saddam Hussein-like dictator and of Muhammad Atta, pilot of the first plane to hit the twin towers, are bizarrely inert: studies in the sterility of evil rather than illuminations of its depths.

More generally, Amis’s theses on religion and language are formidable but circular. What he terms the “dependent mind” of the believer is trapped in cliché and ignorance because it fears and hates freedom, yet many of these believers clearly feel that the agnostic freedom Amis endorses is itself imaginatively impoverished, not to mention amoral and anarchic. With no account of the roots of religious belief other than that it is born of “ignorance, reaction and sentimentality,” Amis’s vision of progress looks arrogantly abstracted: an insistence on “good” readings of the world (and of good books) that will hardly be persuasive among those at whom it is presumably aimed. And who’s to say that human nature is better understood by those preaching limitless freedom over those who fear what such freedom breeds? There are some frightening arguments to be had here, but The Second Plane’s greatest failing is that its sporadic lapses into “us” and “them” are a rejection of something Amis the novelist knows only too well—that violence and irrationalism are part of all of us, and cannot be excised by even the choicest words.

For all its horror, it was not the slaughter of 11th September that was truly unprecedented: it was the medium of its telling, and the ongoing, resonating fears this has bred. This is what those wishing to write about what it means to live at the start of the 21st century must address. Martin Amis saw it sooner, and has dared to feel it more deeply, than most—this “worldflash of a coming future.” Yet, lacking a language more carefully able to probe the depths of our capacities for faith, violence and wickedness (“All religions are violent; and all ideologies are violent”), neither his cleverness nor appalled rage are sufficiently sustaining to be a decisive retort to the horror of terrorist fantasy.