In this paper, I argue that Jarett Kobek's ATTA (2011), portraying one of the terrorists of September 11th, and Nick Flynn's The Ticking is the Bomb (2010), focusing on the ensuing ‘War on Terror’, are the first texts responding directly to the global effects of 9/11. Both do so by mapping and ‘producing’ urban and global space through relationality, and by recomplicating and recontemplating the iconic media images of the event. While analysing Flynn's and Kobek's novels with the help of spatial and visual theory, this paper is also an attempt to redefine the notion of geopoetics, drawing on de Certeau's notion of space, Fredric Jameson's call for a ‘cognitive mapping’, and Michel Serres's concept of topology.
Since the invention of dynamite which would allow an act of destruction from a distance, the history of terrorism has been marked by extremes of visibility and invisibility. As opposed to the facelessness of the nineteenth-century terrorist, there is an intricate complicity between modern terrorism and visuality: the German Red Army Faction, for example, generated a whole catalogue of canonical images (many actively circulated by the members themselves), followed by a large number of novels and films that re-staged those icons. Unsurprisingly, the events of September 11th are equally read through a set of theories that highlight them as a visual spectacle, and as a kind of exemplification of the Visual Turn claimed in the 1990s.
While the images of the burning towers, globally transmitted in real-time, were almost instantly discussed as the black icons of a new era, the terrorists remained invisible until the famous passport photo of Mohamed Atta turned up. This photograph, along with the CCTV video still of him boarding the plane, is the only circulating image of Atta to this day. Almost corresponding to the lack of images on the terrorists' side, early literary reactions focused invariably on the victims' perspective; similarly, Cultural and Literary Studies – if they did not concentrate on media aspects or the notion of the event completely – saw a new beginning for memory and trauma theory. And while a lot of post-9/11 novels used the catastrophic backdrop to tell yet another story about the dysfunctional family or love life of white Manhattanites, they also half-heartedly reflected on the real-time media spectacle, although avoiding simply re-telling its iconic core images. Maybe unsurprisingly, the terrorists were either excluded from those texts completely, or remained strikingly flat characters, as in Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007).
In his novel, simply called ATTA (2011), the young Turkish-American author Jarett Kobek adopts a different approach.1 Kobek both recomplicates the terrorist figure and reads the event through the unfamiliar lens of the spatial and the architectural. His Atta character is not especially likeable, nor does the text deconstruct the usual narrative of the fundamentalist lunatic completely, but it looks at a number of complicating layers that are absent from other texts: above all, Atta's political motivation and his relationship to the textures of a postcolonial city space. ATTA draws on the fact that Mohamed Atta, often metaphorically referred to as the ‘architect’ of the attacks, was in fact a trained architect and worked in an urban planning agency in Hamburg; his MA thesis examines the impact of modernist architecture and colonial grid structures on inhabitants of old Islamic town centres.2
Using Kobek's novel and its implicit references to spatial theory as a vantage point, I would like to open up a series of questions addressing the nexus between the terroristic, the visual and the spatial, and between urban and global space in narratives of terror.
The first memory may be real, is possibly false. My father, a lawyer, brings our family on a business trip to Cairo, to see el-Gizah. 1 2 3, the Sphinx. Hot sun warms my face, sets behind the Great Pyramid. There comes a rare feeling. The goodness of people overwhelms me, the individual common person joins with other common persons to build a timeless thing. (ATTA, p. 9)
We live in a squat apartment building, a British relic, one of the West's hideous assaults on Islamic culture. (ATTA, p. 11)
These are the first lines of Kobek's novel; from the very beginning, Mohamed Atta is narrated through his perspective on space and architecture. His first memory, although marked by unreliable narration as it is ‘possibly false’, is, significantly, the sight of the pyramids of Gizah: while the apartment block where he lives with his family is clearly marked as colonialist, he sees the ancient monumental structures as a sort of timeless working-class project. Indeed, as Timothy Mitchell shows, Cairo is a prime example of a city being overwritten and transformed by a colonial-capitalist spatial order.3 But it is not only such easily legible inscriptions of power that inform spatiality and architecture here.
While little Mohamed – or Amir, as he was called earlier on in life – lies on the floor of his parents' living room and draws, he hears for the first time what he calls ‘the humming’, the sound of buildings:
You ignore this humming all your life. The false souls of this world call it the mains, the 50-to-60 hertz waveform of electricity running through your home. Theirs is the great lie, a Zionist deception. The humming is found in Syrian villages and in Khalden, far away from the glare of a lightbulb. […] And in Germany, in Prague, in Spain and yes, even too in my own Masr, my Egypt.
