The Magazine

Unholy Thoughts

A Bright Young Thing grapples with the post-9/11 world.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By STEFAN BECK
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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.