On Sept. 11, 2001, we felt frightened and helpless, we grieved, we stared at screens in astonishment: How could anyone commit such a crime? And against America the great, America the good?
By Sept. 13 we wanted to hit back, bomb somebody, sue somebody. We're still trying to figure it out.
The meaning of 9/11 is mutable, as hard to capture as a shadow. For the neocons, 9/11 became an excuse to invade Iraq; for progressives, a reason to reach out to the Middle East; for Dick Cheney, a justification for torture; for Rudolph Guiliani, a platform on which to run for the White House; and for George W. Bush, a tragic lucky chance to look, temporarily, like a leader.
In The Second Plane, Martin Amis doesn't claim to have the answers: "Our understanding of September 11 is incremental and can never hope to be intact and entire." He calls this collection of essays and stories about everything from Donald Rumsfeld's Delphic utterances to the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood at a church dance in Greeley, Colo., "a narrative of misery and pain, and also of desperate fascination."
These pieces are angry, bracingly witty, cold as a frozen pipe, an unapologetic denunciation of the "ferocious anachronisms" of Islamism, but also an honorable attempt to make comprehensible the rage of people who have been at once exploited, colonized, patronized and mythologized by the West.
"Geopolitics may not be my natural subject," says Amis, "but masculinity is." He sees Islamism — he means the political and cultural extremism of radicals, not Islam as a whole — as a perversion. Islamists are misogynists, hating and fearing women and sexuality so profoundly it stains their world view. They go around looking for evidence of "impurity" and find it — especially in the fleshpots of Europe and America.
In the late 1940s, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, often considered "the father of Islamism," traveled to a Colorado teachers' college for a couple of years of educational research. Armored in militant virginity, he was miserable.
In his writings he agonized: "A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph . . . but as she approaches you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body."
As Amis sees it, British colonial rule in Cairo and the painted Jezebels of Greeley radicalized Qutb, providing the impetus for modern Islamism's combustible combination of puritanism and violence. The West, figured as an American succubus with "thirsty lips, bulging breasts, smooth legs," is irredeemably dirty and corrupt.
In his essay "Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind," Amis defies this thinking: "All men are my brothers. I would like to have said it then, and I would like to say it now: all men are my brothers. But all men are not my brothers. Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother."
Hypermasculinity is not just the province of the Islamist. America produces its own excesses: the desert camouflage, the mirror shades, the flight suit with its phallic strapping as worn by George W. Bush posturing on an aircraft carrier with "Mission Accomplished" in the background.
Amis teases out the links between America's right wing religiosity and that of some Muslim nations. In "The Wrong War," he asks, "Doesn't Texas sometimes seem to resemble a country like Saudi Arabia, with its great heat, its oil wealth, its brimming houses of worship, and its weekly executions?"
Bush himself is not unlike the theocrats of the Middle East, relying on messianic certitude instead of intelligence, convinced of his own righteousness and America's God-branded special dispensation.
Amis is, of course, a novelist, son of the irascible Kingsley. He's interested in character, in conflict, in emotions; he's not interested in even-handedness. He doesn't bother to look for Islam's upside — no sops to multicultural sensitivities, no minilectures on the tolerant and enlightened Islam of Al Andalus in the 12th century where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony.
Amis' strength as a writer is his whip-smart style and his gleeful commitment to causing trouble. One of the strongest essays in The Second Plane, "Iran and the Lord of Time," compares President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Ronald Reagan: both committed to "end-time theology" and nuclear weapons.
But for sheer perverse fun, "In the Palace of the End" is the pick of this litter. A short story which originally appeared in the New Yorker in 2004, it slyly imagines life in an Iraq-like country seen through the eyes of "one of the doubles of the son of the dictator," a sociopath named Nadir.
The Second Plane is an uneven ride of a collection, with some glittering pieces of prose and some long stretches of beige. Amis' Tony Blair travelogue was a decent piece of journalism in 2007, but is no longer fresh. Amis' book reviews, while worthy, seem to have been included just because they concern either the Iraq war or Islam, rather than for the advancement of an engaging thesis.
Still, Amis' work is never dull, never deferential to received wisdom. In an era of excessive self-consciousness, his brave, loud ferocity slaps us out of our comfortable pieties.
Diane Roberts is a journalist, BBC contributor and professor of literature and creative writing at Florida State University.