Martin Amis, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom (Knopf, April 2008)
Though it has been mostly overlooked in the American press, a firestorm among English literati has recently been brewing over inflammatory comments regarding Muslims that novelist Martin Amis made during an interview with The Times’ Ginny Dougary. Notable British literary critic Terry Eagleton condemned both Amis’ statements (“barbaric”) and, curiously, Amis’ late father, Kingsley, whom Eagleton dubbed a “racist” and an “anti-Semitic boor.”
The controversy continued to escalate as further criticism by notables such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Ronan Bennett appeared in the British press; on the defensive side, Amis himself and friends such as Ian McEwan have attempted to mitigate and explain the remarks. Immediately following this tempest in a teapot, Amis has released his latest book, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom, a collection of essays, reviews and short fictions that deal, directly and indirectly, with the events of September 11, Islam and Islamism, the most radical Islamic fringe.
Any discussion of this book is bound to become tangled up with the recent brouhaha, and it should be noted at the outset that Amis seems to absolve himself of the most hostile charges that have been directed at him. Through the disparate pieces of the whole, three salient points repeatedly resurface: Amis’ issue with Islam, particularly Islamism, is rooted in its mistreatment and dehumanization of women—and he makes a compelling argument that democracy cannot flourish in the Middle East until women are treated as equals; he feels that the invasion of Iraq was a criminally poor decision; and he believes that extremism should have no place in the current global conversation. This is far from the ideology of a radical intolerant.
Amis’ examination of his response to 9/11 is uneven, which is not surprising for a patchwork of quasi-related articles. However, several of the pieces achieve the dizzying heights of prose that Amis is capable of, particularly in the flagship essay, “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind.” The overarching style of this piece will be familiar to those who have read Amis’ recent non-fiction works, especially the excellent Experience and Koba the Dread. Placing heavy emphasis on the role of Sayyid Qutb, Amis deftly weaves modern Islamic history with several personal narratives into an examination of the effects and absurdities of the West’s current donnybrook with radical Islam. This approach—the prose careening from idea to idea and occasionally drawing the connections between—mostly complements the hyper-steroidal diction and pacing that Amis typically deploys in his fiction.
There are times, however, when Amis seems to have focused too much on style and too little on thinking through his ideas. Consider, for instance, the following: “The age of terror, I suspect, will also be remembered as the age of boredom…a super boredom, rounding out and complementing the superterror of suicide-mass murder.” Amis goes on a few sentences later to declare that “we [the West] haven’t got a chance in the war against boredom.” What Amis doesn’t appear to have considered here is that boredom, being the period between moments of terror, is not something that most would choose to be at war with. In fact, it is the desirable state of being in the age of terror. Likewise, the West, in America, at least, is not fighting a war with boredom; it has embraced it.
Included in this collection of essays and reviews are, unusually, two short stories. The choice to mingle fiction with non-fiction is an odd one, but it ends up working for the book as a whole. The stories themselves are somewhat slight. The first concerns the life of a Middle Eastern dictator’s double; the subject itself fascinates and would bear a much deeper investigation, but Amis pointedly restricts his character’s life. The second story fictionally details Mohammed Atta’s last morning and is marred only by the obviousness of its subject. These stories bookend the “Terror and Boredom” essay and initially seem out of place. However, these very personal immersions into the alien worlds of two similar but crucially different ideologues lend a cohesion and a slightly hypnotic effect to the work and afford the reader the opportunity to see the conflict from a radically different point of view.
Unfortunately, the spell does not last long, and The Second Plane dissolves into a series of short, dubiously-related book and film reviews that provide little insight into either September 11 or Islamism. Especially vexing is “On the Move with Tony Blair,” the longest of the book’s late essays, in which Amis travels with Tony Blair from England to Germany to the White House to Iraq. The piece provides plenty of insight into Blair’s character and personality—but of what relevance is this to an examination of Amis’ personal response to September 11?
The Second Plane, then, is something of a let-down. As evidenced by the lack of relevant material, the book has a slightly rushed quality, and one is left wishing that Amis had either taken the time to develop more thematically aligned essays and give the book a unity it is otherwise lacking, or had scrapped the thing entirely and directed his talent towards the inclusion of the themes presented here in a purely fictional work.