This is not the noise of electricity.
This is the sound of buildings talking. (ATTA, p. 10)
Amir is drawing the high-rise where he lives with his family, and under the influence of the hypnotic humming he keeps on drawing until the house he set out to portray is gone and the page is completely black, a first obliteration in and by an image that will later be re-enacted on different levels. And there are other themes foreclosed in this little overture-like scene: for example Atta's antisemitism and, in conjunction with that, his almost comical belief in conspiracy; and, more importantly, a kind of mapping of global connectivity (‘In Syrian villages and in Khalden, […] in Germany, in Prague, in Spain’).
It is only when Atta, now grown up, flies a plane that the talking buildings fall silent: ‘During my 3rd flight training I notice cessation of the humming. […] In the air, I escape from land. I am free of buildings, away from the haunting presence of stone’ (ATTA, p. 13). It seems to be a simple equation that the text forms with regard to architecture: ‘The haunting presence of stone’ might be hastily ascribed to a modern architecture coded by western, colonial coordinates; only flying is able to neutralize its oppressive verticality and literally to obliterate it when the plane becomes an instrument of destruction. But the mention of Syrian villages and ‘my own Masr, my Egypt’ disrupts such a reading of architecture as a simple sign of western oppression. The function of space and architecture in this novel is more complex than this, and in the following discussion I would like to trace it with a short venture into spatial theory.
Scholars working on urban space today usually roll their eyes at the mention of Michel de Certeau, arguably one of the most quoted thinkers of space; his distinction between lieu (place) and espace (space), first developed in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), has been so influential that some feel that there is no need to elaborate on it any further.4 But since de Certeau can certainly help illuminate aspects of 9/11 and ATTA in a surprising way, a brief summary may be useful here. Places, for de Certeau, are named and marked; they can be pinpointed on maps. Space is more ambiguous, contradictory, fleeting; it is by no means some sort of static container in which life is situated, but a dimension that is constantly produced by movement and interaction. In short, ‘space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into space by walkers.’5 Extended to a political-philosophical realm, this notion of space then becomes a blueprint for complexity and relationality, exceeding neat categories of naming and exclusion.
Ironically, it is the view from the World Trade Center's top floor that de Certeau famously evokes to introduce his reflections on those different aspects of space:
The gigantic mass [of the city] is immobilized [by the view from the top]. Is the immense texturology spread out before one's eyes more than a representation, an optical artefact? It is the analogue of the facsimile produced, through a projection that is a way of keeping aloof, by the space planner urbanist, city planner or architect. […] The panorama-city is a ‘theoretical’ (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices.6
The practices that he refers to are those of the pedestrians down on the ground, spatializing the city through their complex trajectories. Besides the privileging of movement, another aspect in this short paragraph is notable (and formative for most of the spatial theories after de Certeau): the association of the reductive and fixed ‘view from above’ with both an image and cartography. I will elaborate on this later.
