Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2009.
Martin Amis is best known as an English novelist with some 10 titles to his name. But Amis is also a short story writer, literary critic and essayist, and this book comprises a collection of 14 pieces — two short stories, eight essays and four reviews — around the theme of September 11, 2001. These pieces were written between 2001 and 2007, and have been produced in the order in which they were written. Amis says he has added to them, but cut nothing, although he was briefly tempted “to cover my tracks”.
Now, this is where I put up my hand and confess that I’m not well versed in Amis’s work. I read Times Arrow many moons ago and it did not convince me to try any of his other stuff. My sister, who doesn’t read as much as me, enjoyed London Fields, but I’m still not convinced.
Reading this collection I’m still no closer to understanding Amis or what makes him tick other than I now know he’s an atheist turned “weak-agnostic” and he doesn’t think much of Islamists, George Bush or Tony Blair. Join the club.
There’s something about these pieces that seems too dry and too highbrow for one to truly engage with them. At times it felt like I was reading a novelist pretending to be a journalist — and on that basis, he fails, because there’s too much style and too many literary flourishes getting in the way of the facts.
A case in point. Or four cases in point, actually. He reviews three books and one movie — United 93 directed by Paul Greengass; The Looming Tower: Al Quaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright; State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward; America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn; and The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain — in this collection and with the exception of the book by Steyn, whom he describes as an “oddity” who “writes like a maniac”, I’m not really clear where he stands on them: did he like them or not? In many ways, he simply summarises the contents, adds his two-bits worth on the subject and refuses to tell us what he really thinks of the works in question.
So, putting aside the reviews, how do the other pieces fare? By far the best piece here is his opening essay entitled The Second Plane which was first published in The Guardian just seven days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. There is raw emotion here and a desperate attempt at comprehending the incomprehensible. (In his author’s note at the start of the book Amis describes the piece as “hallucinatory” because it was “fevered by shock and by rumour”.) But it’s the opening sentences that really sets the scene, for this short chapter as well as the book as a whole:
It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: 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.
In The Voice of the Lonely Crowd, first published in The Guardian in 2002, he makes a salient claim, later championed by many others, that the event had brought literature to its knees. He argues that “many novelists chose to write some journalism about September 11” because “they were playing for time”. I think, in this instance, he may be right.
I think he’s also right about a lot of the stuff in the rest of this essay, not the least his theory that religion is a sham.
… religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful. It is straightforward — and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.
Similarly, The Wrong War — written in March 2003, before the invasion of Iraq — is a strong piece about how America is “behaving like someone still in shock” and that the “axis of evil” is a theological construct invented by Bush because it “makes him feel easier about being intellectually null”.
As you can see, Amis doesn’t pull his punches. But what he says makes sense.
I especially like his claim that the Coalition planned to go to war because there was a lack of weapons of mass destruction, not the other way around:
The surest way by far of finding out what Iraq has is to attack it. Then at last we will have Saddam’s full cooperation in our weapons inspection, because everything we know about him suggests that he will use them all. The Pentagon must be more or less convinced that Saddam’s WMDs are under a certain critical number. Otherwise it couldn’t attack him.
On the whole this is an interesting collection, although it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know or haven’t come to figure out on your own. But what it does do is provide an insight into a dreadful time in our recent history and shows how the public realm has been shaped and altered by terrorism and war.