ELEVEN suicide bombers detonate fragmentation and incendiary devices in a crowded London soccer stadium. There is a rain of blood and body parts, a panicked stampede by the survivors, and when the casualties are finally numbered and identified weeks later, the death toll hovers around 1,000.
Chris Cleave, a British journalist, has produced his first novel with a timing that is itself novelistic. It's as if his manuscript, written more than a year before the July 7 subway bombings, had been fed into a time machine that transformed "it could happen here" into "it did happen here."
(The British edition, in fact, was published July 7.)
Cleave's hecatomb is told in graphic detail somewhere between surreal nightmare and savage social irony. After the bombs go off, two horribly injured supporters of the rival Arsenal and Chelsea teams fight over what's left of a severed head. "He's one of ours," the Arsenal man shouts.
"No," shouts the Chelsea man, "I know who this is we paid 4 million for him last year." "Incendiary" is not a horror story, despite such touches and a few dashes of tabloid theatricality. The explosion is presented as seen on television by a couple having sex while watching the game. They work into erotic frenzy as a crucial passing offensive develops, and scream in tandem with the crowds at the game's climax.
"[A]nd then the whole East Stand exploded into flames." Neither is Cleave writing an action story nor a procedural about terrorism, its agents, its victims and the efforts to prevent and combat it. His aim is much larger. He has produced something between a warning and a satire of a selfish and self-indulgent society isolated from the suffering world outside and finally paying the price when noses pressed for so long against the window give way to bombs able to shatter it.
His thesis, an idea denounced by our current political right as woolly-minded and bleeding-hearted, is that Western exploitation and indifference must be looked to as a factor in the terrorist onslaught. As Scotland Yard's dead-tired and despairing anti-terror commander says:
"It's like the powers that be are poking sticks into the wasps' nests and my job is to run around and stop the wasps stinging us. It's never going to happen. We've simply got to stop doing just a few of the things that make these people want to murder us." An unlikely police commander, perhaps: unlikely in addressing this to his lover, and still more unlikely that this lover is a redoubtable East End working-class woman whose husband and small boy perished in the bombings. Tie too much together, the first-time novelist no doubt must learn, and the whole package comes undone.
Except that here it doesn't, despite any number of silly contrivances, sermon bits and sentimentalities. Cleave's young East Ender with her raunchy, witty and defiantly human voice -- blurred gradually by pain -- is the saving narrator of his book. It takes the form, blatant but compelling, of her rambling imaginary letter to Osama bin Laden, imploring him to "stop making boy-shaped holes in the world."
Bin Laden would stop, she insists, if he knew her own boy, her life, the common lives she lives among. Naive, of course, but we soon realize it is a naivete as formidable, as shrewd and perhaps as powerful as that of George Bernard Shaw's Joan of Arc.
The story she tells cuts more trenchantly at British society than at the terrorists. It begins with her existence in a housing project with her child and her underpaid, overworked bomb-squad husband.
When he is out on the job, her nerves overwhelm her; she goes to the local pub for company and an occasional man. She's a sucker for warmth and gentleness; Jasper, a trendy columnist for the Daily Telegraph (Cleave's newspaper, utterly unspared), is one of those who provides it. It's during their tryst that she watches the game her husband and boy are attending.
She is unable to take it all in. "It can't be as bad as when Diana died. And we all got through that didn't we?" she asks Jasper as he drives her toward the stadium.
By the end, "Incendiary" will transform her from one of the media-beguiled-and-distorted millions into a desolate Cassandra. Trampled by the fleeing crowds, she will spend weeks in the hospital and go on to a series of acidly revealing encounters with assorted representatives of the British establishment: the trendy Jasper's trendier fashion-writer wife, the police commander and a melancholy Prince William making a hospital tour.
"You could see him thinking to himself well I suppose I am the prince of all this then. I am the prince of this poor blown-up kingdom and one day all these blown-up people will be my subjects and I'll be able to do nothing for them."
William smiles a princely smile at her. She throws up on his shoes.
Through the hypocrisy, wooden indifference and lies she uncovers as she crisscrosses British society -- the vision of her little boy in flames trailing behind -- she is not so much raised up into knowledge as battered into it.
She is a younger version of Mother Courage, Bertolt Brecht's ruined but indomitable woman of the people. She is more innocent, more eager to hope, more open to pleasure and pain and because of it, perhaps, more finally damning. *