Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis

At least three times now, my fingers have mis-typed that title as The Second Place, which I'm sure must be deeply meaningful, but I'm damned if I know how or why.

Martin Amis is an opinionated man from an opinionated family -- his father was Kingsley Amis, so Martin comes by his pontification the old-fashioned way -- and this is an opinionated book. In twelve essays, mostly newspaper columns, and two short stories, Amis here gives his opinions on the post-9/11 world and all that portentous phrase implies. On those subjects, he's mildly right-wing -- mildly from where I sit; any view of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that isn't brow-beating and wailing seems to be considered beyond the pale in the UK -- he thought the Iraq war might have been necessary at the time, but he's decided that was wrong.

And The Second Plane has generally been reviewed from that point of view as well -- the mid-Atlantic literary world is a very liberal one, and Amis has never fit easily there.

On the other hand, The Second Plane has also been reviewed negatively because it doesn't have a strong central focus or argument, and that's completely true -- most of the pieces collected here are op-eds or reviews, work done because a magazine or newspaper wanted famous Martin Amis to say something about Subject X by Tuesday in 2000 words. There's not much sign that Amis has rethought any of these pieces, and they do cover a six-year span.

So the nonfiction in The Second Plane shows a thoughtful writer intermittently poking at the raw subjects of terrorism, war, and hatred, but not bringing any overall framework to bear on the subject. I doubt any readers will agree completely with him, but he's less dogmatic here than he sometimes is on literary subjects, so it's less likely that non-dogmatic readers will be completely incensed.

The two bits of fiction -- "In the Palace of the End" and "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" -- don't fit as well, though they're both good in their own ways. The former is stronger, a totalitarian fantasia about one of the many doubles for an unnamed dictator. The latter is Amis's imagined version of Atta's last day; it's strongly written but feels like Amis's personal catharsis about the attacks rather than a story.

There's something thrown-together about The Second Plane, as if Amis realized he had enough stuff on this topic to make a book, so he just threw it all together. It would have been better if he'd gone back, re-read all of these pieces, and sat down to write something new and comprehensive on the subject. But he didn't, and The Second Plane is what we have. It's not top-shelf Amis, but it has its strengths.

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