To British author Chris Cleave, it must have seemed like a dream come true. The rights to Incendiary, his first book, had been snapped up, an unusually large print-run had been prepared, and an extensive promotional campaign was in the works. In a sign of a best-seller to come, glossy posters advertising Incendiary were already up on the walls of London’s subway system designed to entice commuters into buying what many thought would be the summer’s big read.
And then, on the very day that Cleave’s book was released, everything went horribly, tragically wrong. His dream, in a sense, became real, and, for some of those commuters, it became a nightmare, too. They were never to read that book. Their fate was to experience it. Incendiary, you see, is about a suicide-bomb attack on the British capital. The circumstances are different (the bombs are detonated at a soccer game) from what actually happened that terrible morning this July, but the results were very much the same. Read the way in which Cleave’s heroine, a working-class woman from the East End of London (thus the ropey grammar), describes the survivors emerging from the massacre that has consumed her husband and her son: “Their eyes were wide and glassy and quite often they stumbled but they never blinked. There must of been hundreds of them shuffling out of the smoke. All of them with their eyes huge and wide like things pulled up from very deep in the sea.”
It was pretty much that way in London on July 7, 2005, the day that Cleave’s book came out.
In the wake of the Tube and bus bombings, the promotional campaign was largely abandoned, and the posters were taken down. They had shown smoke rising above the skyline and the question, “What if?” London now knew. Fifty-six were dead, hundreds more had been injured. When a few advertisements for Incendiary still appeared in the press (the publications in which they appeared had already gone to print) there were public apologies, and while the novel did not disappear from the shelves (I bought my copy in a shop on London’s Victoria Street in early August), it tended to be tucked away in a discreet corner, perhaps with the latest installment of Jeffrey Archer’s prison diaries or other embarrassments.
As for its author, judging by recent interviews, he remains appalled by the “sick coincidence” for which his book will always be remembered. “I wrote about something that could happen, and then it did happen,” he told the Washington Post, and now I feel that I’m fundamentally tied, probably for the rest of my life, to those events.” Even if Cleave occasionally sounds as if he has forgotten that there were others who have suffered far more because of those “events”, he’s probably right. Still, he should not complain too much. Incendiary was partially inspired by the Madrid bombings and the book’s London editor has recalled how the editing process was rushed through before London itself fell victim to an attack.
But even if it’s somewhat unseemly for Cleave to grumble about the London bombers’ inconvenient timing, the wider accusation against his novel, that it was a crass exploitation of a tragedy that was bound to happen (and had indeed already done so elsewhere) is unfair. The struggle against Islamic extremism is likely to be one of the defining characteristics of this new century. Novelists should not be expected either to ignore it or to treat it only with the softest of kid gloves.
Judging by the response of some critics, it seems, however, that they are. Writing in the New York Times, the perpetually aggrieved Michiko Kakutani was outraged by Incendiary’s very structure. The entire novel takes the form of an extended letter to Osama bin Laden from that shattered, grieving East End mother, and to Kakutani the fact it “begins with the words “Dear Osama” and ends with its heroine imploring the Qaeda leader to leave his cave and move in with her” is “simple tastelessness.” But that’s only true if we succumb to the mistaken desire to make a fetish out of bin Laden, a man who needs, very badly, to be cut down to size, both for our sanity and that of those lunatic enough to idolize him. Bin Laden is a man, nothing more, a murderous crackpot who richly deserves to be the subject of satire and the grim graveyard humor that is so much a feature of Incendiary. It’s worth noting too that by the time of the invitation to bin Laden, Cleave’s narrator is delusional, exhausted and broken. She just wants bin Laden to stop what he’s doing and if that means he has to move in with her, so be it.
Others have faulted Incendiary for excessive bloodiness, but while it is true that the book does occasionally descend into Grand Guignol (and loses some force because of it), Cleave’s determination to describe the details of the carnage is an essential corrective to our tendency to gloss over exactly what it is that our enemies want to do to us. In a society so unwilling to deal with reality that we limit the amount of times that images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center (let alone the dismaying, repulsive aftermath) are broadcast, Cleave’s visions of horror are a useful antidote against complacency.
Unfortunately, Cleave himself sometimes seems tempted by a close relative of that complacency, the guilt-ridden and absurd idea that we in the West have brought the current troubles upon ourselves–perhaps, even, that we had it coming. There are suggestions of this throughout Incendiary, and they are exacerbated by the way in which Cleave imagines the official response to the suicide attacks in the soccer stadium. While some of his touches are deft (the return of barrage balloons, nauseatingly rechristened “shields of hope,” to the London sky for the first time since the Blitz, each one, grotesquely, decorated with a picture of a bombing victim), others only demonstrate the belief in Western viciousness and ubiquitous, sinister conspiracy that is all too common among the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic. So, for example, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that when it comes to the suicide bombings, the British government has some dark secrets of its own to hide. Meanwhile the U.K. is shown lurching away from liberty and towards the persecution of its Muslim minority, a malevolent fantasy that has been shown up for the nonsense it is by Tony Blair’s stumbling and hesitant response to the slaughter on July 7.
To write this way is to reveal intellectual frivolity in the face of real danger, something that is reinforced by the way in which Cleave allows the tired irrelevancies of Britain’s dreary class warfare (the novel’s bourgeois protagonists are uniformly venal, snobbish, and, well, you know the script) to share center stage with terrorist mass murder. It’s a mark of how low matters have sunk in Britain that even in this respect Cleave is not, alas, alone. In the immediate aftermath of the July 7 attacks the leftist mayor of London, the oddball and unpleasant Ken Livingstone, noted that the terrorists had picked on “working-class” Londoners, a peculiar, and not particularly accurate, comment that made some jaundiced Brits wonder if the mayor would have been less upset if a prominent investment banker or two had been included amongst the dead.
Perhaps Cleave’s problem was that, imagination exhausted, he simply had to fall back on the prejudices of contemporary “progressive” orthodoxy. Judging by Incendiary there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that its author did indeed run out of ideas. The later part of the novel degenerates into soap opera and is really not worth reading. But this should not detract from the substantial achievement of the first 60 pages or so in which Cleave uses the (famously difficult) epistolatory format to give us a remarkable portrait both of his heroine and of the terrible events that so haunted her:
And the question that will haunt his readers is not “what if?” but “where next?”