Second thoughts

Amis yes and no
By JAMES PARKER  |  June 3, 2008

MORE SALIENTLY: Pontificating, Amis has little time to view events as a simple spectator.

The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom | By Martin Amis | Knopf | 224 pages | $24
Naughty, naughty 9/11. Not only did you briefly prostrate Western civilization, you gave Martin Amis permission to go all world-historical on our asses. “If September 11 had to happen,” he admits huskily in the “Author’s Note” to The Second Plane, “then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime.” I should think not. It might be argued that the clash with radical Islam has provided Amis the writer with the very last thing he needed — license, that is, to crank his prose up to levels of nearly interstellar pomposity. But to Amis the author, the man of letters, it has been — if you’ll pardon the phrase — a godsend. Bumped out of the two-book rut of his previous obsession (Stalinism, which he grappled with in Koba the Dread and then House of Meetings), he has plunged head-first into the biggest issue of the day, more engagé than ever: nearly every one of the reviews, profiles, think pieces, and short stories collected here produced, upon its original appearance, a little media surge of assent or vituperation. He hasn’t had this much press since he fell out with Julian Barnes.

The prose in The Second Plane is militantly wordy, expressive of its author’s great disdain for the dumbed-down Western mind. Why write “on the other hand” when you can write “countervailingly”? Or “at the same time” when “co-synchronously” is on tap? The book’s argument might be broadly described as a literary elaboration of the position staked out by his old friend Christopher Hitchens. Religion: bad. “Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful.” Radical Islam: very bad, “insanely Dionysian . . . impossibly poisonous,” an outbreak of “death-estrus.”

The fiction has a wobbly, failed-experiment quality. I am completely unable, for example, to make my mind up about the following sentence, from “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta”: “More saliently, he had not moved his bowels since May.” I should explain that in this story Amis has given Muhammad Atta, lead terrorist of 9/11, a giant case of constipation. To what end? We are not sure. Perhaps to emphasize the terminal non-creativity of the jihadist: he can’t even take a decent shit. “More saliently, he had not moved his bowels since May.” Is that good or terrible? The grotesque conceit (five months of backed-upness!) and the pontifical language strain against one another in a stylistic simulation, I suppose, of long-term ass blockage — but it reads so badly.

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