Maybe there’s something unseemly about admiring, first and foremost, the colorful prose in a book whose subject matter is 9/11. Shouldn’t the content—presumably somber, analytical, informed content—trump the art of writing in matters so grave? Just a little? Not so in Martin Amis’ The Second Plane, a collection of 14 pieces about 9/11 released earlier this year. It’s not surprising that a writer known more for his turns of phrase than his political acumen turned in an aesthetically pleasing work of weak analysis. But critics from The New York Times to The Guardian, hunting for shrewd geopolitical insight, trashed the book, calling Amis a racist whose reasoning skills are far slimmer than his ability to hang beautiful phrases onto the framework of important subjects.
Worsening matters, Amis had, prior to the publication of the book, made comments about Islamicist terrorism in other media that made him seem either off-base about the intricacies of the issues, or hugely politically insensitive, or, perhaps, deliberately provocative. (In an interview with the London Times, he said, “There’s 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. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.”)
To be sure, Amis comes off as blithely, tiresomely self-indulgent in his thinking and writing in many of these essays, which are assembled chronologically as they were published in the years since 9/11. For example, when he waxes on about the way we call 9/11 “9/11” instead of September 11, or the European 11/9:
- The Second Plane
- Beyond the Weekly
- Martin Amis
“My principal objection to the numbers is that they are numbers. The solecism, that is to say, is not grammatical but moral-aesthetic—an offense against decorum; and decorum means seemliness, which comes from soemr, fitting, and soema, to honor. 9/11 ... who or what decided that particular acts of slaughter, particular whirlwinds of plasma and body parts, in which a random sample of the innocent is killed, maimed, or otherwise crippled in body and mind, deserves a numerical shorthand? Whom does this honor? What makes this fitting?”
Amis’ dissection of the political forces behind 9/11 doesn’t add anything meaningful—he concludes over and over, reductively, that religion is the culprit. Still, his turns of phrase are remarkable—whirlwinds of plasma and body parts!—and because the book also includes two pieces of 9/11-inspired fiction, what we have is a collection where aesthetics overshadow politics, or where, at its best, aesthetics become politics.
In the long essay “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,” Amis describes Donald Rumsfeld on TV at the beginning of the Iraq war: “He looked as though he had just worked his way through a snowball of cocaine. ‘Stuff happens,’ he said when asked about the looting of the Mesopotamian heritage in Baghdad—the remark of a man not just corrupted but floridly vulgarized by power.”
About United 93, he writes: “As the film nears its conclusion you will find yourself, I am confident, in a state of near-perfect distress, a distress that knows no blind spots. The New York Times called United 93 the feel bad movie of the year. This description is trivial. The distress is something you can taste, like cud, returned from the stomach for further mastication: the ancient flavor of death and defeat. You think: this is exactly what they meant us to feel. And your mind will cast about for something, a molecule, an atom of consolation; and what you will reach for is what the passengers reached for.”
From the macabre fiction account of Hussein’s torture house, “In the Palace of the End,” to nearly poetic retellings of the events of that September morning, Amis flamboyantly dives into the darkness of 9/11, sending us back into it in violent detail. Here and there it’s a heady ride, but in the end, what The Second Plane reveals is that we have exhausted 9/11 analysis. We have run out of things to say. In failing to extend our understanding of 9/11, Amis can only attempt to summon forth its awe and absurdity. Somehow that’s not enough.