Sunday, July 10, 2005

The novel is Incendiary

I would prefer not to write about what might be called Politics. What happened on Thursday would seem to have nothing to do with the 'literary preoccupations' of this blog. Indeed, to discuss them from a literary perpective would seem to be the height of callous folly. However, I did try to imply that the general response to the events was distinctly literary; an unusual hyperbolic lyricism. That is, in hailing of the special stoicism of Londoners, and through gestures like the We Defy Terrorism campaign, there was a whiff of borrowed Churchillian rhetoric designed to aggrandise senseless waste, and our culpability. (I want to say not "give these terrorists whatever they want so they’ll stop" but "give the people of London what they have always wanted: the end of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.")

So why is it literary?

Look at the story of the publication of Chris Cleave's novel Incendiary: "a new novel" according to The Guardian "about suicide bombers creating mayhem in London".

The major marketing campaign to promote it would have gone ahead without Thursday's events. In effect Thursday's events replaced the market campaign. The novel received a different kind of puff. But not much different. Thinking about the original campaign, I felt disgust. The cynicism of its implications: appealing to the reading public's all-consuming Schadenfreude masquerading as an engagement with modern times; a Schadenfreude occasionally showing itself as a xeroxed gesture of solidarity (as above), but mainly in the mass consumption of novels like this one.

To be fair to the author, the novel appears to be more complex than the campaign can admit. Cleave says "It's really a book about love in a time of terror." A woman reacts to the death of her family in a rather fanciful atrocity by writing a letter to the Bond-like baddy. "Her theory is that she can make Osama stop if she can make him understand for one second what it is to love. It's a heartfelt plea for the end of political violence, on all sides."

"On all sides"? Did she copy in her own Prime Minister?

There's a good review by Mike Brett in the TLS. He says the novel's portrayal of post-attack London is 'sensational and hysterical'. This is perhaps inevitable as one tries to imagine such an attack. Sensational and hysterical is the way our popular media reacted – a rehearsal of clichés that are assumed to be commensurate to the events. They seek to forge a new cretinity in the fire of terror.

Today’s Guardian also has a clever and relevant article by the novelist Howard Jacobson. He calls for more irresponsibility in fiction. "What we consider unacceptable in human behaviour, we consider unacceptable in art, forgetting that art exists precisely to say the otherwise unsayable."

Yet the writer does not say it, art does. And the attack on London has that same force of saying. Perhaps that tells us something about why contemporary novels feel the need to feature traumatic events. It lacks faith in art.

In this regard, the name author of Incendiary makes me to wonder if it’s a pseudonym. I think of Cass Cleave in John Banville's Shroud. She comes along to undo Axel Vander's long life of dissimulation by becoming close to him; seeking to become whole herself in the process. And she succeeds. It’s one of those fictional names that is rather too convenient for comfort. She dies.

Mike Brett ends his review by saying the sensationalism of the novel "rather than bringing home the horror of such an attack [shatters] the frail illusion of reality which is essential to the novel’s integrity. Instead of depicting the destruction of humanity as tragic, [it] slips into nihilism, showing a society beyond redemption". The novel however – by virtue of being a novel – cannot itself slip.

And do we really want it to "bring home the horror"? Perhaps the horror is precisely what the unsayable of art says: that we rely on such events and such novels in order to live as we imagine life should be. Our lives cleave to a fantasy that it can only cleave.


  1. Anonymous12:16 pm

    Hi Steve, listen, you can say what you like about my novel, but Chris Cleave is my real name. It wouldn't have been much effort for you to check that. Best wishes for your blog, Chris.

  2. Anonymous7:30 pm

    Chris - I don't think Steve Bloke will ever say sorry. After all this blog is named This Space, after the holes that can be found in most of his arguements that he cane never be bothered to redefine.

  3. Nick, when are you going to apologise for being ever so slightly dim?

  4. Anonymous11:08 am

    I know nothing.



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