For 59 pages, Chris Cleave’s Incendiary is a tour de force. As the narrator, an unnamed woman—wife, mother, sexpot London trash—throws up on the polished shoes of Prince William, who’s come to visit her in the hospital, I took what felt like my first breath since beginning the novel and marveled at the soaring arc of those 59 pages.
Why is our narrator in the hospital, in line to get a smile and a word from young William? Well, she’s had a very bad day. Her book—her aria—comes as a letter to Osama bin Laden, in which she shrieks out at the way her two chaps (husband and son) were burned to a crisp at the football stadium, while watching Arsenal v. Chelsea, while she—as it happens—was watching the same game on the telly and getting a nice bit of the nasty (she was being fucked) from Jasper Black, a Sunday Telegraph journalist who insinuates himself into her life and her knickers.
The tour de force part of it is not just a matter of ongoing dread in a London so vulnerable to terrorism that the lack of incidents before 7/7 speaks to extraordinary police efforts. (The threat existed well before 9/11 at the mundane levels of the Irish thing, the dirt, and the deterioration of the Northern Line.) It’s also the terrible guilt in the woman’s tale, as her dumb witness makes her horniness as urgent and culpable as Osama’s need for a show. And it’s also the quivering ear Mr. Cleave has for the narrator’s voice, and the odd way in which she’s both a simpleton and a very cute cookie who can drop her punctuation as quick as those knickers, but never lose the beat of her prose. That’s where the trouble starts, I think, and why at page 59 you begin to think that this is either going to be caviar or a plate of mash submerged in blood-thick gravy.
Mr. Cleave (who once wrote for the Daily Telegraph) has a phenomenal talent for melodrama, a dishy, vicious sense of humor (as the death of 1,003 soccer fans is confirmed, Sir Elton John composes “England’s Heart Is Bleeding”) and a sprinter’s force as a writer. He’s also so shamelessly manipulative that you know he’s doing the nasty to you even while you read. You can taste all these flavors in what is the climax (nudge) of the first 59 pages:
“I started to moan. The shivers were all through my body now flashing up and down my spine and exploding in my fingertips. I had to bite on the sofa cushion to stop myself screaming. There was a roar from the telly. Gael Clichy and Pires were playing 1-2s fast up the left. Jasper Black was moving quicker inside me it was obvious Arsenal were going to score again I was going to explode I couldn’t stand it. Pires lifted the ball across to Robin van Persie then van Persie struck it on the volley then Jasper Black was gasping. I felt gorgeous and you could see van Persie’s shot looping high and wide then curl back in towards the goal mouth. The Arsenal fans were coming to their feet behind the goal in their red shirts red hats red scarves their mouths were open they were screaming and I was screaming too. Everyone knew it was going in. The keeper was beaten and my whole body was in convulsions and you could see the ball curling in towards the goal tighter and tighter and then the whole East Stand exploded in flames.”
Taken out of its context, the vulgarity of the concept and its attendant humor seem grating. But take my word for it: The arc works a treat as you’re reading the whole thing. Still, the passage does raise the first doubt as to whether Incendiary is a tragedy, a novel and an organic work—or a diabolical bag of tricks. Is a book that begins with the words “Dear Osama” a real contribution to our experience or anticipation of terrorism? Or is it a very skillful version of that old Alfred Hitchcock strategy (and Hitchcock was East London, just like the woman in this book) of putting the audience through it? (But Hitch did learn, in Sabotage, that for the sake of suspense you should never blow up your bomb.)
Mr. Cleave has a movie kid’s greedy eye (and nose) for the sight and cookery of burning flesh. But he has not the least interest in how a bin Laden thinks. As the book proceeds, we’re led deeper and deeper into our narrator’s sex itch and her rackety urge to become a woman as classy as Jasper—and the outrageous thinking of terrorism (whether Osama’s or anyone else’s) goes by the board.
The plotting turns crazy. The narrator’s feeling for husband and son are simply props in a series of scenes written for a bad actress. And the woman becomes an ever stranger, unreconciled source of remedial English (she says “of” instead of “have”—and in print it’s like a thumb in your eye) when her alleged underprivileged status is milked for pity and spurious social commentary, all done in a kind of jazzy self-loathing that is heady and very typical of London media now, but which can lead nowhere. So it’s like Conrad as a comic book.
Truth to tell, the London life depicted here is of a kind that ought to rise up in protest against the way it is governed and provided for. Though Mr. Cleave is very good on nagging English grievance (he gets Jasper’s regular girlfriend down so sharp you wonder whether he’s married to her himself), he excuses himself from any of the larger geopolitical thoughts on Islamic terror in a city and a country that now has a considerable Islamic presence.
So the bombs in this book are a pretext, and not a very plausible one—Mr. Cleave has 11 terrorists, wrapped in incendiary bombs, slipping into the Arsenal v. Chelsea game. Not a likely scenario: There may have been slack security at Logan Airport on 9/11, but Highbury and the Arsenal fan-base would never permit such unqualified spectators.
As Incendiary goes on, I fear, its dynamism slips into reverse. You want to get off the soaring, hysterical arc and you want to shut the moaning mouth on this woman, who is supposedly without education or resources but actually rants on with the giddy literary frenzy of David Mamet or James Ellroy.
Can Mr. Cleave develop as a novelist? He needs to make himself write more calmly; he needs to settle on the infinite nastiness of London as his subject; and he needs to know very much more about the kind of woman he has chosen here. Yet he may get overexcited if this debut novel turns into a brutish, guttersnipe movie. We’ll see—meanwhile, 59 pages of tour de force is better than a dead rat in the khazi.
David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer.