Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis








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There are fourteen thoughtful reflections in the collection from Martin Amis titled, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom. Two are short stories and twelve are essays and book reviews. Amis reflects about the impact of 9/11, and the pieces are arranged chronologically to show the evolution of his thinking. The prose is strong and sharply witted, providing pleasure both for readers who agree and who disagree with his opinions. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the short story titled, “In the Palace of the End,” pp. 31-33:


As one of the doubles of the son of the dictator, I am quite often to be found in the Palace of the End. Six days a week, to be precise: and twelve hours a day. Actual public impersonations of the successor (parades, investitures, going on television, and the like) are by now a thing of the past. But we have our standing duties. In the mornings I set about my work in the Interrogation Wing. Then, in the afternoons, following a glass of scented coffee with the other doubles, I make filmed love to or have filmed sex with-a series of picked beauties in the Recreation Wing. The Palace of the End is built in the shape of a titanic eagle: the beaked head downturned, the scalloped pinions out-thrust ... It was the brainchild of Old Nadir, who is very slowly dying of the injuries he sustained in the notorious "toilet bomb" assault at another of his palaces, in the south of our country. And now all power rests with his only son: Nadir the Next.

Until recently, at least, my work in the Interrogation Wing was not particularly onerous. I wasn't obliged to par­ticipate in the full course of the numerous procedures. My job was to "appear," with surreal suddenness, at the climax of this or that cross-questioning (which might have gone on for days or weeks); flanked by armed infantrymen, I would stamp into the cubicle, wearing camouflage fatigues and crip­plingly heavy combat boots, and administer one backhand blow to the suspect's face. And that was all. But nowadays, for several reasons, I am expected, as are the other doubles, to apply myself more variedly. We have not exactly been reduced to the status of mere bucket-boys and poker-warmers no; but in these tense times we must put ourselves about and show willing.

The interior of the Interrogation Wing used to be laid out in the traditional "cells and cellars" arrangement: dripping passageways, clanking iron doors, rooms within rooms ("the kennels"), and so on with the howls and screeches of the suspects decently muffled or snatched or cut short. Now it's open-plan. One enters an anti-hospital, a vast factory of excruciation: there the strappado, here the bastinado; there the rack, here the wheel. The more communal atmosphere is meant "to discourage the others," and it's certainly true that, from the suspect's point of view, the induction into the Interrogation Wing is far worse than any death. Indeed, it was more or less universal practice for the prisoners to attempt instant suicide by the only means available - by the dental excision, that is to say, of their own tongues.

However understandable, this practice also entrained a paradox: the tongueless ones, their mouths moreover crammed with soiled gauze, could neither proclaim their innocence nor (by far the wiser course) trumpet their guilt. But in the end it made no difference. At a certain point ‑ perhaps months later the suspect's head would give a lolling nod, and the interrogator would stroll to the old Xerox machine for the standard confession (which the sus­pect would then initial). After more torture preludial to death, 99 percent of those who enter the Interrogation Wing are eventually hanged; the remainder are sent home fatally envenomed, with a day or two to live and, no doubt, a tale or two to tell. The tongueless ones cannot tell their tale, but they can sketch it, write it, mime it, while they live. Thus would they too play their part in shoring up respect for the essentially personal rule of Nadir the Next.

Anyway, these days the question of the tongueless ones is academic. There are no more tongueless ones. All suspects now have their teeth smashed and pulled in the anteroom of the Reception Hall, long before they are even fingerprinted by the registrars.

I’ve tended to prefer Amis’ fiction, so that’s why I chose the excerpt from one of the short stories. Reading The Second Plane led me to reflect on what I think about as the impact of 9/11. That was a bonus to my appreciation of Amis’ fine writing. Spend a reflective fortnight reading one of these pieces each day.


Steve Hopkins, July 18, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2008 issue of Executive Times


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