“Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer”

Leon Wieseltier on Martin Amis’s The Second Plane in today’s New York Times. If you haven’t read a good, caustic, morally indignant book review in a while, this should scratch the itch nicely:

For all of Amis’s testimonies about the transformative impact of Sept. 11 — which “will perhaps never be wholly assimilable,” whatever that means — there is at least one way in which he has been thoroughly untouched by the atrocity: he is still busy with the glamorous pursuit of extraordinary sentences. What has to happen to shake this slavery to style? Amis is the sort of writer who will never say “city” when he can say “conurbation.” In his first article about Sept. 11, written a week after the destruction, he hoped that the American response “should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish,” as if retaliation were an aesthetic statement. When, in a trivial bit of reportage about Tony Blair, Amis observes that “the crouched policemen, in their Day-Glo yellow strip, buzz past like purposeful hornets,” this is merely good writing; but when he describes the second plane on its way to the south tower as “sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,” the ingenuity of the image is an interruption of attention, an ostentatious metaphorical digression from the enormity that it is preparing to reveal, an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.

In Amis’s account, the Islamist terrorists are guilty not only of slaughtering people. They are guilty also of proliferating “clichés” and “inherited and unexamined formulations” — and in this respect they are “like all religions,” which were exposed as “fossilizations of dead prose and dead thought,” were they not, by “one of the greatest novels ever written, ‘Ulysses.’” Why can’t they just read “Ulysses”? When he writes that the fear provoked by Sept. 11 is “as audible as tinnitus,” and that “if you closed your eyes” in a Cobra helicopter over Baghdad “you seemed to hear music, military but atonal, like tinnitus,” it is his writing that is like tinnitus. And what is gained by preferring “horrorism” to “terrorism,” except perhaps a round of applause? Amis’s freshness is flat and neurotic and genuinely tiresome. He writes about politics and history as if Orwell never lived. He is dead to the damage his virtuosity inflicts upon his urgency. Instead, he pulls focus, and pulls, and pulls. His book reminds me of what Heath Ledger is said to have remarked, in disappointment, about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar: “I thought it was for the best acting, not the most acting.”

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