Book Review: Readings
Martin Amis tries breathlessly to evoke the post-9/11 change in the zeitgeist and, less successfully, to find a moral ground from which to respond
Reviewed by Michael Agresta, Fri., April 4, 2008
The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredomby Martin Amis
Knopf, 224 pp., $24
The second plane, Martin Amis writes, carried with it the bad news that America was not witness to an accident but an attack. "The apotheosis of the postmodern era," Amis calls it. "For us, its glint was the worldflash of the coming future."
Through two short stories, seven essays, and five reviews, Amis tries breathlessly both to evoke this change in the zeitgeist and to find a moral ground from which to respond. It's a noble task and one fit for an author of his reputation. Amis has never been one to avert his eyes from an unpleasant truth or incuriously parrot the sentiments of his peers. Unfortunately, his enterprise here too often goes the way of Bush and Blair's War on Terror – that is to say, it mires itself in a clumsy attempt to bend a fifth of the world's population (Muslims) to its own purposes.
In his novels, Amis excels at conveying the pathologies of an age in a single protagonist. He accomplishes exactly this in a short story titled "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta." Amis writes: "He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation. ... If you took away all the rubbish about faith, then fundamentalism suited his character, and with an almost sinister precision." The description of Atta is fascinating, operating under the authority of a fiction writer. When Amis the essayist tries to ascribe similar psychologies to the entire Islamic world, or at least to the practicing religious segment of it, he gets into trouble.
Amis recently caused a stir in the United Kingdom with his suggestion that people of Middle Eastern descent ought to be profiled and discriminated against until "they start getting tough with their children." These comments are not merely insensitive. They betray a fundamental lack of nuance in cross-cultural thinking. When, in the essay "Terrorism and Boredom," he concedes in brazen understatement, "Even Westernism, so impeccably bland, has violence glinting within it," one wants to urge him to follow that plane, the one raining death from above on Iraqi civilians these past five years.