Now, the fact that Mohamed Atta crashed a plane into the very building de Certeau used to illustrate and critique the monistic view from above does not necessarily make Atta his disciple. But a – more or less profound – influence may be detectable in Mohamed Atta's Master's thesis in Urban Planning (1999), part of which Kobek appended to ATTA. In his thesis, Atta examines the impact of modernist architecture on the organic structures of old Islamic town centres, his main example being Aleppo in Syria:
Organic growth [of the city] is smart growth, informed by the daily routines of the city's people. […] The people become, effectively, de facto planners trained not by University but through the wear of daily existence. Recent developments, political and architectural, imperil this way of life. Family homes have been upended for the sake of multi-lane roads and high-rises. […] These decisions are made in secret, by clustered groups of men who believe in arcane organizational systems. (El-Amir, ATTA, p. 165)
This juxtaposition of an organic city space shaped by the practices of everyday life with an organized, capitalist planning from ‘above’ echoes the positions in The Practice of Everyday Life. Atta's proposed solution to this set of problems, though presented as decidedly fictitious, as utopian urban planning in reverse, gains a somewhat uncanny quality when reviewed after 9/11: ‘In our plan, we call for the destruction of modernity's impositions. We destroy the high-rise, the multi-lane road. We replace them with souks, mosques, courtyard homes and oddly-shaped streets […].’ The repetitive ‘we’ does not refer to a group of jihadists (although it is actually similar to the rhetoric dominating their manifestoes), but to Atta and his German colleague Volker Hauth. The two urban planning students had frequently travelled to Syria and Egypt together, conducting interviews with inhabitants of old Islamic city centres. Those travels are part of Atta's global itinerary traced in Kobek's novel. While the text does not refer to the Master's thesis explicitly, it is clearly configured by the thesis's underlying notions of urban theory:
New York's skyline rises in the distance. A unique horror. Direct in line of sight is the Empire State Building, an Art Deco stab at the sky. To the right, smaller buildings surround the Towers like acolytes encircle a false messiah. […] Skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper after […]. (ATTA, p. 16)
The last sentence, if it is one, goes on like this for another few lines. The vertical, repetitive spatial pattern of the metropolis is thus mirrored on the level of the writing. At the same time, panoramic ‘views' like this one, interspersed with architectural terminology, appear throughout the book and mark every stop of Atta's global itinerary. It is with relief that Atta notes the near-absence of high buildings in Hamburg – except for one: ‘Tele-Michel […] instills fear’ (ATTA, 39). When he urges his ‘brothers' in the Hamburg sleeper cell to let down the blinds, it is not for fear of discovery, but because he cannot bear the oppressive landmark outside. He also reflects on other spaces that ‘puncture’ the specific, seemingly distinct, architectures of his journeys across the world – spaces that function like one single global underside to the iconic panoramas: fast food restaurants and coffee shops or cheap neon-lit internet cafés, where unhappy immigrants talk to their families in phone booths.
But the most striking example of spatial critique in the novel is probably the run up to the inevitable endpoint of the plot: while in Don DeLillo's novel, Mohamed Atta's last hours on the plane are filled with a long interior monologue, and the text's rhythm vaguely imitates the sound and style of the Qu'ran, Kobek's Atta thinks about architecture. Significantly, not about the Twin Towers, but about another building complex that was, like the World Trade Center, also designed by Minoru Yamasaki, and that was also destroyed: 33 identical towerblocks in St. Louis, Missouri, known as the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex and a classic example of a spectacularly failed experiment in urban renewal – ‘[A]n attempt to inflict a clean line orderliness not only on the buildings themselves, but on the citizens within’ (ATTA, p. 152), as Mohamed Atta reflects. He carries on in a sort of time-lapse technique:
[Yamasaki] attempts to control not only real estate but also the destiny of 1000s, individuals he will never meet […]. Their lives play out in accordance with principles […] that he shapes through the manipulation of concrete, steel and glass. […] Crime, murder, rape, abuse. Life inside these boxes, inside another person's artwork, does not ennoble the spirit. […] Less than 20 years after opening, destruction begins. […] On the site stand schools and trees. There is no remnant, no legacy of Yamasaki. (ATTA, pp. 152–53)
This shift from one set of towers to the other, from the WTC to the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, displays once more how the text understands the 9/11 attacks not merely as religious fundamentalism or as a ‘clash of civilizations', but as political terror and – arguably quite emphatically – as architectural critique. The novel works with a two-fold narrative of destruction and spatial contestation that is about both violent architecture and violence against architecture. Atta narrates a compressed history of Aleppo, Syria, time-lapsed in a similar way to the passage on the Pruitt-Igoe project, but with a much wider scope, both temporally and spatially:
The city sees the rise of every major civilization. It falls to the […] Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, goes to the Abbasid […]. The city, like a seething tangle of green, erupts into being. (ATTA, p. 53)
Crooking streets and natural growth disappear. A French grid emerges […]. You watch filthy taxis drive over graves and do not know the corpses […]. (ATTA, p. 55)
There is certainly much that could be said about this long passage, of which I quote only a fraction here, but I will focus on the obvious binarism that is set up between the unruly ‘natural’ space on the one hand and its being overwritten by a colonialist spatial order on the other. Again and again, it is the straight Cartesian grid that Kobek's Atta thinks about (not only concerning Aleppo, but globally – for example with respect to Manhattan, the most iconic grid structure in the world), setting it against the rhizomatic paths and dead ends of the old Islamic town. He reads this rectangular system of city planning as verticality's accomplice, and as decidedly infused with power: ‘The government happily ignores its problems. Like any dictatorship, it prefers the high-rise and the street grid, manifest tools of control, plans of domination’ (ATTA, p. 63).
