Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Second Planes and Falling Men

Martin Amis's "The Second Plane" collects together his journalism and stories that are broadly related to 9/11 and "the war on terror" that followed. I cannot remember another event that had such an instant, and wide-ranging literary (and more than that, cultural, response), even if, in Amis's famously wide-of-the-mark (and highly solipsistic) remark, that he thought all novelists were now out of a job after 9/11. This was the most visual of news stories of course, with "the second plane" itself what no novelist could or would have made up, with us all watching, and seeing it hit in both real time, and forever after, Groundhog day style in repeat footage. I found myself numbed and sleepless and terrified for weeks after, and it was that sensory overload, more than anything, which increased the sense that this was a unique – and closely felt – tragedy. A certain type of writer seems to have made a decision – somewhere between the first and second plane crashing – that this was now their next subject. A newly discovered interest in the “war on terror” and Islamic fundamentalism (both of which long pre-dated the September 11th bombings) seems to have been kickstarted by the pure graphic “horrorism” (to useAmis’s graphic, but tasteless word of choice) of this “live on CNN” tragedy. Yet, despite being photographed and filmed in real-time, the real stories, the genuine horror that destroyed so many lives that day, has required a novelist, a film maker, a poet to imaginise (rather than visualise) that awful day. For what are the real stories? For Amis it’s the Islamic terrorist, for Paul Greengrass it’s the ordinary passengers of United 93, and for Simon Armitage its an office worker in the World Trade Center. The roll-call of 9/11 literature casts quite a shadow, yet its hard to see how words can do more than the pictures – either of the falling man, or the second plane – and given this, the novelist increasingly needs to do what only they can – move from the narrowcasting of the visual moment, and to begin to contextualise 9/11 rather than dwell on its insistent imprint. I’m looking forward to reading “The Second Plane”, a collection of essays and stories (in itself a sign of the unusual problems that 9/11 provides for the novelist), but wonder whether the obsession of a certain type of (usually male, predominantly American) writer with this event itself, above and beyond all other subjects, is a dereliction of duty? In the days after 7/7 - such a less hysterically received event, even if its localised fanaticism it remains less comprehensible - my mind kept going back to the cartoon Monkey Dust, where its Black Country based potential terrorists couldn't do their leader's billing because "the baggies are at home on Thursday."

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