James Wood, coolly disparaging Jonathan Franzen's ambition to write the Great American Novel, suggests “..that whatever the novel gets up to, the 'culture' can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.” After September 11th, 2001, a claim such as Franzen makes in The Corrections that “..current affairs in general were more muted or insipid nowadays... But disasters of this magnitude [the Great Depression] no longer seem to befall the United States..”, is, for Wood, 'sadly archival'.
In this assembly of essays prompted by the 9/11 attacks, Martin Amis riffs on much the same theme passim. He has been on the receiving end of a great deal of invective in recent months – Terry Eagleton and Ronan Bennett weighing-in early, followed by other, lesser lights – and much of it has savoured of the kind of ill-natured resentment against one who refuses to stay ideologically on-message. Amis's departure from the broadly left-liberal consensus (more with regard to Islamism and the War on Terror, than Iraq or Palestine) has left him vulnerable to the charge of racism from old stagers like Eagleton and of Islamophobia from the likes of Safraz Mansoor.
Setting aside this particular quarrel for a moment: Amis argues, much in the vein of James Wood, than contemporary fiction – by which we might as well mean the Novel – has been roundly hobbled by the September massacre. A leitmotiv of The Second Plane is precisely the way in which the novelist has been unmanned, his thematic resources suddenly punctured and bled dry: “The so-called work-in-progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of autistic babble.” Amis the Nabokovian aesthete – for whom the leaden phrase is anathema – now must reexamine the entire bias of his creative life. Pointedly, mournfully he notes that his 'By the Same Author' page “..as an additional belittlement, ended with a book called The War Against Cliché. I thought: actually we can live with 'bitter cold' and 'searing heat' and the rest of them. We can live with cliché. What we have to do now, more testingly, is live with war.” An extraordinary reorientation, for a writer so immaculately devoted to stylistic felicity, to the cleansing of the lexis.
Amis implies that the aborted novella – 'The Unknown Known' – withered under the circumambient pressure current events had brought to bear on us. Perhaps so. He further hints at a deeper existential crisis, one evidenced by this creative arrest. The dark matter of essential human impotence coalesces around much of Amis's recent writing. He is foundering – languidly, maybe – on the realisation that he could, once, with assurance, insist that literature offered “something tangible to venerate: something boundless, beautiful, and divinely bright.” - yet no longer, not with the same utopian confidence. The 'moral crash' entrained by 9/11 may yet have fatally undermined this blithe position; and Amis has increasingly struggled to countenance this possibility. Don DeLillo's (oft-quoted) remark in Mao II enshrines an insight that seems to have rattled Amis:
There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence.... Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.
This should not be so, Amis hisses from every page of this book; this is a category error, a deviancy on which we should bend our fullest attention.
Drawing on Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, Amis mocks the architect of modern Islamism, Sayyid Qutb: a demented mediocrity who, in common with other demagogues and venomous cranks, considered himself something of an homme de lettres. The implication, never so openly stated but there nonetheless, is that bad writing begets tyranny and murder... Literary hackwork and totalitarian thought are kissing cousins. Qutb's masterpiece, the Islamist's Mein Kampf and titled – rather blandly – Milestones, is a compendium of paranoia, misogyny, sexual loathing, and megalomania; and it handily supplied the emotional dynamic of political Islam as we have it today. Amis the literary maximalist no doubt balks at the fact that such a dingy tome should exert such global influence. The finest of fine writing might receive critical plaudits in the book pages, perhaps the odd award: the most dismally execrable reactionary boilerplate sets the tone of geopolitics in the new century.
The Second Plane will bait Amis's detractors even further than his utterances have already. They will sneer at his presumption, they will denounce him as a metropolitan dilettante. They will call foul on his ironic 'flirtation' with Tony Blair in one of the pieces here... But Amis's is a considered position, without doubt deeply held. If he is to be respected and admired for it at all, it must be for his candour and the honesty of his conviction that literature, as a distinct humanising force, as a vehicle for the better understanding of our predicament, matters, and that there are agencies at work in the world which would, if they could, dismantle – no, annihilate – all that the principles of culture and freedom rest upon.