Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The last days of fiction?

In his new book The Sight of Death, TJ Clark is moved to write about a painting by Nicolas Poussin, yet, in doing so, asks:
Can it be that there are certain kinds of visual configuration, or incident, or play of analogy, that simply cannot be retained in the memory, or fully integrated into a disposable narrative of interpretation; so that only the physical, literal, dumb act of receiving the array on the retina will satisfy the mind?
The key word here is satisfy; and I think of the line: It can never be satisfied, the mind, never, the final line of Stevens' poem; an insistence opposed only unsatisfactorily. The mind goes on. It cannot know death. Hence a fascination with what precedes it, what lies beyond, and the eminence attached to pure experience, free from all mediation, reflection or repetition, and so an impatience with art, perhaps even an unacknowledged hatred, particularly of the literary art, the anything-but-dumb act.

Martin Amis' already famous story The last days of Muhammad Atta, printed in this weekend's Observer, is really an extended delay before its inevitable failure to know. The moment the story ultimately seeks to illuminate - the time of life before death, the moment of life becoming death, in this case as Atta's plane hits the tower, the sight of death we have all (unsatisfactorily) witnessed - remains in fascinating darkness.

Atta, Amis writes, didn't expect paradise in death but he did expect oblivion: "And, strange to say" he adds "he would find neither." I presume this means Atta lives on in world history, in this fiction, in our obsessing minds. This might be, I suppose, Amis' way of refusing him oblivion, the only punishment now possible, yet probably the worst. A small act of revenge.

Apart from that, it certainly seems odd to claim that Atta was committed to the crime because, in addition to the jihad, he also needed desperately to separate mind and body. He "had not moved his bowels since May" we're told. Where did that come from? If it isn't fact, I suppose it enables Amis to have some desolate fun with the pathetic corporeality of the idealist. Just before Flight 11 takes off, Atta needs the toilets because just then he is assailed by "the popping, the groaning, the creaking, as of a dungeon door to an inner sanctum - the ungainsayable anger of his bowels". But the doors are locked. It's a neat inversion of that great, liberating moment in modern fiction (liberating from Victorianism at least) when Leopold Bloom loosens his bowels in the jakes, described with relish by Joyce and loved by Amis. Here, Atta can only void himself.

But the fiction can't follow him, and so we remain, unsatisfied. What the story needed was perhaps a frame for the investigation, if it is indeed an investigation. My dissatisfaction with Amis' fiction in general (and most of the big British literary names) is the sense that brilliance obscures an essential satisfaction with the form. Fiction becomes less a source of discovery than an entertainment with pretentions to comment on world events. In Amis' case, the distinction comes in the confidence of the voice and the familiarly arcane choice of words - depilation, marfanic - rather than an engagement with the question, the question of the possibility of engagement. Maybe fiction has to take this route in order to find its own oblivion. After the final no there comes a yes ...

1 comment:

  1. Amis's best work was written under the (self imagined, probably) cloud of nuclear destruction - and I think he's looking to find a similar sinister cloud in the war on terror. I read the piece in the Guardian, and you're so right to highlight the "bowel movements" issue - its a way of humanising this terrorist more than any other, but its also a little too (no joke intended) "pat" for my liking. There's a certain pornography about his decision to immerse himself in this found story. Maybe its as I get older, but I'm not actually that interested in getting into the lives and minds of psychopaths, I'd rather get into the lives and minds of ordinary people. Of course, Amis has never met any ordinary people, so it's a bit different for him, I guess.



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