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Bin There, Done That: Chris Cleave's tale of bombings in London came out the same day that the city was bombed.

Dear Osama

Chris Cleave's 'Incendiary' delivers a powerful vision in the voice of an ordinary woman

By Rick Kleffel

Chris Cleave likes to listen, and he listens well. Incendiary (Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $22.95 cloth) his debut novel, is powered by the voice of his protagonist, a struggling middle-class London woman incensed by the death of her husband and her son in a terrorist bombing. The novel runs on a nice conceit. It's a series of letters from our unnamed heroine to Osama bin Laden in the wake of her loss. But what makes Incendiary so compelling is the voice of the novel's narrator. Cleave is wired in to her skull, to her shtick, to the face she presents to the world and the face she sees in the mirror. He reveals her essence in language that is direct, easy-to-read and utterly compelling. Her rhythms capture the reader from the first page.

"I wanted to tell a story about terrorism," Cleave says, "but [one] that gave it a human face, and I was looking for a voice to fit that face. And I found it just riding around buses in the East End of London. It's something I do a lot; I'm a bit of a snooper." Cleave clearly has a sharp ear, and possibly a portable tape recorder. The middle-class mom who tells the story is "a woman built upon the wreckage of myself." She combines compulsive habits with a cynical, self-lacerating outlook. She's relentlessly, appealingly honest and direct. She's bereaved not just for herself, but also for her city, her nation.

"I've been reading a lot and listening a lot to people that have been bereaved," Cleave says. "It's an extraordinary state, it's like a kind of psychosis." His narrator's grief is all encompassing and it seeps outward into her visions of the city. At first she knows she's hallucinating, but as the letters and the novel progress, she becomes less and less aware of her own state of mind. When people burst into flame or wave charred limbs in her face, she copes with a dark and very entertaining sense of humor. "People use humor, the darkest of humor, to defend themselves against horror," Cleave explains. "People try and avoid confronting their grief directly. They let it in, in little bits; they let it in by making jokes about it." Cleave's sharp observations make reading this novel a true pleasure, leavening the potentially bathetic subject.

Though Cleave leads with a strong inner voice, he's quite adept at describing vast scenes of cosmopolitan chaos. He's able to pull back the camera and easily describe the horrors of the crowd with cinematic precision. But his post-bombing London is not simply a milling crowd of shell-shocked victims. He weaves together World War II conspiracy theories to help justify a surreal response to the soccer stadium bombings, a series of moored dirigibles that the government describes as the "Shield of Hope." As our narrator finds herself employed by the Home Security service and embroiled in a love triangle with two upper-class reporters, she's plunged into a set of events where even her hallucinations have a hard time keeping up.

Cleave's dissection of terrorism is unsparing and complex. "People don't even realize how Orwellian the public debate about terrorism has become. The first thing that happens is that they manipulate the language. By manipulating the language, they own the debate, both sides of the debate." Incendiary had the misfortune to be a novel about bombings in London that was released on the very day that London was bombed. Advertising for the novel was flatlined, and it's had to make its way into the world via word-of-mouth. Fortunately, it speaks well for itself and it's worth talking about. "I love us for being absurd," Cleave says. "That's what we have that I think is worth defending, just our ability to be weird, and be selfish, our ability to love and to love things that are bad for us, even when the world's falling apart." With Incendiary, Chris Cleave captures the complexities of a society at war with itself.

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From the August 31-September 7, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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