The Second Plane by Martin Amis

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The Second Plane by Martin Amis

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Reportage, short stories and essays on the attacks on the World Trade Centre and what has happened since. The stance is less centrist than is currently fashionable but it's nevertheless thought-provoking. Recommended
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099488699

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Since September 11th 2001 Martin Amis has returned to the subject of the attacks on many occasions. I almost said 'obsessively', but I'm conscious of the impact on my own life, despite the fact that I suffered no direct loss. What went was confidence and certainty to be replaced with a fear that we are at the beginning rather than the end of a dreadful time. There was also a vague sense of guilt about what might have caused the attacks and a shame about what has happened since. Here I'm at odds with Mr. Amis and he's certainly not shy of offering ammunition to those critical of his views. If September 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime ...

He's not 'qualified' to write about what has happened, other than in one particular area. He spent some time with Tony Blair and whilst he offers no earth-shattering revelations or insights he presents a rounded picture of a man ground down by all that's happened to him and to others and decidedly not at ease with himself as he addressed the troops in Baghdad. Some wonderful asides about George W Bush make this the best part of the book. Beyond this reportage we have collected essays and a couple of short stories.

The main theme which runs through the book is the connection between religion and barbaric acts of terror and brutality. He argues that the opposite of religious belief (of any creed) is not atheism but independence of mind. [I]f God existed and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion. So true and for a moment I was in sympathy with him, but it felt like a mass dismissal of billions of people simply because they have belief.

The short stories took me back to the Amis of old. In The Last Days of Muhammad Atta the terrorist struggles with his repressed sexuality and his bowels, putting me in mind of Tod T Friendly in Time's Arrow. In the Palace of the End, the story of a mad dictator's body double, the black comedy of his early work resurfaced.

The pieces in the book are arranged in the order in which they were written and illustrate the way in which Amis' response to the attacks developed from the almost dream-like The Second Plane written just a week after the attacks through to September 11 written on the sixth anniversary, but the real hardening of his attitudes is demonstrated in the centre-piece of the book – "Terror and Boredom: the Dependent Mind". Religions are characterised as little more than "ignorance, reaction and sentimentality" and the rank and file Muslim male has little impulse to rational enquiry. There may well be truth in this but I was conscious of his examples having been taken from the media rather than from direct experience. To read this week's news (late February 2008) one might well believe that the UK is plagued by serial killers, rapists and child murderers but it would be unreasonable to suggest that this is other than unhappy coincidence.

So is the book worth reading? It is. The writing has all the Amis virtuosity, playful in places, thought-provoking throughout, with wonderful imagery: It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty… That word sharking is perfect – and those are just the first words in the book. You might not agree with Amis but he will force you to think.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you're interested in the concept of risk and resulting societal fear then we think that you might enjoy Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation by Frank Furedi.

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