Saturday, 23 April 2011

Reading The Second Plane by Martin Amis

Acclaimed stylist and publicly engaged London (51 degrees North, 0 degrees West) writer Martin Amis wrote extensively on the atrocities of September 11th  2001 in the USA, and their aftermaths. The Second Plane (Vintage Book, London, 2008) collects essays, short stories and reviews written for print media in New York (40 degrees North, 74 degrees West) and London in the period 2001 to 2007. The strongest sense from these polemics is that  Amis is seriously discommoded by the turn of world events developing from the deadly attacks on New York using passenger flights as suicide weapons of mass killing. He is tired and bored, but most of all he is afraid and wishes that the world, and in particular the Islamist jihadin, would just give over, so that he could continue to write stories and polemics in his rationalist Western tradition, often using beautiful – vacuous? - sentences: 
'I said goodbye, after the all-clear, to those earnestly frowning faces, these men of impressive, indeed daunting steadfastness and altruism.' (185, On the move with Tony Blair.)
British soldiers, in Basra (30 degrees North, 47 degrees East) in southern Iraq, are much put-upon altruists, simply trying to help, who could do so much more if only their leaders would give them the necessary equipment – weapons and body armour - and the recalcitrant locals would just calm down. The invading military as neutral broker has long been a narrative used by Westernists (Amis' own coinage?) to rationalise adventures of plunder and colonial wars. Check the history of Ireland. 
Amis' jihadin are full of shit, quite literally in the case of Muhammad Atta, (97, The Last Days of Muhammad Atta), who crashed Flight 5930, the second plane, into the second of the Twin Towers with murderous intent and devastating effect. Amis' formidable imagination and story-making talents are wonderfully evident. 
Elsewhere he appeals belligerently for reason, often with graphic images. This appeal for reason, from a writer who's works of imagination are extraordinary and hugely successful, feels like a let-down. Amis' premise presents as 'why can't people, especially Muslims, be reasonable? Like me.' He may go further and wonder 'why can't everyone just be like me?' His desire for such unreasonable orthodoxy is central to the best outcome he offers in the face of the campaigns of the jihadin. He offers a hyper-Hobson's Choice between George Bush and Osama bin Laden and implies we'd best plump for Bush, who, bad an all as he is, is, at least, 'us'.
Amis now sees that violence is endemic and global; that threat is everywhere. Amis agonises over 'equivalence'. There is no equivalence. There are asymmetrical conflicts, contesting and chaos, manifest in the 'shock and awe' wrought by fighter bombers and the terror delivered by suicide bombers; latent in the poverty, hunger and oppression upon which the current world order is based. The atrocities of the jihadin brought this home to Amis and made it personal. 
The world is always heterodox, however. Narrow bifurcations, A or B choices, and yes/no answers, are not adequate. Are not reasonable. Westernists fetishise reasonable machines and send fighter bombers on missions of surgical strike. Islamists fetishise religious bodies and use them as transports to Paradise. Both are illusions. Both kill and maim. Both privilege death over life. 
If these works are the best that a Westernist London intellectual can imagine, then more imagining and reasoning are required.

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