Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Groundhog Day, Martin Amis Style

My April 24th issue of The New Yorker finally arrived in the mail with Martin Amis's story, "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta." It's easy to imagine why this is not on-line, given the reaction of certain groups to those anti-Islamic editorial cartoons in the recent past.

In particular, the story describes the life of Atta on the morning of September 11, 2001, the day on which Atta piloted an airplane into the World Trade Center. Just the other day, someone asked Are We Ready? Are we ready for fiction (technically, the question pertained to movies) about 9/11?

Amis and The New Yorker have answered this question with a bold "Yes."

The next question is, What Form Will This 9/11 Fiction Take? Will it be insightful and even-handed? Should a story about Atta portray him as a reasonable human being, serving his religion with the ultimate sacrifice? Or should Atta be drawn as a hapless soldier, trapped into committing suicide by his sacred vows of loyalty and honor?

Well... no. No more than Hitler has been reimagined as a misunderstood and under-appreciated water-colorist who only wanted the best for his pastel people.

Instead, Amis indulges our baser instincts. Unable to exact any meaningful vengeance on the corporeal Atta, Amis treats the fictional Atta to a host of plagues. We are told that Atta hasn't had a bowel movement since May, and is as taut-bellied as a pregnant woman; that his intestinal blockage results in bile rising repeatedly to the back of his throat, causing him constant nausea; that he has headaches, multiple simultaneous headaches, like snakes fighting inside his skull; that shaving causes him the worst distress of all, because, beardless, he sees how unimaginably hideous his face is. He also cuts his nose and lip with the razor.

In addition to his physical discomfort, the fictional Atta is deprived of the spiritual comfort of religion. He is perpetrating this crime, Amis tells us, not because of a love for Islam, but purely for a love of death. He wants to escape the earth not because he believes that he will be rewarded with seventy virgins, but because it will end his physical pain, and also because it will cause, he believes, an unending cycle of death and war.

Does Atta get his wish? I'll leave the ending for you, if my title hasn't already given away too much.