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the Complete Review
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The Second Plane

Martin Amis

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To purchase The Second Plane

Title: The Second Plane
Author: Martin Amis
Genre: Non/Fiction
Written: (2008)
Length: 204 pages
Availability: The Second Plane - US
The Second Plane - UK
The Second Plane - Canada
Le deuxième avion - France
  • UK subtitle: September 11, 2001-2007
  • US subtitle: September 11: Terror and Boredom
  • Collects essays, reviews, and fiction previously published between 2001 and 2007, including:

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Our Assessment:

C : lacks coherence and fully developed arguments

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 2/4/2008 Martin Flanagan
Bookforum D 4-5/2008 Michael Tomasky
Financial Times . 9/2/2008 Lionel Barber
The Guardian . 26/1/2008 Christopher Tayler
The Independent . 1/2/2008 Suhayl Saadi
Independent on Sunday A- 27/1/2008 Cal McCrystal
The LA Times . 14/4/2008 Jim Sleeper
New Statesman . 31/1/2008 .
The NY Observer . 1/4/2008 Tom Bissell
The NY Sun . 26/3/2008 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times F 8/4/2008 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/4/2008 Leon Wieseltier
Newsweek . 5/4/2008 Jonathan Tepperman
The Observer . 13/1/2008 Tim Adams
Prospect . 2/2008 Tom Chatfield
Salon . 2/4/2008 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/4/2008 Michael O'Donnell
The Spectator . 16/1/2008 Philip Hensher
Sunday Times D 27/1/2008 William Dalrymple
The Telegraph B- 23/1/2008 Jenny McCartney
The Telegraph . 2/2/2008 Sameer Rahim
The Times . 11/1/2008 David Aaronovitch
TLS . 15/2/2008 Marjorie Perloff
The Washington Post . 27/4/2008 Warren Bass

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but most pretty disappointed and don't think Amis' understanding of Islam is very good

  From the Reviews:
  • "I'm not sure The Second Plane qualifies as a rationalist text. Amis is an erudite man who can make language cut and spin and take off from the page, but the overall emotional tone of this book summons to mind the writings of someone such as Andrew Bolt. (…) The two best pieces in the book are a piece of black satire (and black is hardly a dark enough word) about a double for the son of a Middle-Eastern tyrant. When plying his old trade of satire, Amis hits sharp, clear notes. His journalism about Blair is also good." - Martin Flanagan, The Age

  • "And so, as The Second Plane soldiers through the past three or four years, we find a man who sounds increasingly like the embarrassing uncle screaming at the television. (…) There is little sense in these pages of a mind really, deeply trying to grapple with questions to which it may not have all the answers. And paranoid musings about the Other’s encrusted and desiccated bowels, and especially about the Arabs coming to rape all our women, are one step removed from the stuff of Ku Klux Klan literature. Being Martin Amis, he can’t help but pull off some luminescent sentences, and some very funny ones (of Osama bin Laden’s birth order: "Seventeenth out of fifty-seven is a notoriously difficult slot to fill"). But I mostly kept wondering why Amis and Knopf felt this collection was worth bringing out in the first place. It’s a diary of man who’s let his darker angels get the better of him and who’s confused anger with vigilance. At what I agree is a crucial and unique moment in history, that is exactly what we do not need our leading intellectuals to do." - Michael Tomasky, Bookforum

  • "So now we know. The world is witnessing not so much a clash of civilisations as a crisis of testosterone. This crisis translates into sexual frustration, humiliation and inadequacy. Manliness and male insecurity are, of course, themes amply and intimately explored in the Amis oeuvre going back to his student days at Oxford. Is this a happy coincidence or is England’s one-time enfant terrible simply being frivolous when applying psycho-historical analysis to a great faith such as Islam ? (…) Overall, The Second Plane is a handy bedside companion rather than a literary tour de force. Amis is an Englishman who understands America, a sympathetic critic, if you like. Today, he belongs to a distinguished minority and deserves to be read as such." - Lionel Barber, Financial Times

  • "Reading these tirades, it's hard not to get the feeling that Amis is responding to a writerly need for a steady supply of foolishness to scourge rather than any urgent political threat. (…) Amis is taking aim at conspiracy theorists and people who think that the Arab world's grievances not only help create support for terrorism but make it a good thing: a fairly marginal view. (…) How did Amis -- who has written some good novels and used to be a sharp and funny critic -- end up throwing so much effort into arguing that suicide bombers are interested in death ? (…) Judging from the stories reprinted in The Second Plane, and the pages from his abandoned novella in the newest issue of Granta, terrorism isn't a workable subject for Amis's brand of fiction. In his op-eds, on the other hand, he seems more like a novelist than a political writer, inhabiting ideas like characters, trying to bring them to life and dramatise opposing viewpoints." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "The short stories are masterful and transcendent. (...) However, the author's comprehension of Islam and Islamism remains inadequate. He tends to discount violence inflicted on the economic periphery, and displays wilful ignorance of history, economics and global politics. (...) It is sad but revealing that such a talented man has abrogated reason and embraced the sirens of destruction. This book is a document of surrender." - Suhayl Saadi, The Independent

