Terror and its reverberations

Martin Amis surveys the context, consequences of 9/11

Rescue workers, Jersey City, Sept. 12. Amis calls the 9/11 story 'a narrative of misery and pain, and also of desperate fascination.' Rescue workers, Jersey City, Sept. 12. Amis calls the 9/11 story "a narrative of misery and pain, and also of desperate fascination." (KEITH MEYERS/the new york times)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Eder
April 27, 2008

The Second Plane: September 11 - Terror and Boredom
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 211 pp., $24

In "The Second Plane," a collection of newspaper and magazine pieces, Martin Amis remarks on the awkwardness of novelists - summoned by editors to do a stylish turn on the World Trade Center attack - as they try to locate a journalistic muscle inside themselves. ("Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" Alexander Pope wondered. Here the butterfly was asked to turn one.)

Amis, much in demand with the quality British press and The New Yorker's Department of Higher Anglophilia, makes a dogged effort to turn the wheel but with only mixed success. He is best, in fact, in the butterfly moments, among them an oblique flutter at the whole project. "Novelists," he concedes, "don't normally write about what's going on; they write about what's not going on."

With a single exception - an account of a prolonged dance of access/no access on a three-continent tour with then-prime minister Tony Blair - all the pieces try to deal with what's going on in the 9/11 aftermath. Or rather with what was going on.

Journalism provides our daily bread, but much of Amis's analysis and background is stale by now. If his review of Bob Woodward's account of Bush on Iraq had a yeasty crunch over that day's breakfast, there was not enough nourishment to get it to last through the couple of years since.

The pieces weave back and forth between the blinding horror itself and what it heralded: "the worldflash of a coming future." In different forms - columns, reviews, a long essay, and two rather forced short stories - Amis builds this future around violent Islamist extremism and the intellectual challenge it presents to a shaky West.

Even now, he can be compelling about the 9/11 horror, perhaps because he uses a touch of novelist's insight on it: "This is how it feels" more than "This is what it is."

His distinction between our reactions to the televised images of the two planes is well put. The first seemed "nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history." The second plane "looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien," he writes. It gave America "a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her."

Within a great deal of material about terrorism and ideology, tediously familiar by now, there is Amis's focus: the primordial evil of a violent extremism that uses suicide attacks not to win battles or change life but, as he too simplistically puts it, to court death. All religion, he writes, is "without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful," but particularly one as messianically punitive as that of the extremists.

A good deal is disjointed, particularly in the longer pieces, along with a variety of wild swings, such as his assertion of close ties between Al Qaeda and the Iranian rulers. Sometimes Amis's indignant leaps and reverses land him in odd places. The most effective response to 9/11, he suggests, would have been to rain food parcels, not missiles, on Afghanistan. No damn benevolence, this - Martin Amis inherits from Kingsley, his sulfuric and sometimes wittier father, the conviction that kindness curdles - but to incite disarray among the Taliban's followers.

His best moments come when pundit gives way to Puck. He asserts that "the other face of Islamist terror is boredom - the nullity of the non-conversation we are having with the dependent mind." Arrogant, perhaps blindly so, but it will strike a spark of recognition in a Western reader of jihadist rhetoric.

A scouring critic of the war, he remarks that President George W. Bush used the suspicion of (nonexistent) nuclear weapons development to invade Iraq but refrained from attacking the real weapons in North Korea for fear of consequences. "It crucially follows that we are going to war with Iraq because it doesn't have weapons of mass destruction."

Perhaps the most successful piece is the account of his series of trips with Blair through Britain, to Washington, to Baghdad. His was a privileged access; the result was to show what a delusion journalistic access can be. A lot of face-to-face that turned out to be face-to-(charming)mask. After any number of sincere, wide-eyed, boyish Blair moments, Amis writes "I'm being ruled, I suddenly think, by a [school] prefect."

Whizzing, motorcycle-escorted, through red lights, "I am wondering if that's why Tony looks so young - ten years in a world without traffic." (Statesman's law, counter to Lord Acton's: "Power preserves, absolute power preserves absolutely.")

At the end, the novelist's intuitive spark ignites the journalist's damp squib. Alluding to reports of Blair's closeness to Roman Catholicism (he later converted) and watching his glittering Energizer-bunny gait as he lopes through one more pointless mission in Iraq, he writes: "But surely he is Calvinism incarnate - the central doctrine being that your salvation is secured by your confidence in it."

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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