A Bright Young Thing grapples with the post-9/11 world.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By STEFAN BECK
The Second Plane
In 2006 Martin Amis took a potentially career-ending risk: He told the truth. In an interview with Ginny Dougary of the (London) Times, he confessed that he'd felt "a definite urge-don't you have it?-to say, 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation-further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms."
When the literary critic Terry Eagleton drew attention to Amis's mostly overlooked comments-in the same calculating fashion that certain "Muslim leaders" drew attention to the mostly overlooked Jyllands-Posten cartoons-Amis defended them as the product of "a thought experiment, or a mood experiment." It's a fancy way of saying that he was angry, that he felt something, however ugly, and described it honestly.
The late Oriana Fallaci did this twice, first in The Rage and the Pride and then in The Force of Reason, and it nearly landed her in the dock. It seems that spontaneous emotion is the luxury of those willing to buttress it with violence; the rest of us are expected to conceal, whitewash, and falsify. But what we have in The Second Plane, Amis's collection of September 11-related journalism and fiction, is a man unwilling to stoop to any of the above-but perfectly willing to sound a bit crazy.
Amis opens the centerpiece of this book, "Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind" (previously published as "The Age of Horrorism"), with an anecdote about a friend who, boxed in by the Osama bin Laden Fan Club in Peshawar, thought on his feet to get out of a bind. Asked whether he "liked" Osama, the man answered, "Of course. . . . All men are my brothers." A good line, Amis allows-but "all men are not my brothers. Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother."
In many ways this is the linchpin of Amis's argument. We're warned by his detractors that he's an Islamophobe, a racist, a hysterical fool; but the problem he identifies isn't one of religion, race, or ethnicity. It's a problem of youth, stymied masculinity, and, no matter how absurd it may sound, poor parenting. To read the comments following what Eagleton et al. selectively quoted is to find Amis struggling with inescapable frustration:
They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs-well, they've got to stop their children killing people. It's a huge dereliction on their part.
This is less Enoch Powell than Bill Cosby-a reminder that, if parents sheltered their children from truly malignant influences while guiding their (gradual) assimilation into liberal society, the Semtex belt might be a bit less appealing.
"It has been suggested," Amis writes, "by serious commentators, that suicide-mass murderers are searching for the simplest means of getting a girlfriend." Is this a lazy oversimplification? It would be nice to think so. One of the most distressing aspects of the martyrdom myth is that it promises to fulfill the very desires a healthy soul is meant to outgrow in the course of mortal existence. If you regard polygamy as an affront to your "sisters," and alcohol as a terrestrial time-killer, you're liable to expect more of your afterlife.
Amis argues that a "rational response [to suicide-mass murder] would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion." For instance: Ronan Bennett, railing against Amis's supposed "intolerance of otherness," approvingly quotes Ian McEwan's Guardian essay, published just four days after the September 11 attacks: "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality."
But what if "someone other than yourself" really is just a deluded teenager? Is this exercise in masochistic (not to say terminal) empathy still advisable? If we're going to take -McEwan at his word, we might as well imagine what it's like to be Martin Amis: a manifestly talented and imaginative novelist with a deep-seated concern for the well-being of "half the human race: women," for whom confronting the suicide/mass murderer is as exasperating as it is frightening. That's not to mention that Amis is convinced, and rightly so, that his enemy is the "dependent mind," governed by the "leaden-witted circularity" of Islamist reasoning, presided over by the "lordly and unintelligent visage" of Osama bin Laden.
Amis has been accused, by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun, of an "aesthetic, not to say hedonistic, understanding of liberalism," one unlikely "to inspire, in most readers, the kind of devotion that the defense of our liberties requires."
Kirsch agrees with Amis on the basics ("his refusal to make mental compromises with fundamentalism," for one) but he expects of his villains the same psychological complexity that has the Eagletons of the world fiddling with the DSM-IV and conflict resolution manuals while the world burns. Amis, the seasoned novelist, is the only one who seems to understand that this isn't a novel, that the characters may be as bland as rice pudding but their bombs will function just the same.
The two pieces of fiction Amis has included here, and a third one described because it was never completed, are crude, grotesque, and unmemorable. But it is Amis's great victory-philosophical, not aesthetic-to see not the banality but the juvenility of evil, to make his characters infuriatingly two-dimensional not because he lacks imagination but because he isn't showing off his chops-he's showing off theirs. Anyone who believes that jihadists speak in Hamlet soliloquies, or even that they ham it up like Hannibal Lecter, is deluding himself. The future promised us by Islamic radicalism is, as Amis genuinely fears, a wasteland of "perfect terror and perfect boredom, and of nothing else-a world with no games, no arts, and no women, a world where the sole entertainment is the public execution."
Is that fear, as Kirsch suggests, narcissistic? Is it a case of Amis putting his own "guild concern"-a world without great or good novels-above all else?
All writers of fiction will at some point find themselves abandoning a piece of work-or find themselves "putting it aside," as we gently say. The original idea, the initiating "throb" (Nabokov), encounters certain "points of resistance" (Updike); and these points of resistance, on occasion, are simply too obdurate, numerous, and pervasive. You come to write the next page, and it's dead.
Islam is, he writes, "a total system, and like all such systems eerily amenable to satire. But with Islamism, with total malignancy, with total terror and total boredom, irony, even militant irony (which is what satire is), merely shrivels and dies." The attitude against which Amis has ranged his talents, with varying degrees of success, is one without the least interest in the next page: The next page isn't just dead; it's death.
Amis is squarely against religious belief, as "reality is sufficiently awesome as it stands." This might explain why he contemplates the stunted, uncomplicated "reality" of Islamism with such trepidation. (Of course, it needs no explanation, really: Beheading is sufficiently terrifying as it stands.) The alternative he presents isn't hedonism or aesthetic idolatry; it's the exercise of will and imagination raised to the status of religious ritual, the very antithesis of what he has called "dependence of mind." It encompasses his art, his family life, his unimpeded social interaction, his pleasure-indeed, everything.
The prospect of relinquishing that right to anyone is enough to bring out his rage, as it will be, one suspects and sincerely hopes, for many of us.
Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and elsewhere.