In his book The Image of the City (1960), urban theorist Kevin Lynch also claims that the modern city space is defined by the domain of the grid, overwriting, at times, but also interrupted by, different forms of subjective way-finding that he calls ‘cognitive mapping’.7 A process of disalienation, in Fredric Jameson's reading of Lynch, involves ‘the reconquest of an ensemble which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories'.8 Jameson now transfers this idea of mapping – which also seems to echo de Certeau, being more of a practice than a representation – from the urban to the global:
The truth of [the] limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong; it is bound up with this whole colonial system of the British Empire […]. Yet those structural coordinates are no longer accessible to immediate lived experience and are not even conceptualizable for most people. […] The conception of cognitive mapping proposed here therefore involves an extrapolation of Lynch's spatial analysis to the realm of social structure […] on a global scale.9
Here, he refers to a (post)colonial space, but of course the same set of problematics still applies to globalization in general. Jameson calls upon art to realize this political and aesthetic project of a global cognitive mapping, although he admits that he has no idea what this art would look like.
Concerning ATTA, it could be argued that Kobek's novel structurally mirrors Jameson's argument by turning permanently from urban space to global mappings and from named place to lived space. In the text, there is a constant movement from the urban to the global on different levels: one of them is, of course, simply the terrorists' global itinerary (Cairo, Hamburg, Aleppo, Afghanistan, the USA), with those named places being punctured by the complex spaces ‘contained’ within their skylines. But the novel also carries out, to an extent, one of the main tasks Jameson saw for cognitive mapping: visualizing or textualizing one's own implicatedness in the complex structures of globalization. I would not go as far as to say that Kobek's novel is what Jameson terms cognitive mapping, but it is certainly an attempt to destabilize a hegemonic narrative that ignores complex global processes, or in de Certeau's words, to ‘destabilize a picture whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices'10 – just as the widely circulated media narrative of a purely religious, completely anachronistic terror over-simplifies the intricate conditions of Islamism as a political ideology.11
As I have argued, the novel is in no way apologetic, nor does it turn Atta into a likeable character. Yet it does offer a reading of Atta's radicalization which, rather than linking it simply to a broad anti-western and religious fundamentalism, contextualizes it within global politics:
I live in comfort a few hundred miles from the sufferance of Muslims. […] In July comes the name. Srebrenica. Knowledge of genocide, of rapes, of torture, of horror. It washes over me. True horror. I listen to BBC World News. […] So the myth demolishes, the story implodes. Europe is Hell, its liberalities and reforms are nothing. […] The crusades run 1000 years. Do I need to see the poor suffer? (ATTA, pp. 83–84)
While working with the contradictory logics of urban space, ATTA keeps pointing to the inextricable links between religious codes and political motivation in Islamist terror – something that, for example, most journalistic texts fail to do.
In short, then, I see two kinds of recomplication at work in this text: firstly, a situated, micrological view from within the contradictory and layered textures of the city; and secondly, a relational, topological mapping of the complexities of globalization, stressing the political motivation for the attacks. This double movement is both an exploration of space in de Certeau's sense and an act of recomplicating narratives that are constantly over-simplified elsewhere.
I suggest framing those practices as a geopoetical writing. This notion of geopoetics is rooted not so much in literature studies as in critical cartography and art theory. In literature studies, the term has been used somewhat arbitrarily for almost everything relating to topography and geography in literary texts. For example, the Scottish poet Kenneth White advocates a nomadic, ecological, planetary form of writing and living that he calls geopoetics; for German scholar Erika Schellenberger-Diederich, geopoetics is merely a matter of geological imagery (as in poems about rocks and stones).12 Rather surprisingly, most definitions of the geopoetical within literature studies do not link it to narratives of the global, but remain within the frameworks of the local or the ecological. In opposition to this, I see geopoetics as a notion which, once further elaborated, could provide a key to a different understanding of textual spatiality precisely in relation to global relationality. Firstly, if we stress the poiesis in geopoetics, instead of reading it in a representational way, we could understand geopoetics as an active production, a practice that undoes the binaries of named place. And if we think about geopoetics as related to de Certeau's notion of space, couldn't we understand geopoetics – now focusing on the prefix ‘geo’ – as a way of looking at and producing globality (against the exclusive logics of borders and nations), as a poetics of recomplication and relationality?
