The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007

by Martin Amis

Vintage HK$214

Once Britain's most famous, if not best, living novelist, Martin Amis has seen his literary reputation diminish in the past decade.

His prolific satirical novels of the 1980s have dated badly and his focus on style rather than theme and narrative has led many observers to label him a trivial author - a mere footnote in the history of modern English Literature. However, so great has been his influence on generations of British writers that Amis is seen by many as an elder statesman on the British literary and cultural scene.

The respect that Amis' opinions still command was demonstrated when he was commissioned by The Guardian to write the paper's keynote response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, despite a lack of expertise in geopolitical matters.

Beginning with The Guardian assignment, published on September 18, 2001, The Second Plane compiles essays, newspaper articles, book and film reviews, plus two short stories addressing the September 11 events and their repercussions, all of which Amis was inspired to write after his initial undertaking developed into his own fascination. Arranged chronologically, The Second Plane shows Amis' early reactions to the attacks to be imbued with shock and he reveals himself to be deeply uncertain about his role as a novelist in a changed world.

There is also a noticeable caution when Amis discusses terrorism and the Islamic-Arab world, as if he were finding his feet on new geopolitical terrain.

As the collection progresses, Amis' opinions quickly harden and he repudiates his previous circumspection to be 'tediously centrist' and representative of his own part in what he now believes to be an insidious trend towards political correctness after the attacks. With a series of cannonades The Second Plane enters its middle phases sniping at those targets Amis believes to have been cloaked by political correctness for too long.

In the collection's centrepiece, the 2006 essay Terror and Boredom, Amis identifies Islam as the world's new locus of concern. He tells of a journalist friend's encounter in Pakistan where mosque worshippers clamour at a stall.

The cause of the bustle was a limited supply of T-shirts emblazoned with the visage of Osama bin Laden, an item that would usually be considered idolatrous in Sunni Islam. This story is not a one-off example of Islamic hypocrisy, Amis insists, but a symptom of a 'civil war of Islam' where 'Islamism won' and 'the loser, moderate Islam ... is supine and inaudible'.

Amis wastes little time traversing the Islamic-Arab world and categorising regional actors along these 'Islamist' and 'moderate' battle lines. In Palestine, Amis declares that Hamas 'are within evolutionary distance' of democracy. However, Palestine's core problem, according to Amis, is that it remains beset by an 'emulous ideology and a cult of death', where Palestinian mothers breed 'suicide mass-murderers' who 'want [their] war to last forever.'

Across the Middle East, from Palestine to Iran to Afghanistan and Iraq, Amis sees this cult of the suicide mass-murderer as a common trend and a 'completely new order of execration'. There are no mentions of Palestinian land grievances, which may distinguish that country's suicide bombers from suicide bombers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where suicide bombing is a distinctly post-September 11 phenomenon.

It is one of many areas where Amis' attempts at synthesis result in oversimplification.

Amis' two categorisations, 'Islamism' and 'moderate Islam', also create confusion rather than clarification. Amis conflates 'Islamists' with 'radicals' who seek to restore the Islamic empire of the Caliphate, and by characterising the intent of varied groups such as Hamas and al-Qaeda as one and the same, Amis simplistically paints the Middle East as an undifferentiated expanse of hostility.

Hamas, like the majority of political Islamist groups, is not intent on restoring the Caliphate. Rather than engaging with the history of the Middle East, Amis provides single anecdotes to illustrate wider trends across the region. It is an approach that leads to highly generalised analysis and indiscriminate accusations that seldom hit the right targets.

The lone exception is, unsurprisingly, in one of Amis' short stories, The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, an imagined account of Atta's final 36 hours before piloting the first plane to crash into the World Trade Centre. The prose sparkles and Amis achieves an hallucinatory combination in portraying Atta with profound emotional sincerity, yet subtly infusing the piece with an eerie rancour towards him. Unfortunately, Last Days is an exception that fails to salvage a thin volume that treats subjects of confounding historical complexity in a desultory and dilettantish way.