Well, I ignored Kakutani's savage review but I still went in skeptical--having read a couple of these pieces before (and found them shaky). They are better than she says, and far less effective (funny, biting, beautiful, smart) than Amis should be.
At its best, there are moments of the kind of dizzy linguistic dazzle that characterizes Amis' signature contribution: showboat prose acrobatics which, even as the consonants and syllables tumble about, punch you in the face. He refers to Osama as an "omnicidal nullity" in a piece which seems almost to lament the empty, pinheaded nature of this evil. His story about Mohammed Atta's last day (called... well, "The Last Day of" etc.) combines the kind of low rudeboy comedy (Atta suffers from serious, gratuitously described constipation) and corrosive satire that have so much life in his best novels.
But there's something foolish about a satirist of Amis' brand taking on 9/11. You could make the case that most satire is a sermon disguised as brutal comedy; from Swift to Maher, the moral fervor of the disgusted irony is pretty self-evident. But Amis was always sneaky in this regard. I think his has been an amoral fervor, a vicious righteous derision of every false hypocrisy and every system of belief and everything held dear, but not shackled to the anchors of moral certainty. Instead, the indignant scorn for the world was tied to a prose that was effortful but always worth the work; he made you snort and dismiss, but then wrapped you up in caring through the vital engines of his style.
Until recently. His book on Stalin was a non-starter for me; I wandered in it for thirty pages then gave up. But I was, and remain, unwilling to call him out for the count--_House of Meetings_ was a fantastic outing, where all his gifts of slippery prose and the bite of his wit were put in the service of a gripping, moving story of power, impotence, hypocrisy, and desire. I suppose he's always written about those things, but usually without empathy, whereas _House_ was a truly beautiful work. Then 9/11 rolls around, and it's brought out the Jonathan Edwards in him again, and he's spitting and snarling in ways that trip up his prose acrobats, leave them careening all over the page in essays that certainly are full of passion but too rarely catch the reader on his hook. Lots of missed punches, sluggish jabs, roundhouses going nowhere. For instance, my favorite essays of his in the past deal with the nitty-gritty of language, particularly other writers' -- when writing about Elmore Leonard, Saul Bellow, Nabokov, Amis brings out most fully the melody and cackle of their respective styles. Here, in a piece called "September 11," he opens with a few paragraphs about the language used to label the event (9/11, September 11, etc.), and it's... well, it's dead on the page. Like watching the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson. (I know I'm mixing up too many metaphors. But, hey, we're talking Amis, so it's allowed.)
I was too rarely excited by the style here, and too infrequently exercised by the thinking. That's a shame--'cause the guy *can* write a good essay, as a quick read through earlier collections will show.
But I'm hoping he's working out the kinks of a new fervent philosophical bent, and his next fiction can be as incisive and challenging and moving as his last one was.