What is the relationship between the terrorist and contemporary literature? The terrorist is an agent of the sublime. The idea comes from Edmund Burke: “Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror,” Burke wrote, “is a source of the sublime.” This thesis has become almost an article of faith, at least in contemporary literature as we know it, stretching from Thomas Pynchon to Frederick Seidel, from the scream in the sky to the “sword of sunrise.” The latter of these comes from Seidel’s “December,” a poem that parodies Longinus’ original idea of the sublime as ecstasy; the poet imagines himself as a terrorist on the verge of creating a spectacle of sublimity:
I am flying to area code 212 To stab a Concorde into you, To plunge a sword into the gangrene. This is a poem about a sword of kerosene. This is my 21st century in hell. I stab the sword into the smell. I am the sword of sunrise flying into area code 212 To flense the people in the buildings, and the buildings, into dew.
It’s fair to say that Seidel’s cadence here traps the self-negating, destructive logic of the terrorist — or our idea of it. (“Down here in hell we do don’t / I can’t think of anything I won’t.”) But the poem’s strategy reveals an anxiety; we might understand it as the anxiety of contemporary literature. No matter what psychological havoc Seidel-as-terrorist metes out in the poem, it will pale in comparison to physical damage wreaked by an actual terrorist. Which is to say that a terrorist is by definition more “conversant about terrible objects.” Under Burke’s rubric, the terrorist is the stronger agent of the sublime.
This is the anxiety: that the terrorist can now rely on a vast media apparatus to spread images of sublime terror, whereas the artist or novelist or poet is diminished in the face of this power. In this respect, Seidel’s inhabiting of a terrorist, however convincing, is just the fulfillment of Don DeLillo’s prophecy in Mao II, which tells us that the novelist today is locked in competition with the terrorist:
There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask your writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.
Speaking through the novelist Bill Gray, DeLillo is unambiguous about the shared project of fiction and terrorism: to make raids on human consciousness. It sounds violent, and it’s supposed to. The novelist’s bid for recognition and attention in an indifferent media landscape has given rise, even in the best cases, to novels of spectacular assaultiveness. We love “brilliant” novels that “dazzle” us, even as we forget that both qualities require overpowering light, as if from an exploding bomb. Even the pervasiveness of free indirect discourse — which might be redescribed as a novel’s surreptitious, nighttime raid on its characters’ own consciousnesses — becomes violent in light of DeLillo’s lament.
Karan Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs , continues contemporary fiction’s tradition of depicting terrorists and terror, though it doesn’t carry that tradition’s torch. It begins with “Chapter 0” — it grounds itself in the zero of a bomb — with an exploding car in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi in 1996. In the first paragraph, the novel hints at its fidelity to detail (the car is a Maruti 800) and its facility with aphorisms of the quality usually reserved for wisdom literature: “A good bombing begins everywhere at once.” Just as crucially, it deflates the sublimity of the bombing, which it describes as a “flat, percussive event.” From there: a bravura montage of the spectacle subjected to novelistic time and strangeness. The victims of the bombing palm their own wounds “as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were unsure about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk.” This is to say that the prose refuses to flash us in the eyes; it’s the victims who are disoriented, not the reader.
This unwillingness to dazzle the reader with narrative or descriptive magic is fortunate, mostly because we need our good sense to grasp what comes next: pain and grief. We soon meet the Khuranas, a couple who lose their two sons, ages 11 and 13, to the bombing. The boys had taken a broken TV to the market to be repaired, a fact that Khuranas lie about to friends because it reveals their class standing. Vikas, the husband, comes from a well-respected bourgeois family, but his job as a semi-successful documentarian doesn’t provide much for his family — a reality that hangs over him throughout the novel. Deepa, the wife and mother, who once tellingly worked for Arthur Andersen, is a Christian from the South. Her stern courage, expressed after hearing of the event, declines, over the course of the novel, into sour rage. It’s a remarkable fact about The Association of Small Bombs that the Khuranas’ grief is neither total nor abating, even after they give birth to another child.
At the market, alongside the Khurana boys, is Mansoor Ahmed, the 12-year-old son of neighboring Muslims and family friends. Cherished, even preferred by Vikas over his own sons, Mansoor survives the attack and becomes, for a time, the novel’s core, which is to say its purest expression of its psychosomatic fallout. Only, as its title suggests, there is no definitive center here. The bomb begins at zero — the pain spreads from there.
