Review: The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 by Martin Amis

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THe Second Plane by Martin Amis book cover
The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 (2008) is a collection of essays and short stories by Martin Amis, which attempt to make sense of the post-9/11 world, from wars to Islamism. One of the most prominent novelists writing today, Amis reflects on September 11th through the lens of literature, suggesting that terrorism, or ‘horrorism’ as he prefers it at times, has increased the quota of boredom in the world, that extremist religion lacks not only rationality but imagination. Presented chronologically, each piece in this collection charts Amis’s personal attempt to assimilate the most startling event of our time. It’s not always pretty, but it is straight.

Most known as a satiric novelist, writing ‘straight’ may not be Amis’s natural style (indeed, there is plenty of biting humour here, even in the straightest of essays) but he has approached the ‘big’ topics before – the holocaust, nuclear weapons – so it is hardly a surprise that in the decade following September 11th, Amis’s preoccupation was with that world-altering event.

He addresses early on the notion of the second plane, noting it as the lesion in history that marked the start of the post-9/11 world: “That was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her. ... That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

There is something startlingly aesthetic about the image of the twin towers on September 11th, 2001, just as there is about the giant mushroom cloud that ushered in the age of atomic anxiety. In Einstein’s Monsters, Amis grappled with the nuclear age, here he takes on the post-9/11 world, but in both cases, words are barely a match for the startling, scarring images that preceded them. As Amis asserts, “after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 … all writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.”

For Amis, this creative blockage was short-lived, and he had soon turned to writing about the changed world, as he saw it. His argument for his own ability to write on the topic of 9/11 is not his knowledge of geopolitics, but of masculinity. Whether any justification was needed is doubtful – whether the line about masculinity would suffice if one was required is more doubtful still. But one does not read Amis for political insight, one reads him for style, for touching on the human, and, if for any sort of insight, then for artistic insight.

It’s no surprise that when it comes to the political, much of Amis’s focus falls on religion. At times, the line between Islamism – the extremist offshoot – and Islam becomes blurred, perhaps as it often has done in life and the media. Predominantly though, Amis is concerned with the violent end of the spectrum; the most imminent threat. His self-proclaimed agnosticism (which most would class as atheism) at its core colours Amis’s perception of much, and this in itself helps to confuse the line between Islam and Islamism. To clarify Amis’s position, he writes this on the Western tolerance of religion:

"Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses."

What is clear for Amis is that reason is to be favoured over religiosity (the antithesis of religion is not, he claims, atheism, but independence of mind), and that for him the two do not mix in any significant way (apparently, nor do art and religiosity, incidentally). The narrative thread does develop into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ paradigm in many ways, with Amis seeming to conclude that acts like 9/11 are outside of the rational, that seeking motive or moral equivalence is futile (although to be clear, Amis is as sneering of Bush’s ‘faith’ as he is of anyone else’s, and acknowledges that the appeal of Islamism is not faith but violence and a definite idea in a world of relative truths). Whether readers will find this acceptable or not, may depend on their own position to atheism / religion.

The collection’s subtitle (September 11, 2001-2007) hints at the fact that the impact of September 11th is not contained within the events of 2001, but is destined to spill over many years, as the consequences of this most startling event are felt. Amis himself identifies the events of 2003 – the invasion of Iraq – as the lasting consequence of the attacks of 2001: "We are arriving at an axiom in long-term thinking about international terrorism: the real danger lies, not in what it inflicts, but in what it provokes. Thus by far the gravest consequence of September 11, to date, is Iraq."

The two short stories in the collection – one narrated by the body double of a Saddam Hussein-type dictator, the other by Muhammad Atta (hijacker and pilot of the first plane) on his final day – feel a little limp. There is a dark humour in them, but no great insight into either the humanity (or otherwise, if one prefers) of the characters or the larger issues in which they are caught up. The essays are more robust – with more to say about the response to 9/11. Amis is on stronger ground when talking not about politics but about the literary and human response. Particularly good are his thoughts on the deadening effects of terrorism, and, by extension, religion. For Amis, creativity and vitality (embodied perfectly, for him, by Joyce’s Ulysses) are what he fights for – others are placed far better to deal with the political or the military responses, here language and the creative spirit are the things.

In a large way, the disjointed patchwork of responses that the essays and stories represent as a whole is the best representation of the human response to startling terror. Writing only days after the attacks, in the collection’s first piece, Amis is clear on what the response will be, but firm in his opinion that foreign lands "should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE USA" – a remarkably humanitarian response. From this starting point, Amis’s thoughts twist and turn back on themselves, wrestling with the almost unconquerable problem of assimilating this new ‘horrorism’. It’s a process many readers will recognise in themselves, and in the world in general.

On its publication, The Second Plane was criticised in much of the press for tipping into Islamophobia, as was Amis himself. One suspects that much of this view was formed by a string of rather ill-advised remarks Amis made in interviews, rather than what is contained within the pages of this collection. Amis represents a very human response; that he is prepared to talk on a perpetually difficult issue with real reflectiveness is to his credit. Is he always right? Certainly not – some of what he says is reductive, simplistic, or plain wrong (much is also right, clear-eyed, and prescient) – but quashing the freedom to publicly attempt to assimilate world events like 9/11 is not the answer either. The Second Plane is far more thoughtful than a lot of the press around it would suggest, and, while there’s still plenty to argue about within it, the arguments are reasonable and worth having.

As with Einstein's Monsters, words seem such fragile things compared to the topic they approach. Amis's developing thoughts on the post-9/11 world are, however, a fascinating insight into someone attempting to assimilate the horrific.


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