Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Second Plane by Martin Amis

Son of Sir Kingsley Amis (famous English novelist), Martin Amis is known as the enfant terrible of British fiction. He is a controversial essayist as well. He is author of some of Britain's best-known modern literature, influenced by Nabokov and Bellow, and has influenced new writers such as Zadie Smith and Will Self. He is a true littérateur. This controversial book of 14 essays about 9/11 and subsequent events is culled from articles first appearing in the Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times between 2001-2007. The book was published as a reaction to Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton (fellow U. Manchester professor) accusing Amis of racism based on an interview conducted by Ginny Dougary of The Times on Sept. 9, 2006 ( This collection of published essays is loaded with insight, some of it over the top. The reader should note that these essays transgress the suicide bombings in London in July 2005.
The first essay is eponymously titled The Second Plane and was written only a few days after 9/11. The opening sentence is poignant - "It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her." I remember turning on the TV in my office at about 9am that day and seeing the second plane in real time. Amis nails it. "It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised of concrete and steel would also become an unforgettable metaphor. The moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era - the era of images and perceptions." Amis is well known for commenting on the absurdity of the postmodern condition. He is keenly aware of Americans' isolationism - "Various national characteristics - self-reliance, a fiercer national patriotism than any in Western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity - have created a deficit of empathy for the sufferings of people far away." Later in the book (p. 53) he sees the attacks as a paradigm shift. "Paradigm-shifts open a window; and, once opened, the window will close." September 11 was instantly unrepeatable, the tactic was obsolete by 10 a.m. the same morning, witness the start of the rebellion on United 93, once passengers heard on cell phones that the twin towers had been hit. It is curious to note that United 93 was delayed by 30 minutes - had it left on time, it may have met it's White House or Capital target !
Reviewers of the book have found Amis lacking in authoritative knowledge of key areas under consideration, ironically, he engages just this topic in the second essay The Voice of the Lonely Crowd. "An unusual number of novelists chose to write some journalism about September 11 - as many journalists more or less tolerantly noted. I can tell you what these novelists were doing: they were playing for time. The so-called work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of autistic babble." Amis reminds us that "novelists don't normally write about what's going on; they write about what's not going on." Good one. Unfortunately, many critics felt that in the case of this book, Amis should have heeded his own advice. I can tell you words like Marfanic, sordor, rictus, and antinomian are not typical journalistic words. He disparages all religion "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.....if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion." On this I could not agree more.
In The Wrong War, Amis is thinking how Bush must have reasoned, that once we launch an attack, "Then at last we will have Saddam's full cooperation in our weapons inspection, because everything we know about him suggests that he will use them all." Of course, Saddam was no friend to Islamists, particularly Shiites (Iran axis), he is "in reality, a career-long secularist - indeed an "infidel" according to bin Laden." Amis opines that Bush was more religious than Saddam ! It is ironic when Tony Blair remarks in an interview conducted by Amis how politics and religion got so intermingled in America under Bush.
Amis creates a short story, In the Palace of the End, in which many body doubles, a spoof on Saddam's public body doubles, partake in the orgiastic excesses of Palace life as well as playing a role in the torture chambers. A reviewer has noted that considerable effort has been put into offering neologisms for torture techniques. Amis introduces the reader (p. 50) in Terror and Boredom : The Dependent Mind to the term "Islamism" wherein Islam is not only a religion but also a political system and that modern Muslims must return to the roots of their religion and unite politically. Much criticism has been leveled against Amis that he is not merely an "Islamismophobe" (p.71) but an "Islamophobe" as well. In his writings his targets shift from radicals to the Muslim world at large.
In The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, he creates a constipated character who has not moved his bowels since May. When deciding what day to attack, it was suggested "Two branches, an oblique stroke, and a lollipop" (p. 103). In Iran and the Lord of Time, Amis postulates "Rule number one: no theocracy can be allowed to wield a nuclear weapon. For the Iranians, as an Israeli official put it, Mutual Assured Destruction "is not a deterrent. It's an incentive.""
Amis is greatly concerned with Muslim demographics, western women in Europe produce an average of 1.4 children (2.1 is required for maintaining the status quo), Muslim women are producing 3.5 children. He's assuming all Muslims are radical.
Hard to tell on this blog, but book cover photo is view looking up, standing between twin towers, smoke coming from the South Tower. It is a spectacular shot !

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