The where and the how of the spreading pain is part of the breakthrough of Mahjan’s novel. Delivered in timestamped sections (“Victims, May 1996”) divided into chapters, the plot fans outward; it encompasses not only the dissolution and reconstitution of the Khuranas’ marriage, the secular and political and religious education of Mansoor, and the financial travails of the Ahmeds; it likewise absorbs the lives of the young terrorists responsible for the bombing. It would seem, in this respect, to act out the anxious fantasy of contemporary literature: to compete with terrorism by subsuming it. That’s not exactly right.
The principal terrorist in The Association of Small Bombs is Shaukat “Shockie” Guru, “the leading bomb maker of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force,” which, we’re told, operates “out of exile in Nepal.” For Shockie, bomb making is a logistical affair (he somehow reminds me of Krasznahorkai’s ascetics in Seiobo There Below); which is to say that he isn’t a religious fanatic in the way we’d expect — he finds prayer annoyingly feminine. When we first meet Shockie in the novel’s third chapter he’s orchestrating the blast that marks its first pages. This process — and it is one marked by repeated failures — reveals Shockie’s adherence to terror as a discipline, a practice, one with its own secular deities. He idolizes, in particular, Ramzi Yousef, the terrorist behind the 1993 World Trade Center attack, a “genius of terror,” in fact, “who had almost toppled a building that seemed to snick heaven like a finger, who had tried to blow up jetliners over the Pacific and kill the Pope.” Only 26 years old, and missing parts of his fingers, Shockie is bound to his pride as a bomber as much as he is to radical politics:
The bomb did not explode during assembly. But afterwards he was tired; he had a headache and his arms hurt — more so than when he had violently tugged the scab of the petrol cap from the rump of the Maruti — and he stayed up all night on the bed of the spinsters, his head throbbing and the city mocking him with its million nocturnal honks, wondering: What will it be for? Am I ruining it by not sleeping? Will my nerves be too shot to pull off the blast?
Throbbing heads, frayed nerves: this residue of violence, a physicality delivered with varying intensity, is the hallmark of the novel, over and above any attempt to plumb its character’s psychologies for cheap empathy. Instead Mahajan adjusts his proximities and ours; if we need to smell and see sweat, we do — his camera can shoot at point-blank range. But it can just as easily go aerial. One of the novel’s most beautiful moments has Shockie walking quietly with Malik, his close friend and oft-ridiculed confidant, a simple-seeming soul who reads Tolstoy. After walking, as if to palliate their shared history and pain, they swim and lie together near a stream:
The two men arrived at a valley packed with boulders of many sizes and a clear mountain stream and they stripped down to their underwear and swam. Malik felt the water against his penis, which had been burned and electrocuted during the torture. Sometimes he felt swimming in natural streams, with their rich purse of minerals, might solve his problems. Shockie, broad and muscled, made unnecessary strokes in the water next to him.
After they were done, they rested on the flat rocks and let their bodies roast in the sun. They held hands like lovers, though there was nothing sexual about this.
This, to my ear, is writing as brave as you will find it, not only in terms of its subject, but also as a function of style. By breaking with free indirect discourse (arguably the prevailing mode of the era), especially on a subject where a lesser writer would raid the consciousnesses of his characters, Mahajan risks stylessness. But this never happens. Instead he trusts the vividness of his characters and their drives — his rendering of the thwarted male libido is terribly convincing; he trusts, too, the range of novelistic perspective. The results are cumulative, unnerving, and surprising. Even though his characters are, yes, an association of bombs, they’re also fragments in search of one. They seem ready to detonate, but it never happens in the way you’d guess — or never at all. It’s as if he’s undoing Nathanael West’s dictate to American fiction: “You only have time to explode.”
Mahjan’s first novel, Family Planning, which also takes place in Delhi, was precocious, brazen, and hilarious. But the leap with The Association of Small Bombs is as great as it is unexpected. At the same time, the novel represents a cautious step forward in contemporary literature’s negotiation with terror. There might be terrorists here, but Mahajan does not allow them to become agents of the sublime — he does not colonize them. Instead, he simply shows us: “This is what it felt like to be a bomb.”