The term has also surfaced outside of literary studies, and with a more fruitful result. For example, art theorist Alfredo Cramerotti has used it to describe the work of Swiss video artist Ursula Biemann.13 Biemann works at the intersections of documentary filmmaking and art, creating multi-screen installations that question the seeming simplicity of ‘place’ through situated knowledges of space, and show seemingly clear and readable infrastructures in their complexity and ambiguity. Biemann's work Sahara Chronicle, for example, follows the Trans-Saharan migration trails towards Europe and all the interdependent, informal economies around them, thus – literally along the way – undoing the dominant media image of the African asylum seeker, the overloaded boat, by replacing it with complicated stories and itineraries. The geopoetical, here, operates through irreducible situatedness and through what Deleuze and Guattari might call a micrological ‘vision rapprochée’, a ‘near vision’.14 The ‘human trajectories on the ground’ cannot be represented in the ‘view from above’ – to reconnect with de Certeau – of say, a traditional, seemingly neutral cartography.
Cartography, in turn, is the buzzword that appears whenever the intersections of the spatial, the textual and the visual are discussed, because it serves as a neat paradigm not only of eurocentrism, colonialism and meta-narratives in general, but also of representation itself – or rather, of its impossibility. Critical cartography theory frequently points out that the map is incapable of relationality. A traditional world map shows borders (it goes without saying that these are arbitrary in themselves), but it does not show relations and processes. Other forms of mapping, namely topological forms, do: where a topographical map supposedly is an objective representation, a topological one is distorted, deformed; it does not claim to represent territory, but looks at relationality.15 The philosopher Michel Serres calls topology ‘la science de voisinages et déchirures’,16 the science of nearness and rifts. It seems to me that this form of spatial thinking is much more apt to conceptualize geopoetics than a simple topographical approach. Neither interchangeable nor easily divisible, both a topological and a micrological narrative can be thought of as functions of the geopoetical.
Another novel frequently filed under the label ‘post 9/11’ could serve as an example for what the concept of topology, understood as the realm of connectivity, might have to add to a notion of geopoetics, and for how it could be related to a specific way of ‘unpacking’ global iconic images. According to its subtitle, Nick Flynn's The Ticking is the Bomb claims to be a memoir; it is a book about becoming a father, and it is also a book about photography, in a similarly personal way to Barthes's Chambre claire.17 Flynn engages not so much with the ubiquitous images of 9/11 – although he does do so occasionally – as, rather, with the set of iconic images emerging from the so-called ‘war on terror’: the images of Abu Ghraib.
These images have certainly been a favourite with cultural theorists since they were published. Most visual theorists from Susan Sontag to W. J. T. Mitchell have constructed chains of iconological connections around the photographs, trying to link them to earlier bodies of violent images via formal similarities. So, for example, Sontag reads them with a specific US-American history of lynching photographs and the patterns of web pornography, and Mitchell frames the ‘hooded man on the box’ with Christian iconography.18 While this might help one to understand the ubiquitous circulation and ‘power’ of the iconic images, it certainly forecloses other points of entry and carelessly overwrites the situationality and singularity of the detainee. The ‘Hooded Man’ gets, so to speak, doubly hooded – as a faceless entity he is not only easier to torture, but also easier to reduce to a nomadic visual formula. Flynn's novel, I will argue, indirectly works against such simplification, ‘unhooding’ the Hooded Man in a recomplicating narrative. By this I do not simply mean that The Ticking is the Bomb tells ‘the story behind the images' or ‘gives a voice’ to the detainees (although it certainly does), but that it sets up connections and topological wormholes between the safe, US-American cityscape and the ‘other’ sphere of Iraq, collapsing Bush's binary ‘us' and ‘them’. This happens on different levels, its most obvious variation being Flynn's actual encounter with some of the Abu Ghraib detainees. Along with an artist, Flynn was invited when former detainees were interviewed by Human Rights lawyers:
In Istanbul, while collecting testimonies, we asked each ex-detainee to describe the room where his torture took place. Each man looked around him – it looked like this room, each responded. There was a table, there was a computer, someone was always behind me. What did the person who tortured you look like, was the next question, and the detainee would look at me, then look at the artist, the only two white men in the room, and either point to him, or to me – he looked like him, was the answer. (TB [p. 95])
Relationality constitutes itself in different registers here. The room, also described as ‘well-lit, carpeted, a hotel room that one could find in any major city’ (TB, 82), is not only a classic example of global sameness, but also becomes a specific topological operator, folding the lawless space of the camp into the safe place of corporate hospitality. The laptop, running counter to our expectations of a typical setting for torture, is another topological nodal point creating an effect of ‘voisinage’, as is the statement about physical likeness.
