Examined backwards, history can be doggedly imprecise. The 20th century can claim to have started with Jack the Ripper in 1888, in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria, or in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That century’s successor, still young, has already had several birth announcements.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the advent of the World Wide Web, the accession of George W Bush. Contenders? Sure, but still merely runners-up. From the perspective of the present day, the birth of the 21st century can be traced to a single location, a single time and a single event.
This locus is where Martin Amis titles his new collection of essays: 2 WTC, Manhattan. 09:02am, September 11th 2001. That precise moment when America realized that the panic and fear already streaming out of New York was not the accidental result of “the worst aviation disaster in history”, but an intentionally dreadful and deliberate assault on her complacency.
What follows are 11 essays and two stories that amount to a chronological tour through Amis’ post 9/11 worldview, as it developed over the following six years. In the first piece, written immediately after the attacks, the author’s stunned awe is palpable. Pondering his feelings at the time, Amis claims that he “first felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear.”
The fear lingered. And, after rubbernecking at the causes and effects, it deepened and it widened. Amis’ early hope may have been that Afghanistan would be bombarded ‘not with cruise missiles, but consignments of food”, but this wish would soon be consumed by anxiety. His fear of Islamism has now matured enough for him to consider it in terms of absolute enmity. Writing in 2006, he recalls the face of a guard at the Dome of the Rock, as “a mask…saying that killing me, my wife and my children was something for which he now had warrant”.
We’ve been here before of course. In his 1987 essay, “Thinkability”, Amis’ fear of nuclear war, and specifically, of surviving it, led him to conclude that his first duty in such an event would be to “find and kill his wife and children”. The considered threat to his family is not the only connection between Amis’ current alarm and his earlier dread of nuclear Armageddon. One detects in both of them a menacing thrill in the possibility of the end of the world and particularly in being around to see it. And which dealer in narratives wouldn’t want a ringside seat for that? Amis certainly fancies a ticket or, as he puts it “If September 11 had to happen, I’m not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime”.
A similar thrill is in evidence in the piece “On the Move with Tony Blair”, in which the author travels through London, Washington, Belfast and Baghdad with the then soon to be ex-Prime Minister. Amis delights at the mechanisms of power, even at the particulars made necessary by modernity—the heavy door of the armoured limo; the corps of bodyguards; the sequestered city centre traffic. This sort of high-level, personal access is highly coveted by journalists, and is extended only to a very few. Such excellent advantages can be won by a prominent reputation. And Amis’ reputation is one of the most prominent that there is.
His early career at the New Statesman notwithstanding, this reputation was built on his capacity for fiction. There are two-and-a-bit pieces of fiction in The Second Plane (the fraction is the incomplete novella The Unknown Known, described and analysed here within the context of an essay). It is perhaps a mark of the subject at hand that makes these two pieces among the most disappointing in the book. Amis admits that the September attacks, and the context in which they happened, made writers of fiction abandon their works to take up temporary careers as journalists. Events in the real world were so “real”, so immediate, that writers found their own imaginations wanting.
This may be true for Amis, at least. The stories in The Second Plane are among the weakest offerings in the book. In the Palace of the End, a bleak horror story, rehearses the familiar Amis theme of thwarted masculinity. A parody of the torture palace of a Saddam-like dictator, it charts the old tropes of the male; the infliction and stoic endurance of industrial-grade pain; marathon virility and the shame provoked by its failure, while placing the protagonist in a situation that resembles little more than a macho harem. For the lead character, one of many ‘doubles’ of the dictator’s son, the loss of identity is an emasculation. Less than a man; a concubine of agony.
The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, imagines the missing hours of the hijacker of the first plane to hit the WTC, and paints another forlorn picture of a repressed and sad man, this one led by his inadequacy to commit the worst imaginable atrocity. The inspiration for this is clearly Sayyid Qutb, the ‘father of Islamism’, whose book, Milestones, is described here as the “Mein Kampf of Islamism”. For Amis, Qutb is a curious figure, another repressed and backwards male, who, prevented from directing his urges in the usual directions, diverts them into a millenarial ideology resembling “an abbatoir within a madhouse”.
In his closing piece, Amis allows a brief digression on the term ‘9/11’ itself. It may be snappy and modern, and replete with a double relevance for the emergency services involved, but it is still far from ideal. While terms like ‘Fourth of July’ and the ‘October Revolution’ carry a certain gravitas, an abbreviated date seems somehow inadequate—too offhand, too simple. But it will do for now. For who are we to give that event an honest name? We don’t yet know the real context under which to understand it.
It may have been the birth event of the 21st century, but we still don’t have any idea what will follow. We may have the luxury of time, but we don’t yet have its perspective. We still live here.