The events of 9/11 caused a crisis for novelists, who suddenly found themselves a) out-imagined by a group of murderous thugs, and b) useless in helping us understand the new world. Most novelists of any note – DeLillo and Updike in particular – had spent so long imagining that the US would be the source of any great catastrophe, they found themselves completely wrong-footed by reality.
Martin Amis’s new book of essays, The Second Plane, is essentially an extended meditation on what it means to be a novelist and – more importantly — what it means to be Martin Amis, post 9/11. What Amis ends up discovering, almost by accident, is the idea that the point of fiction is not to out-imagine reality, but to bring us back to the basic truths that too often get lost. Here are the closing sentences of his review of United 93, where he wonders what you’d say to your child. Would you explain to him or her what was going on, why these men wanted to crash the plane into a building full of living people?
No, I suppose you would just tell him or her that you loved them, and he or she would tell you that they loved you too. Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black. We can’t tell if it will survive us. But we can be sure that it’s the last thing to go.