Book Review: The Second Plane by Martin Amis

Posted on April 14, 2008 in Uncategorized

How many lazy clichés are there to describe Martin Amis? ‘Teeth-obsessed’ is one. ‘Kingsley’s Heir’ another. Then there’s the ‘Bard of Brash’; the ‘Czar of Cool’ and it seems impossible to review him without describing him as the ‘enfant terrible’ of British Literature. Recently the Anglo-American Press (including some previous employers) who traditionally held Amis as their darling, have added ‘racist’ anddisturbingly bigoted’ to the list of descriptions. How is it one of the luminaries of the English metropolitan literary establishment has suddenly become so reviled?


Martin Amis first wrote about September 11 a week after the event in a piece for The Guardian which began, ’It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment.’ His latest non-fiction collection The Second Plane emphasizes and articulates the cultural differences between a politicized East and an intellectually lazy West. For Amis suicide bombing is a result of pathology and emasculation. In the short story The Last Days of Muhammad Atta, he imagines the missing hours of the hijacker of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, and paints another forlorn picture of a repressed and sad man, this one led by his inadequacy to commit the worst imaginable atrocity. The inspiration for this is clearly Sayyid Qutb, the ‘Father of Islamism’, whose book, Milestones, is described in the UK as the ‘Mein Kampf of Islamism’. For Amis, Qutb is a curious figure, another repressed and backwards male who, prevented from directing his urges in the usual directions, diverts them into a millenarian ideology resembling ‘an abattoir within a madhouse’.


In the format of journalistic essays and two short stories, The Second Plane acts as a chronological tour through Amis’ post 9/11 worldview. He attacks Islamism as anti-Semitic and anti-democratic and characterizes its adherents as being under the spell of a death-cult. He also criticizes Bush and the Iraq war, which he describes as botched and tragically counterproductive. In comparison to others essayists and journalists, Amis’ authorial voice can grate and some of the passages can come across as the work of an author in the very worst sense. Do we really need the word ‘besplatterment’?


For The Sunday Times, Amis shadowed Tony Blair through a number of diary dates as the Prime Minister’s days in power were winding down. Included in this collection he portrays a vivid account of the realities of power and the mechanization that surrounds it. Amis is enthralled at the armoured limo doors and the ease in which the cavalcade can move through London city centre but is exasperated by the sheer mundanity of leading. Amis describes a typical Prime Minister’s day as ‘carcinogenically boring’. When Amis accompanies Blair to Iraq he notices the Prime Minister addressing a room of soldiers half his age. ‘All the oxygen went out of him. It wasn’t just that he seemed acutely underbriefed. He was quite unable to find weight of voice, to find decorum, the appropriate words for the appropriate mood. “So we kill more of them than they kill us… You’re getting back out there and after them. It’s brilliant, actually…” The PM, it has to said, appeared to be the least articulate man in the room. The least articulate – and also the youngest.’


At times intellectually broadstroked but always informative, The Second Plane is a pitch-black satire for readers who like their politics interesting.