How eerie is this? On the morning of Thursday, July 7, as three young men from Leeds and a fourth from Huddersfield were making their way to London trussed up as human bombs, shortly to become Europe's first-ever suicide bombers, the publishing house Chatto & Windus was preparing to publish a novel about suicide bombers attacking London. Posters advertising the novel—Incendiary by first-time novelist Chris Cleave—had been put up in 150 London Underground stations the day before, on July 6. They showed a bomb floating ominously above the London skyline, parts of which were consumed by fire and smoke, under the chilling tagline "WHAT IF?" A mere 24 hours later, on the morning of publication, the four terrorists detonated their bombs at three Underground stations and on a London bus, killing themselves and 52 of their fellow citizens. That's "WHAT IF," they seemed to say.
Incendiary tells the story of a working-class family from the East End of London ripped apart when 11 suicide bombers target the home ground of Arsenal, one of London's biggest soccer teams, killing 1,003 people. It is written in the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden by a widow whose husband and four-year-old boy are killed in the explosions. "Dear Osama," it goes, "…I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind." The pre-publication buzz in London's literary circles was quite something: Chatto & Windus ran off 100,000 copies, not at all bad for a first novel. The film rights were snapped up by Film Four in association with Archer Street Films, and Sharon Maguire (director of Bridget Jones's Diary, no less) was hired to shoot it. Waterstone's, the biggest bookstore chain in the UK, was planning in-store posters and outta-store adverts, in national newspapers and magazines, to advertise the novel. All the indicators were that Chris Cleave was about to become, like Martin Amis or Zadie Smith in earlier eras, The Most Famous Young Novelist in Britain.
But 7/7 changed everything. Chatto & Windus delayed publication and decided to pull the "WHAT IF?" posters from the Underground, though not quickly enough to prevent scores of people from complaining. Waterstone's all but hid Incendiary from public view in its stores, and put Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code in the window displays where Incendiary was supposed to go. (As if Brown hasn't shifted more than enough copies already.) There's no word on whether the film version of the book is going ahead. Everyone, it seems, is handling what was supposed to be this summer's hottest novel (seriously, no pun intended) as if it were itself a bomb, liable to explode and cause offence to fragile post-7/7 Londoners.
Talking to Cleave at a bar in the Barbican Arts Centre—which is about halfway between King's Cross, where 21 people died on 7/7, and Liverpool Street, where seven died—I can tell he's still a little peeved about this controlled explosion that has been carried out on his first novel. It's not selling very well, he admits. He's hopeful that it will fare better in the United States, where it was published last week by Knopf, and where people might not feel quite so sensitive about a tale of suicide bombers striking in London (the dust-jacket illustration showing a fiery London skyline has been replaced by a simple yellow strip with the word "Incendiary" on it for the US version.) It's already had a rave review in Newsweek, which called the book "a haunting work of art" and "the strangest epistolary novel ever written"
Cleave is remarkably calm about the eerie coincidence that greeted the publication of his novel. At one level, he says, it's not a coincidence at all. "I think their act and my book have a common causality," he says. "Both the bombers and I were probably responding to the same kind of events. I started writing this novel after the Madrid bombings of March 2004. For me, that was such a shocking event that I abandoned the novel I had been working on and decided to become a more engaged novelist, to write about the times we live in. And while I was writing, two equally shocking things occurred—one was the execution of Nick Berg in Iraq and the other was the revelation of terrible torture and degradation by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib. I imagine that the London bombers were also reacting to Iraq, Abu Ghraib, to the terribly offensive things that were done to Muslims there.
"It turns out that a novel, if you do it very fast, takes about 18 months to write and be published. That is about the same length of time it takes to organize a bomb plot. So, at some level, it is not so eerie that my response to those events and theirs should appear around the same time. But they are opposite reactions: My novel is, I hope, a plea for peace. Their response was an act of war, in their eyes at least."
