Friday, September 9, 2011

Jarett Kobek's ATTA

Jarett Kobek's ATTA is a curious book. And not "curious" as reviewer's code that stands in as a weirdly standoffish term for "strange" or "delightfully marginal."

Kobek is, quite literally, more curious in a useful way about terrorism, and its perpetrators, and the intersection of cultures (religious, popular, technical and academic) that could breed an exterminator such as 9/11 operational planner Mohamed Atta.

True curiosity means checking preconceptions at the door. It is being willing to spend time and talent to de-mine a topic so sensitive (and so brutally distorted and exploited for such evil ends by its perpetrators and the politicians of our own nation) that it explodes at a touch -- and then to reclaim it for the forces of art and imagination.

Kobek does all that and more. ATTA (semiotext(e): interventions series, distributed by The MIT Press) is simply the best fiction I have read about 9/11. And on this 10th anniversary, when our televisions are mindlessly pumping out image and anecdote about that awful day, Kobek's book is a triumph of reflection and renovation.

ATTA is a novella that juxtaposes a first person narration by Mohamed Atta with a third person observation that is more amplification and clarification than correction. The book is impeccably researched down to minute details about Atta's life and milieu, and yet it never seems bookish or forced. Kobek weaves the historical and biographical into a enthralling narrative in which Atta's journey from awkward adolescent to terrorist never seems predetermined. In Kobek's hands, this all-too-familiar story has terrific twists and turns, surprises and incredible tension.

Yet retelling the story of 9/11 from Atta's point of view is not Kobek's only -- or even primary -- objective. One of ATTA's most dazzling qualities is its amazing and thoroughly compelling (and simultaneous) transmogrification of familiar elements of Western culture -- Disney, slasher films -- and the critiques of it. I've read few other books that wade as deeply (or, at times, as mockingly) into the darker eddies of the superficialities and silliness of our culture -- yet also unmask the same qualities in our own critiques of it. One of the book's most brilliant moments is scene-by-scene deconstruction of Walt Disney's The Jungle Book in the voice of Atta; another is Atta's discovery of "secret meanings" in the holiday slasher film Silent Night, Deadly Night, as explained to one of his fellow hijackers who has asked why Atta watches such "decadent trash":

"Brother, says Atta, "The film functions on two metaphorical levels. The first is more obvious. It is a critique of Western commodity culture. Imagine a world in which Christmmas has nothing to do with Isa but rather the green flow of American dollars. We live in this world. The film takes this idea to its extreme, employing the icon of commercialization. Santa Claus murdering literally is only a poetic demonstration of the reality. Secondly, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a metaphor for the manner in which the West treats the Islamic world. Amreeka smiles like a friend, a trusted acquaintance, and then, after your back is turned, strikes you from behind. This film is very subversive, brother. It demolishes the myth of Santa Claus and uses the slasher genre to provide an explicit, angry critique of American foreign policy.

"Brother," says Marwan. "You can find the secret meaning of anything."

The spine of ATTA, however, is not cultural critique, but a deeply felt and poetic meditation on humanity through the mediation of architecture and its power to shape and to distort our lives. Mohamed Atta studied architecture, abhorred modernism as a dehumanizing force in architecture, and Kobek's work is at its most powerful when he unleashes prose torrents in the voice of the hijacker -- floods which sweep up the reader and confound with a nearly inextricable weave of truths and falsehoods, misprisions and mastery, dynamism and death-worship. At one point in the book, Atta meditates on the Syrian city of Aleppo and its history:

Aleppo is a Crusader name. The true name, lingering on tongues for 1000s of years, is Halab. Aleppo is one of the world's oldest cities. Before the Prophet (PBUH), before Isa, before Musa, there is Halab. The city sees the rise of every major civilization. It falls to the Hittites. Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, goes to the Abbasid, Salah ad Din and the Ayyubid, is domain of the Mongols, the Mamluks, Ottomans and the French.

More people die in Halab than you can imagine living, their bodies give the ground sediment of human clay, fertilize it for future growth. The city, like a seething tangle of green, erupts into being. A sudden explosion of life, small but crawls outward. Generations upon generations formicate, their lust births bodies that fornicate anew. The city's commerce attracts people from afar. A need for new homes. Always the need for new homes. The buildings move beyond their humble inner core, tumble outwards into new neighborhoods. Soon there are 1000s of structures. More people come, more civilization. They live and they laugh and they love and they die. Bodies go into the ground. The ground feeds the city, a stone harvest of raw materials for buildings the color of sand. The city is alive, an organic mass that can not stop its growth, building with the dead for the sake of the living.

ATTA revels in connecting disparate dots, but the most human and touching moment in Kobek's novella is not a moment of human connection but of a deep fear that leads to disconnection. Yet it is ATTA's deep curiosity that allows Kobek to place his readers in highly uncomfortable (and even dangerous) zones -- knowing evil, laughing at its misreadings and incomprehensions, recoiling at its horrors, and yet recognizing our own selves in it. Not ourselves as directly complicit in the terrible acts of September 11, 2001 (much too easy), but as fellow residents of the teeming city that trades on death to live, as fellow citizens of a place that understands and can even name its garbage -- and yet resolutely refuses to sweep it away. ATTA is a brave and brilliant book.