  • "The Amis essays, trenchant, deeply informed and informative, begin and end with the horrific events of September 11, 2001. The 14 chapters include two short stories in which the author's imagination conjures up and relays to us remarkably convincingly the intimate preparations and thinking behind the 9/11 attacks. In many ways, Amis is doing our thinking for us. (…) This rather flippant note very occasionally mars the book. (…) But there are few such low points in this well-sustained and important volume." - Cal McCrystal, Independent on Sunday

  • "It would be too easy to read Martin Amis' slim book on Sept. 11 in a day and to dismiss it with a politically correct glare. The dozen essays, columns and reviews and two short stories in The Second Plane: September 11, Terror and Boredom are more illuminating than that, though deeply, sometimes self-indulgently flawed. (...) Some writers deploy validated facts selectively to advance false ideas. Amis advances valid ideas with too many imagined facts. As a choreographer of imagination and ideas, he's bracing and morally brave, but so was George Orwell, who told truths less affectedly, in writing clear as a pane of glass." - Jim Sleeper, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Granted unprecedented, almost Bob Woodward-like access to the prime ministerial retinue as it travelled to Belfast, Washington and Baghdad, Amis comes up with some entertaining, modestly revealing observations on the trappings of power; but his conversations with the outgoing prime minister are excruciating. (…) Elsewhere, Amis has been thumbing through his thesaurus for intensifiers, and sometimes just for the heck of it (…..) Amis's by now legion detractors are not going to be converted by this book; but those fans still clinging on may find cause for hope." - New Statesman

  • "Reading Martin Amis inveigh against radical Islam is almost identical to reading Martin Amis on nuclear weapons: However much fun you (and he) are having, there’s something inescapably imbalanced about the confrontation, as though one were watching Einstein fly through multiplication tables." - Tom Bissell, The New York Observer

  • "At a time when even the Archbishop of Canterbury is prepared to see sharia become the law of the land, Mr. Amis’s unequivocal defense of liberal, secular values -- of feminism, humanism, skepticism, and democracy -- is genuinely brave. This makes it all the more troubling that Mr. Amis, as always when he tackles morally intricate subjects, is not really the best spokesman for his views. (…) The Second Plane leaves the reader feeling that Mr. Amis is right for the wrong reasons. One cannot help admiring his refusal to make mental compromises with fundamentalism, or his gadfly’s insistence on reminding the British of what they stand to lose in a theocratic world. But his aesthetic, not to say hedonistic, understanding of liberalism will not be able to inspire, in most readers, the kind of devotion that the defense of our liberties requires." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "Indeed The Second Plane is such a weak, risible and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes it convinced that Mr. Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism, as he’s thoroughly discredited himself with these essays as any sort of political or social commentator." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Amis enjoys the moral element in contempt, and he is splendidly unperturbed by the prospect of giving offense. But he appears to believe that an insult is an analysis. (...) Amis’s freshness is flat and neurotic and genuinely tiresome. He writes about politics and history as if Orwell never lived. He is dead to the damage his virtuosity inflicts upon his urgency. Instead, he pulls focus, and pulls, and pulls. (...) You get the feeling, reading these pages, that for his side Amis will say almost anything, because being noticed is as important to him as being right. The complication is that there is considerable justice on Amis’s side. (...) I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful." - Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Amis's own powers of perception and argument also break down. He relies on supposedly telling anecdotes that reveal only his own prejudices. (…) All this will be painful for the legion of Amis fans who still love him for novels like The Rachel Papers and his masterpiece, London Fields." - Jonathan Tepperman, Newsweek

  • "One of the arguments that runs through this book is that barbarism is all but indistinguishable from religion and that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism, but independence of mind. The highest expression of independent minds in western enlightened culture is, to Amis, its literary fiction ('reason at play'). His personal struggle against the 'dependent mind' of Islam is thus fought on the level of playful language. For all the verbal thrill of much of this engagement - more than enough to make it essential reading even for Terry Eagleton -- there is an undeniable hubris at the heart of it." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "In truth, though, there's not much insight or thoughtfulness in this book, which makes it a pretty fair example of the myopic Western attitudes that helped create the problem it describes. There's lots of fulmination, though, fulmination of the very highest order." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "He seeks to grapple with the paucity of reason, humanity and courage in the minds of men who would embrace nihilism, who would target children, who would trade in the currency of suicide mass murder. This is the novelist's province as much as it is anyone's." - Michael O'Donnell, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "What we can ask of a novelist now is the display of the imagination. Of course, it is difficult, and often emerges here in slightly George Steinerish statements of the impossibility of the imaginative exercise. (…) There is something noble about this book, and even when it is wrong it is never deplorable." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "The Second Plane is certainly witty, clever and polished. But while The Moronic Inferno gained much of its stature from the complexity of Amis’s love/hate relationship with America, a country he knew intimately, and whose finest writers were his close friends, here we have a wholly un-nuanced book about Islam by a man who appears, to judge from this text, never to have visited an Islamic country or to have talked seriously to any Muslim. (…) The result is not just flawed, but riddled with basic misunderstandings. (…) Amis’s simplistically Freudian explanation of terrorism ignores the stream of explicitly political statements issued by Al-Qaeda. (…) All terrorist violence, Islamic or otherwise, is contemptible. But because we condemn does not mean that we should not strive to comprehend. Amis does not try to understand. (…) The result is a book that is not just wilfully ignorant, a triumph of style over knowledge, but that, for all its panache and gloss, is at its heart disturbingly bigoted." - William Dalrymple, Sunday Times

  • "If September 11 forcefully gripped Amis's imagination, the question here must be whether the author himself has gone on to grip much that can be useful as a tool of understanding for the rest of us. Over that, for much of this book, a shaky question mark hovers. In these essays and reviews, we glimpse a stellar novelist engaged in a protracted struggle with a budding political analyst, during which the novelist frequently produces a metaphorical gun and shoots the analyst in the foot. (…) This is a pattern throughout the book: style habitually scampers ahead of thought, beckoning argument into spaces where it cannot decently follow. (…) Amis's verve as a writer is such that in many places this book certainly provides enjoyment and moments of illumination. What it does not do, given its patchiness in argument, is command any consistent intellectual respect." - Jenny McCartney, The Telegraph

  • "Although he writes of the "extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture", his view of the Islamic world is taken from the powerful images he has seen in the media. What is missing from these pages is a sense of everyday Muslim life. (…) The short stories here are pointless and unpleasant." - Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph

  • "It is always risky to picture one's own "crisis" as unique -- more terrible than all those other crises our parents and grandparents lived through. Thus, despite moments of brilliant wordplay -- the narrative of Amis's travels with Tony Blair, for example, paints a witty, nasty, but also endearing picture of the Prime Minister going about his daily routine -- one is hard put to take Amis's elegantly turned sentences seriously." - Marjorie Perloff, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)he argument in The Second Plane bristles with intelligence. (...) Precisely because of his rage at the atrocities in New York, Washington, Shanksville, Pa., Madrid and London, Amis is obsessed with understanding what makes the jihadists tick, and if this collection sometimes flags, it may be because jihadism isn't all that interesting -- a sour, spoiled pseudo-theology rooted in "tinkertoy sophistry." " - Warren Bass, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Second Plane is a jumble of a book. Yes, there's that unifying theme -- the terrorist attacks on the US of September 2001, and the aftermath -- but the book contains fiction, book reviews, opinion pieces, and journalism. It's not a great fit, and makes Amis' arguments look even more incoherent than they already are.
       The two stories included here, 'In the Palace of the End' (narrated by one of many doubles for a Saddam Hussein-like dictator) and 'The Last Days of Muhammad Atta', were apparently originally intended to be published together with Amis' novella House of Meetings only to be withdrawn fairly late in the publishing process. Yet it is the non-fiction pieces in The Second Plane that are most reminiscent of House of Meetings, as Amis again sweeps everything aside in one over-broad stroke. In House of Meetings it's Russia that is condemned; in The Second Plane it is what he calls 'Islamism' (and, by extension -- as he thinks that it has become the dominant position in the Muslim world --, pretty much everywhere where there is a Muslim population of any size). (Oddly enough, very few people seemed to get in much of a tizzy about his view of Russia after the publication of House of Meetings; admittedly he has harped on Islamism for longer and more visibly.) There's even that obsession with demographic trends in both .....
       The pieces in The Second Plane are arranged more or less chronologically ("in order of composition", Amis writes, though not in the order of their publication), from the first reaction to the September 2001 attacks only a week afterwards through the long 2006 piece on 'Terror and Boredom' (originally published as The age of horrorism; see parts one, two, and three ) all the way to a 2007 reflection on the anniversary of the attacks. There are some detours to Iraq and concerns about Iran along the way, but the focus does remain on the attacks of 2001 and what Amis sees as their causes and consequences.
       He has certainly latched onto the subject matter -- noting in his introductory Author's Note that: "if September 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime". Among his claims, almost a year afterwards, is a typical Amis (over)reaction:

