'Incendiary': The Book That Became Too Hot to Handle

Chris Cleave's novel about a suicide bombing in London coincided with the real thing.
Chris Cleave's novel about a suicide bombing in London coincided with the real thing. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Vanessa de la Torre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Brit might as well be reclining on a psychiatrist's couch, but instead he broods in a Washington hotel suite, trying to understand how two grisly narratives -- one fact, the other fiction -- could collide on the morning of July 7. How his novel, "Incendiary," in which a grieving mother unloads in a rambling letter to Osama bin Laden, could become a PR mess for his publisher.

"I wrote about something that could happen, and then it did happen, and now I feel that I'm fundamentally tied, probably for the rest of my life, to those events," he says. "Within 20 years' time, people will still be reviewing my book and saying, 'Chris Cleave, whose controversial debut was published in London the same day as the London attacks, comma, has written another book.' "

What happened that July morning on CNN: Suicide bombers (with al Qaeda ties, officials speculated at one point) pulled off simultaneous attacks in the London Underground and on a double-decker bus, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more.

What happens in the first chapter of "Incendiary": Al Qaeda suicide bombers kill more than 1,000 soccer fans packed into Arsenal Stadium for the team's title game against Chelsea. "There were feet and halves of faces and big lumps of stuff in Arsenal shirts with long ropes spilling behind them like strings of sausages," Cleave's narrator describes.

After the "morbid coincidence," the novelist is promoting his book but also trying to assure readers that he is no prophet, no al Qaeda operative and, thanks to pulled advertisements in the U.K., not profiting from terror.

"A lot of people imagine I started writing this book at 9:35 a.m." the day of the attacks, says Cleave, 32. Or that terrorists got wind of his publishing date. Or that 52 people had to die before he sold one book.

"I was going to be in all the shop windows, I was going to be on TV, I was going to have print advertisements taken out for months," Cleave says. "It was going to be on two-for-three promotions, 'Best Summer Reads.' " Then all the shiny new "Incendiary" posters that decorated the tube stations were promptly taken down. Waterstone's, Britain's famed bookstore chain, also pulled its in-store displays. Cleave says he agreed with the decisions: "It was a huge book. And now it's a small book in the U.K."

While "Incendiary" had a first printing of 25,000 copies in Britain (an exceptional number for an unknown author), criticism surrounding its timing and gore has slowed sales.

"We knew there was going to be a lot of dissenting voices," says Laetitia Rutherford, Cleave's literary agent based in London. "It's a very provocative book even if you take out the terrorist attack. It's dealing with death, mutilated bodies. . . . We knew we'd hear a lot of voices saying, 'He's a nutter.' "

The immediate plan is to release "Incendiary" in 15 countries; film rights have already been sold to the producers of "Bridget Jones's Diary." Sonny Mehta, the longtime editor in chief at Knopf, made an offer for "Incendiary" within 24 hours of reading it, says Rutherford. (Knopf originally trumpeted a U.S. printing of 100,000 copies; when it was released this month, that number had been reduced to 50,000.) "It's not about a terrorist attack but a human response to tragedy," says Paul Bogaards, Knopf's publicity chief. "For us in New York on 9/11, some of the imagery resonates."

Bogaards calls the book "a slow burn" -- dependent on a word-of-mouth campaign, and so far the reviews in the United States have been mixed: The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani admonished Cleave for his decision to open the novel with "Dear Osama," branding it "a case of simple tastelessness." Newsweek marveled that it was "arguably the strangest epistolary novel ever written," driven by a nameless heroine with an "ordinariness that's compelling."

The Oxford-educated Cleave is a former copy editor for the Daily Telegraph (he says he got fired for writing personal responses to readers who'd sent in letters to the editor). His narrator, meanwhile, is an East End mother addicted to gin-and-tonics and sex when she gets nervous and who becomes manic-depressive after the murders of her husband, a Scotland Yard officer on the bomb disposal unit, and her 4-year-old son in the fictional May Day attack.

"I know you can love my boy Osama," she writes in her slightly mangled grammar. "The Sun says you are an EVIL MONSTER but I don't believe in evil I know it takes 2 to tango. I know you're vexed at the leaders of Western imperialism. Well I'll be writing to them too.

"As for you I know you'd stop the bombs in a second if I could make you see my son with all your heart for just one moment. I know you would stop making boy-shaped holes in the world."

* * *

It was March 11, 2004, when suicide bombers struck Madrid's commuter system during morning rush hour, killing 191 people. The same day, Cleave's son stood on his own for the first time and continued to grow amid a world reeling from car bombs, jihadists, Abu Ghraib. Every day brought more barbaric news, says Cleave, who at the time was writing an odd-couple comedy set in 1980s Brooklyn (wife is a pornographer, husband a mortician). He was writing a fantasy in which the world of terror was not on people's minds, he says, "so I had to stop. And I wanted to write a book that was honest."

The result was a six-week dash to produce the first draft of "Incendiary."

At one point in the novel, the reader has an image of the narrator's little boy in his tiger pajamas, holding a stuffed animal called Mr. Rabbit. Then several pages later, the mother is in an adulterous embrace with a haughty journalist while her son and husband are at the soccer game. The TV is on and she imagines them cheering in the stands of the raucous soccer stadium. She experiences sexual ecstasy at the moment 11 suicide bombers, six with fragmentation bombs under their Arsenal jerseys, the rest wearing incendiaries, detonate their explosives.

Rebecca Carter, Cleave's British editor, has heard accusations (from the press, mainly) that "Incendiary" is sensationalist and insensitive in a time of mourning.

After the July 7 attacks, "I knew people would read the book in the wrong way and that kind of saddened me," says Carter, who rushed the editing process for fear that an inevitable attack on London would precede the book's release. "Our whole campaign appeared tasteless, and in a way that wasn't intended."

In "Incendiary," the British government -- which keeps a sinister secret about the fictional attack -- orders that Muslims be fired from all high-profile jobs, but also in other fields, such as health care. It also installs the "Shield of Hope" to protect the city from kamikazes, clogging the city skyline with gigantic balloons bearing the bloated faces of victims. Meanwhile, Elton John belts out "England's Heart Is Bleeding," a piano anthem that will top the pop charts "probably forever or at least until the sun and the stars burned out like cheap lightbulbs and the universe ended for good and it couldn't come soon enough if you asked me but nobody did," the narrator muses.

In one scene Cleave has Prince William making an appearance at a London hospital, shaking hands with the novel's battered heroine right after she is informed that nothing remains of her son and husband except their teeth. Vomit spills all over his royal shoes. Cameras flash.

"What if," Cleave says, pondering whether a novel can really change world events. "What if Osama bin Laden picks up that book, in a moment of weakness . . . and says, 'Oh, God. Well, maybe I'll think slightly differently.' What if it changed one atom in his brain? I don't know. What if. And I know it's clutching at straws in a drowning world, but you got to clutch 'em. . . .

"If I want to be remembered for anything other than this sick coincidence, then my next book had better be bloody good," he says. "My next book had better be unbelievably fantastic to the point where people talk about that, rather than the coincidence."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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