Thursday, April 20, 2006


Whenever I’m in a bookstore and I can’t decide what to buy, I go either for a Nabokov or a Martin Amis. There is no definite link between these two writers, except that they are both sure bets. Well, and the fact that Amis is obviously influenced by Nabokov. His favorite sentence of all time is even from Lolita. I don’t remember which sentence and I don’t feel like looking it up now, but that’s what he claimed two years ago, when I saw him lecture in his home country.
In person, Amis is just like his writing: sharp, with a twisted sense of humor. His ego is sky high, but he has the goods to back it up, unlike a lot of writers/people, so it’s fine by me.

ANYWAY, including a profile on the Donner family, this week’s New Yorker has several notable articles in it. One of which is a fictional account, written by Amis, of the hijacker that took down Flight 5930 on September 11: The Last Days of Muhammad Atta. This story is fairly controversial because in it, Amis imparts a foggy rationale for the terrorists’ casual detachment in the manner of the attacks. Here’s an excerpt from the story that occurs after Muhammade Atta nonchalantly goes through the routine of checking his luggage through security:

“Whatever else terrorism had achieved in the past few decades, it had certainly brought about a net increase in world boredom. It didn’t take very long to ask and answer those three questions- about fifteen seconds. But those dead-time questions and answers were repeated, without any variation whatever, hundreds of thousands of times a day. If the planes operation went ahead as planned, Muhammad Atta would bequeath more, perhaps much more, dead time, planet-wide. It was appropriate, perhaps, and not paradoxical, that terror should also sharply promote its most obvious opposite. Boredom.”

Along with having a sky-high ego, Martin Amis is a dickhead, which shows in the brazen masculinity of his writing that continuously borders on chauvinism. ((However, he’s really good at being a dickhead, unlike the dickhead writers/people who aren’t so skilled in the trade, yet persist as dickheads anyway.))

This story is no exception. It isn't hard to make a terrorist out to be an asshole; Amis undoubtedly excels at earning his readers' full disgust with Muhammad Atta. Sparing no particulars, he tells us, for instance, that Atta hasn't passed a bowel movement in over four months. He shows a pissing contest of sorts between the terrorists about the varying degrees of piety in their individual suicides. Amis uses Atta's religious beliefs as a scapegoat for the character's masochistic disdain for the opposite sex. Even the one woman who Atta finds attractive is described at once by her lavish beauty ("with hair like a billboard for a chocolate sundae") and then, two sentences later, by Atta's desire to destroy her face.

Yet it is by humanizing the terrorist, who felt no need to humanize his victims, that Amis is performing one of his amazing feats, which brings me constantly to seek out his work in a congested bookstore inventory. Nabokov would certainly admire Amis's narrative of death, the poetic force used to describe the plane's descent, and Atta's last moment, "Even as his flesh friend and his blood boiled, there was life, kissing its fingertips. Then it echoed out, and ended."

Amis isn't a sure bet for everybody, though. A lot of the Brits resent him because he left his wife for a much younger woman, dumped his literary agent in England for an American agent, and, the biggest 'fuck you' of all, he spent something like $40,000 to get his teeth fixed. Oh and his writing isn't always up to par.

"The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" is supposedly the most controversial piece of a greater collection of short stories to be released sometime this fall. I didn't find the story to be that divisive, not because I have no heart for the victims of September 11, but because I'm a seasoned reader of the writer's hard-nosed tactics for shock value, to the point where I'm almost desensitized. Listing Martin Amis as one of your favorite writers is like when you have that one friend who always ends up offending all of your other friends, who are like, "Why do you hang out with that bitch?" And you're constantly defending her, "She makes me laugh." At which point, you're kind of a bitch, too.



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