Martin Amis's 'The Second Plane': Fiction as Middle East Studies

By Simone Stevens

Fiction as Middle East Studies

By Simone Stevens

(Al Jadid Staff Writer)

“The Second Plane,” a collection of 14 essays on 9/11, terrorism, and American policies, is British fiction writer Martin Amis's latest book. Author of such works as “The Rachel Pipe,” “London Fields,” and “The Pregnant Widow," he has been known to cause uproar amongst literary critics, especially those with some knowledge of Mideast politics. In the “Second Plane,” Amis expounds on his theories about 9/11 interchanging terrorism and Islam. Some of Amis's intellectual sources were also inspirational to neoconservatives, including the polemical and divisive Bernard Lewis, a darling of the Bush Administration prior to the invasion of Iraq.

Covering the time span of Sept. 18th 2001 to 2007, the essays are a detailed journey of Amis’s initial reactions and shifting perspectives. It is a far cry from his usual world of make believe, and the prevailing question among critics seems to be “Does a British fiction writer have the right, or the chops, to deliver a serious attempt at non-fiction that dissects 9/11, the Middle East, and American policies?" The consensus is that he does not.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times calls Amis’s book a “weak, risible, and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes convinced that Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism.” For many, he simply crosses a line into a world that leaves him looking foolishly arrogant, lacking the credibility that a historian or political scientist could stand on. He then proceeds to make heavy proclamations concerning the Muslim community that are offensive and over- generalized,  reflecting his own ignorance, and borderline racism. Jonathan Tepperman of Newsweek says “Amis’s own perception also breaks down. He relies on supposedly telling anecdotes that reveal only his prejudices….his targets gradually shift from radicals to the Muslim world at large. As he paints with an ever broader brush, his tone becomes nastier, he suggests at one point that average Afghans are probably proud that their mothers and sisters are illiterate.”  In Amis’s defense, Joy Tollimore of truthdig.com writes, “The remarks really were not only, as he (Amis) now admits, ‘stupid,’ but deeply offensive. Such overtly discriminatory policies have something important in common with terrorism.’ On the other hand, the price of engaging in moral thought in a serious way-rather than simply standing on the sidelines and muttering platitudes about the goodness of peace and tolerance-is that one will on occasion give offence, including legitimate offence; and the only way to avoid guarantee that one never hits the wrong target is to avoid taking any stand at all.”

If nothing else, the Amis controversy shows that freedom of speech and open debate are alive and well. Though at liberty to say what they wish, those who venture to publicly speak their minds always risk opposition and stand to be exposed. And so Martin Amis was.

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