On Martin Amis’s The Second Plane
Martin Amis’s The Second Plane
is a collection of essays, short fiction, and book reviews arranged in order of composition. It thus functions, in some ways, as a walking tour of the motley post-September 11 mind--its fears, madnesses, misapprehensions, and insights. While the book’s first essay, written in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, aches with the same “reflexive search for the morally intelligible” (as Amis elsewhere calls it) that animates the desperate relativism of the paleo-left, the end of the book finds him, having now enlightened himself on modern Islam’s intellectual traffic jam, condemning the very same left’s “hemispherical abjection” to the “Thanatism” of radical Islam.
The author of several of the funniest novels ever written, and arguably the world’s most entertaining writer of prose, Martin Amis has also periodically examined some colossal human bummers and published his findings in what are typically slim but rigorous volumes. Predictably, the Amis of this mode has his detractors. Einstein’s Monsters
(1987), with its forceful denunciation of nuclear weaponry, was slighted as little more than an empty declaration of seriousness. (It wasn’t.) More recently, Koba the Dread
(2002), a historical sleigh ride through the left’s collaborations with Stalinism, rolled many eyes with its supposedly needless revisitings. (They weren’t.) Yet these books were, in some ways, vulnerable to belittling encapsulation. So is The Second Plane
, which might be called a psychic survey of our terror-haunted terrain--the smoking fumaroles, flash-flood magma flows, and exploding horizons. Some of its sentiment (“the extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture has been much remarked”) is coarsely put, and some of its broader arguments undoubtedly wrong. Like its predecessors, then, it, too, will be ridiculed--but not by any reader who has attempted to read it or Amis carefully.
The centerpiece is a long essay here titled “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind.” (When it appeared in the Guardian
in September 2006, the title was “The Age of Horrorism.” During an Internet roundtable six months later, a cheeky youngster asked Amis if he had any more such “unintentionally hilarious” phrases. “Yes,” he replied. “Fuck off.”) This fiercely argued and frequently striking essay attempts to drop a rhetorical neutron bomb upon radical Islam and its soft-minded apologists. Reading Martin Amis inveigh against radical Islam is almost identical to reading Martin Amis on nuclear weapons: However much fun you (and he) are having, there’s something inescapably imbalanced about the confrontation, as though one were watching Einstein fly through multiplication tables.
Along the way, Mr. Amis, leaning heavily upon other writers and scholars (and he remains a cribber of unparalleled gifts, which sounds like faint praise only to someone who’s never had to do it), fashions an affecting portrait of Sayyid Qutb, the Jeremy Bentham of Islamism, whose sojourn in the “pullulating hellhouse” of Greeley, Colorado, in the late 1940s somehow radicalized him. (Noting the “drunken, semi-naked woman” Qutb claimed to have once run into on an America-bound ocean liner, Amis writes, “It seems probable that the liquored-up Mata Hari, the dipsomaniacal nudist, was simply a woman in a cocktail dress who, perhaps, had recently had a cocktail.”) Amis’s goal here is only partly ridicule. It’s also an attempt to understand how a parochial Egyptian came to provide an entire movement with its philosophical rationale for mass murder. Amis’s Qutb, in his sentimentality, unexamined contradictions and cross-eyed rectitude, seems an almost familiar character--as if Keith Talent, antihero of London Fields
(1989), had settled upon not darts and statutory rape but rather memorizing suras as his life’s work.
Other portions of the essay are less compelling, as when Amis writes, “Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual.” For a writer whose interest in Islam was discreet prior to the fall of 2001, Amis discusses its essences with surprising comfort, and it should be said that after the original version of “Terror and Boredom” appeared, the Amis effigies began to snap, crackle, and pop. The most devastating critique came from Pankaj Mishra, who noted that, despite his essay’s length, Amis described only one direct personal experience with a Muslim. As for the attempt to link radical Islam to more familiar historical terrors (“the influence of Hitler and Stalin”), Mishra allowed that such cogitation satisfied “the nostalgic desire of some sedentary writers to see themselves in the avant-garde of a noble crusade against an evil ‘ism,’” but did not at all “deepen our understanding of the diverse nature of Muslim societies or of the schisms and contradictions within those we call radical Islam.”
Anyone who has used the phrase “Islamofascism” (I have) knows the bluff Pankaj Mishra called, and any traveler who has been treated with kindness and respect by Muslims with alarming core beliefs (I have) recognizes that the totalist fanaticism Martin Amis describes does justice to precious few actual human beings.
Although Mishra obliterated the arch of Amis’s argument, much of its foundation remains. His description of radical Islam as “a massive agglutination of stock response, of clichés, of inherited and unexamined formulations” is memorably put and indisputably correct, and his frustration that adherents of only one faith can be driven to violent fulmination by the cruelties of Scandinavian cartooning is difficult to counter.