     After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers of the earth were considering the course that Lenin had menacingly urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.
       Presumably the event had an enormous impact the world over, its writers included, but Amis surely overreaches in speaking for all of them like this. And perhaps immediately afterwards there was a brief shock of believing everything had changed, but, in fact, like the popular version of the claim that it's impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz, most writers -- at least as far as their work went -- seemed largely unaffected by the events. These were extraordinary but not paradigm-shifting in the way Amis seems to hope. And even if instead of laying down their pens many American authors have instead tackled the subject head-on, in the broader picture -- the 'all the writers of the earth' picture -- the attacks don't appear to have registered much beyond just another blip (albeit bigger than most) in a very unsettled world. As almost always, the closer to home (or the completely escapist) continues to dominate most writing -- with few convinced, as Amis seems to be, that insidious Islamism -- at least of the sort Amis sees -- is everywhere, and the one great threat that currently needs to be addressed. (The different perspective can be seen in, for example, Tomás Eloy Martínez's 2004 novel, The Tango Singer, in which the attacks are mentioned basically only because they inconvenience the protagonist's travel plans.)
       Amis mentions that the pieces collected here do not appear in their original form: "I have added to all of them (the Tony Blair travelogue has grown by 40 percent) and I have cut nothing" -- which makes it all the more striking that there's so little sense of development through the book. Much -- perhaps most -- feels like little more than rants. Stylish rants, admittedly, but little beyond that. Amis tosses in some interesting thoughts and observations and hypotheses, but he barely works them out, getting sidetracked by the inconsequential or obsessed by detail. The piece 'September 11' begins with what he then suggests is "a very minor parable about the herd instinct", a riff on the popular abbreviation "9/11"; it's hard to be convinced that its actual purpose isn't just to allow Amis to indulge in word-play (as, after all, he often does).
       Perhaps the general disappointment and outrage that Amis' writings on these subjects, and this book, have elicited is based on a simple misunderstanding. Amis seems to suggest as much when he mentions in his Author's Note that: "Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is", and perhaps his whole obsession with Islam(ism) should be seen in that light (and his geopolitical babbling be treated with due condescension). Islam(ism)'s male-centric world fascinates him, and it allows him to focus (and pin the blame) on the emotional over the rational. In imagining 'The Last days of Muhammad Atta' Amis readily finds the explanation for Atta's participation in the terrorist attacks in the fact that:
Muhammad Atta was not religious; he was not even especially political. He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation
       It seems no stretch to believe that Amis has become so obsessed with the September 2001 attacks and their aftermath for the same reason, because in his interpretation these events are only superficially political, and in fact they're all about masculinity and charisma and the like. And at least that would excuse his political (and religious) naïveté .....
       The Second Plane doesn't offer coherent argument, and in a few places -- the book reviews, in particular -- it's particularly crudely put together. Amis does have some interesting things to say, but easily gets carried away by the incidental (and by language ...). The Blair-travelogue certainly suggests journalism isn't his forte, though it does offer some nicely revealing bits -- about both Blair and himself. A scene in which Amis describes Blair as: "the least articulate man in the room. The least articulate -- and also the youngest" is a nicely-done snapshot -- but the whole piece has to be put in perspective by Amis' own early admission that: "Interviewing the P.M., I was often disconcerted to find that I was doing most of the talking." It's a rare moment of self-awareness -- and surely it's obvious that the problem isn't Blair but rather Amis himself. (The most memorable exchange the two have, and the most revealing hasn't anything to do with Iraq or politics, but rather comes at the end when Amis makes sure to get Blair's autograph (!) for his daughters ("They'll kill me if I forget" he says, again revealing all his (geopolitical) priorities and awareness) -- "We'll need prime-ministerial paper for this" Blair insists, after Amis asked him to just scribble on his pad .....)
       The two pieces of fiction are also somewhat problematic, but certainly of far greater interest than almost all the rambling non-fiction -- though tellingly it's his description and discussion of an abandoned novella, 'The Unknown Known', that's the most interesting part of the whole book (even as he doesn't take that as far as he could either). But 'The Unknown Known' reflects the whole problem Amis has and had, his difficulty in coming to grips with the material. What's left here is something of a mess -- and it's unfortunate that the presentation is such a mess, because that makes it so much more difficult to go along with (or follow) what he's trying to get at here and there.
       The Second Plane is digressive and impatient. Amis conveys his frustration, but he can't overcome it. Rather than obtaining a full picture of the evolution of his thoughts over the years, the inclusion of all these diverse pieces merely compounds the confusion; the book (and movie) reviews, in particular, confuse the issues. Amis may have some interesting points, but what argument there is is lost in this presentation, and essentially impossible to engage with. What's left are the silly pronouncements -- of which there are quite a few -- which are easy to pick out and pick on. Amis has done no one much service with this book -- not himself, not his readers.

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The Second Plane: Reviews: Martin Amis: Other books by Martin Amis under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Martin Amis lived 1949 to 2023.

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© 2008-2023 the complete review

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