(written mid December 2023)
I had to go to Richmond thrice for work over the past few days, a place that is a lot weirder (i.e. more provincial) than the Richmond-set hit comedy series Ted Lasso implies.
Everyone on the street in Richmond, between the tube station and the party venue I walked to and from, walks as if they have nowhere better to be, an idea that is disproven immediately by the fact that they are in Richmond.
It is cold when I am there, there is snow on the ground; in a coffee shop a local shouts at the whole room about their iced coffee order and how today – for the first time – the extra cream has been served on the side, rather than in the cup. Richmond is weird.
The benefit, though, of having to travel to somewhere that, although technically London, feels a lot more like middle England (and I of course mean that as a scathing insult; people dress differently (like farmers) here, people have different faces (like farmers) here; facial expressions are different here, there is a bovine thoughtlessness present on faces that – though familiar to me after growing up (if you can call it that) not in London – has no right to be anywhere with functioning public transport infrastructure)-
The benefit, though, of having to travel to Richmond thrice, was getting to spend a coupla extra hours each day reading, and thankfully I had an excellent novella to read on those trips: Atta by Jarett Kobek, author of I Hate The Internet (2016) and, more recently, two books about California’s own “the Zodiac Killer”.
Atta was published in 2011 by Semiotext(e) and – I think – was Kobek’s first book, and it contains a 150ish page novella (titled as the title of the book) and a short story called ‘The Whitman of Tikrit’.
The short story follows the novella, and is an engaging, strange (yet never non-realist) evocation of Saddam Hussein‘s final day of freedom, from his perspective. It discusses Hussein’s interest in literature, his lack of remorse at doing genocide and mass executions for the flimsiest of reasons (and his adoption of a strict “execute one person, execute everyone who liked them enough to feel vengeful” policy), his willingness to acquiesce to capture rather than flee the country, as well as his status as a kinda “self-made” dictator.
On its own, without Atta, ‘The Whitman of Tikrit’ would be a potent and powerful evocation of the wages of sin (particularly with the dramatic irony caused by the reader’s knowledge (certainly the reader when the book was new, 11 years ago, tho there may well be younger readers getting into Kobek who don’t remember the naughties/noughties?) of Hussein’s ultimate fate and at whose hands it technically happened), of the vapidity and fleeting nature of power and riches and the importance and enduring-feeling qualities of good Art.
It’s a cracking short story, neither valorising not simplifying Hussein, and shorn of this book’s context (i.e. Hussein is much, much, much more sympathetic, rounded and humanised than the protagonist of Atta (see below)) the criticism (not from me!) that it is too comparatively generous towards Hussein would evaporate. It would be a great piece of writing published anywhere, but here, in this volume, it is overshadowed by the most powerful piece of prose fiction addressing 9/11 I have ever read.
Atta is a novel about one of the men who did 9/11. Not about one of the masterminds, not about one of the thugs, but about one of the radicalised middle class pilots who willingly flew an aeroplane into a building for no ultimate purpose other than to provide George Bush Jr’s America and its allies (*waving from England*) with spurious justification for the so-called “war on terror” and its many documented (but as yet unprosecuted (check out this info about Washington’s opinion of the International Court of Human Rights)) war crimes.
Although the ultimate fallout from 9/11 has been pretty fucking bad for everyone concerned, a few years ago – when ISIS were at their peak – it could have been argued that if the ultimate purpose was mass radicalisation in order to provoke a winnable war, then 9/11 could have been judged a success by its own terms. Saying this in no way condones, celebrates or approves of the attack and don’t bother pretending that it does. Terrorism is violence for the creation of fear, not violence for the purpose of change.
Political violence absolutely can and does have justified uses, but mass murder is never something to be celebrated, especially when it is achieved through indiscriminate acts like 9/11.
I’m sure some genuinely terrible American republican types died in the 9/11 attacks, but equally too did many, many – for want of a better word – “normal” people. In no way is TriumphOfTheNow.com pro-9/11. I cannot emphasise this enough.
This is very disjointed, as I’ve been typing this blog on the way to and from work (which is a much shorter journey than the trip to Richmond) and, due to snowfall and industrial action (both of which this blog does condone, celebrate and approve of), the experience has been much less smooooooth than I’ve been used to.
Atta, then, is about a terrorist.
It’s about a dickhead racist, homophobic, misogynistic cunt zealot who, despite receiving all of the privileges and opportunities (comfort, travel, education, culture, familial support and encouragement (if no affection) etc) of the middle classes, is radicalised into violent extremism.
Crucially, too, he chooses to be radicalised: the eponymous Mohamed Atta is not a child when it happens, he is not vulnerable, he is not alone and adrift and needy, he’s just a cunt who wants an excuse to be awful.
Kobek dramatises Atta’s life, his journey, his training, his corrupt hypocrisies and his-
I have to stop trying, the world doesn’t want me to have fifteen consecutive minutes available to think about Atta and I must let the world dictate this blog.
Atta is a fucking phenomenal piece of writing, harrowing, overwhelming, bleak, real, y’know. All those fucking words.
I read the final chapter almost palpitating as I rode the looooong District line back into proper/real/normal London on Monday afternoon, then immediately picked up Kobek’s later novel The Future Won’t Be Long and then ordered another of his books.
Atta is a fucking incredible piece of writing. Highly recommended, as is everything (so far) I’ve read by Kobek.