This unholy marriage of the peace-loving novelist and the peace-hating bombers meant that Cleave did not become the new Zadie Smith, feted and photographed at literary soirees. Instead he was propelled headfirst into a tortured debate about the murky relationship between culture and terror. Was he irresponsible to write so gruesomely about a terrorist act (those given to squeamishness are advised to avoid pages 40 to 51) at a time when terrorism remains a real threat? Was the publication of his novel in the wake of 7/7 not only "insensitive" but also an "insult" to Londoners, one newspaper asked? Had Cleave, or more realistically his publishers, "deliberately set out to exploit a threat that was ever real"? Some reporters started referring to him as the "terror author," as if he were inextricably linked with the terrible events in London. Cleave dealt admirably with this barrage of queries and accusations, even setting up a website that puts the case for and against his novel and includes links to both rave and rotten reviews.
If Cleave has, as some of his critics claim, "exploited" the terror threat, then he isn't alone. In the four years since 9/11, British culture has seemed rather ghoulishly obsessed by terrorism, and by the possibility—no, likelihood—of some terrible atrocity being visited upon us. There are more eerie coincidences than the fact that Incendiary was published on the morning of 7/7. Consider this: Last year the BBC, Britain's state broadcaster, showed two fictional films about Liverpool Street Station being attacked by suicide terrorists. In London Under Attack, shown in May 2004, a truck containing chlorine gas was blown up just north of Liverpool Street, killing 3,000 people. In Dirty War, shown on BBC TV in September 2004, a suicide terrorist detonated a dirty bomb outside Liverpool Street Station, killing 200 people and making the area uninhabitable for 30 years. A novel called Dark Winter, by former soldier Andy McNab, was also published last year: It told the tale of a terrorist plot to unleash pneumonic plague in Britain and again featured Liverpool Street Station as a target. On 7/7 this year, Liverpool Street Station really did become a terror target, when 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer blew himself up on a train approaching the station, killing himself and six others and injuring 100 more.
We've also had a TV film about smallpox being unleashed on an unsuspecting public, and another about how Britain might (or might not) cope if a terrorist gang crashed a jumbo jet into a nuclear installation. It was recently reported that some foreign al-Qaeda associate might have visited Britain prior to 7/7 and decided that the London Underground would be the best target for four young willing British "martyrs." He could probably have found that out from wherever he's based, by tuning into one of the BBC's scary dramas about a terror attack on the Tube or by listening to British officials. They warned on numerous occasions post-9/11 that the Undergound was a "likely terrorist target" and even seemed to advertise the idea in September 2003 when they launched their own "mock terror attack" on Bank Underground station to test the preparedness of the emergency services.
My turn to interrogate Cleave—the "terror author"—on the murky relationship between culture and terror: Is it possible that by obsessing over terrorism for four years, we effectively invited the terrorists to fulfill our worst fears and fantasies? By advertising how petrified we are—on primetime TV, in novels and in statements made by politicians and policemen—did we inadvertently encourage the terrorists to have a go, to come and scare us some more? Jean Baudrillard, the peculiar French philosopher of "the Gulf War didn't really happen" fame, wrote an essay after 9/11 entitled "The Spirit of Terrorism," arguing that the West had fantasized about being attacked—in those "countless disaster movies," for example—and then was attacked. "At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it," wrote Baudrillard.
That might sound obscurantist (and typically Baudrillardian), but are we seeing something similar in Britain? We have fantasized endlessly about being attacked, especially on our self-perceived weak spots such as the London Underground, and now—bang!—those fantasies have become fact. "That's an interesting philosophical question," says Cleave. "I hope we are not doing that." Certainly Cleave thinks we need to put the terror threat in perspective, to separate the fact of terrorism from the voluminous fiction about it, and to throw water on hysterical estimations of al-Qaeda's power.
"It's almost as if people want there to be something called al-Qaeda, something they can externalize and consider the enemy. They would be more comfortable if al-Qaeda really was some organizational specter, as if you could just target the center—destroy bin Laden at the nucleus—and everything would be okay. But it isn't like that. The London bombs show us it isn't like that: These were four young men from within our own society, not some great foreign threat.
"So far, the evidence is that this thing we call al-Qaeda will kill far fewer people than drunk drivers or lung cancer. The risks of being killed by an al-Qaeda associate are probably the same as the risks of being struck by lightning, or less. And who would organize their life around the probability of being struck by lightning? We need to relativize the risks and think carefully about whether we want to change our whole culture in response to this."