Thankfully, no particular expertise is required to point out hypocrisy or mock papier-mâché pieties, and Amis does both as well as or better than anyone. (He has also written the single funniest observation ever made about Osama bin Laden: “I found myself frivolously wondering whether Osama was just the product . . . of his birth order. Seventeenth out of fifty-seven is a notoriously difficult slot to fill.”)
“Geopolitics may not be my natural subject,” Amis acknowledges, “but masculinity is.” Here’s where those in recent opposition to him have erred. They’re right to question his belief (made clear in the imagined, and very nearly unforgivable, speech Amis provides the American talib
, John Walker Lindh, on the eve of September 11, 2001) that the appeasement-prone leftists of the West can only collapse against the tides of Islam. The right-wing motives attributed to Amis, however, are wrong. He not only foresaw that the American response to September 11 was “almost sure to become elephantine,” he laments and condemns the “moral crash” of America’s embrace of interrogatory torture and regards the Iraq war as a “fatal forfeiture of legitimacy.” These are not the handholds of a man listing rightward.
“I’m a passionate multiracialist,” Amis recently told The New York Times
, “and a very poor multiculturalist.” Yet this self-assessment makes the same mistake his critics make. A very poor multiculturalist would never think to step behind Islamist eyes, yet Amis does this throughout The Second Plane
, not only with Sayyid Qutb but also with some young Pakistanis he pauses to contemplate while they’re preparing to assault his friend Christopher Hitchens. But it’s in “The Last Days of Muhammed Atta,” one of The Second Plane
’s two short stories (the other being “In the Palace of the End,” a fussy performance piece), that he attempts his most radical feat of transference.
Let us set aside whether “The Last Days of Muhammed Atta” is a successful piece of fiction, with the codicillary recognition that its title alone ensures its need to be something beyond well written. Let us instead soberly weigh the ramifications of what he has attempted. First, who is Martin Amis’s Mohammed Atta? We learn that he “wasn’t like the others,” has no particular religiosity and enjoys no human capacity for love. This Atta has “allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation.” A few of these biographical liberties fly in the face of The 9/11 Report
, but as the story unfolds one thing becomes clear: Despite Atta’s vividly evoked constipation, he’s no cartoon, no Arab remix of one of the joyless nihilists from Amis’s early novel Dead Babies
. The mind of this Mohammed Atta is at once empty and full, dull and terrifying, familiar and extraterrestrial. It is, in other words, convincingly human.
When Amis imagines an early meeting between those responsible for the “Planes Operation,” Atta suggests attacking a nuclear power plant, thereby irradiating the American East Coast for 70,000 years. But Atta’s minder, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, demurs. “The Sheikh gave his reasons (restricted airspace, no ‘symbolic value’). But Mohammed Atta sensed a moral qualm, a silent suggestion that such a move could be considered exorbitant.” A considerable expenditure of imagination is necessary to believably distinguish the probity of Mohammed Atta from that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, much less to provide a psychic window into Atta as he worries over how he will feel when he saws through the windpipe of a nearby flight attendant. When, in the story’s final paragraphs, Amis writes of Atta bearing down on Queens and feeling “glad that he wouldn’t have to plow down into the city, and he even felt love for it, all its strivings and couplings and sunderings,” it’s easy to forget, as the north tower grows closer, that Amis has accomplished an act of audacious authorial empathy--one unimaginable to any self-respecting Islamophobe.
Beyond writing about it, Amis has no use for Islamism--and even less use, it occasionally seems, for those who live in anything short of apocalyptic fear of it. But consider the recent performance of the Islamists themselves. Give them a full-blown occupation and they’re capable of the usual guerrilla brilliances. Provide them with the canvas of an open society and their operational élan grows less apparent, as do (in what is surely no coincidence) their grievances. The ballet of airborne horror on September 11, 2001, is the exception. The graceless imbecile Richard Reid trying to set his shoe on fire is closer to the rule. Meanwhile Osama bin Laden’s chillingly tranquil smile is indicative of nothing more than his brain’s comprehensive absence of interesting ideas. His lone contribution to his movement, as Amis points out, is image. There’s nothing to sustain a movement built on the back of suicides but
image, and the more global significance pumped into Islamism, the more besieged it appears and the more notionally attractive to the disaffected it becomes.
We, of course, are vulnerable to the same perceptions: Hundreds of thousands of Americans volunteered for military service in the months following the WTC attacks; today virtually no branch can meet its recruiting goals. It’s no fun, apparently, being the bully. Martin Amis is no bully, but how strange that the utterly unnecessary polarization of the past eight years has opened him up to such an accusation, and how sad that he can regard his position on Islamism as being either lonely or brave.
Copyright © 2008 by Tom Bissell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.