Concerning visuality, the text carries out at least two forms of recomplication. Firstly, it ‘completes the picture’ by, so to speak, uncompleting the picture; it speaks about what could not be seen in the photographs of Abu Ghraib. About Flynn's first encounter with the ‘man on the leash’, as he was called by the media, it is simply said: ‘And then he tells us the story, he tells about his body being dragged from room to room, cell to cell’ (TB, p. 85). The story is the story we think we know on the basis of the photograph, and it remains untold at this point. But bit by bit, in between longer passages situated in Flynn's own ‘home sphere’ again, a new connecting narrative of the images fragmentarily unfolds, uncovering the degrading pose as the proverbial tip of the iceberg, as a frozen moment, taken out of a whole day of rape and torture that completely surpasses the iconic scene in its brutality.
Secondly, the text finally ‘unhoods’ the detainees, turning the ‘man on the leash’ back into Amir, the air conditioning specialist, a man who tells Flynn proudly about his daughter and smiles shyly in response to a compliment from the artist portraying him. Being oblivious to this biographical complexity is what Flynn sees as his own guilt:
What surprised me the most about meeting the ex-detainees in Istanbul wasn't their descriptions of the torments that had been inflicted on them […]. What surprised me was that before I met them I had somehow created an image in my mind of what an ex-detainee from Abu Ghraib would be like – I pictured someone angry, damaged, maybe tipping toward fundamentalism. And yet each of these men […] seemed to have taken in what happened in a completely different way, and it still surprises me that this surprised me. What surprised me is that I forgot that each would be fully human, fully complex. (TB, p. 232)
‘The goal of the camps,’ writes visual theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff on the extra-legal detention sites in the ‘war on terror’, ‘is to render the inhabitants into the undead, people with no social existence.’19 It is this kind of ‘social existence’ that is suppressed not only by a pre-Istanbul Flynn, but also by a certain type of visual theory discourse when it short-circuits the ‘man on the leash’ with a Tintoretto painting of Jesus carrying the cross, as W. J. T. Mitchell does.20 To an extent, it could certainly be argued that the literary text restitutes what this pre-eminent discourse ignores.
Thirdly, in a mise en abyme of all this, there is a re-translation of the photograph into movement:
There is a moment in Amir's story […] when words are not enough, when the only way to tell us what happened is to show us what they did to his body. At this moment he pushes back from the table and stands – They hang me this way, he says, and raises his arms out to his side as if crucified in the air. Something about him standing […] completely unhinges me. […] At this moment I get it: these words are about his body, it was his body this happened to, the body that is right here beside me, in this room I could barely even imagine just yesterday, his body that is now filling the air above our heads, our eyes upturned to see him. (TB [p. 88])
Apart from those quite obvious techniques of linking and un-othering, connectivity in this novel works through other means as well. For example, the text's structure is made up of fragmentary micro-chapters, neither chronologically nor topographically ordered; we move from the USA to Italy to Vietnam, to any year between the 1960s and now, so even the simple spatial proximity in the text suggests relationality. Also, there are direct cross-fadings between the separate spheres of the Iraq war and American urban cityscapes, for example when Flynn first learns about the photographs on the car radio:
The man on the radio says the words abu ghraib, words I've never heard before – at this point I don't know if abu ghraib is one word or two, a building or a city, a place or an idea. […] Houston is seemingly endless – I hear about the photographs again and again even before I make it to the city limits. […] Many of the prisoners are not wearing clothes [the man on the radio] says. The reason for this, he says, is that there seems to be a sexual element to what's happening, as I float past a church the size of a shopping mall. (TB, p. 26)
By projecting the images of Abu Ghraib ‘back’ into an American cityspace, a logic of othering is destabilized. The Bush administration's ‘bad apples’ tactics – portraying the torture images as an exceptional case, thought up by a few low-ranking soldiers on the night shift – is replaced by thinking oneself as implicated in different, complex ways, just as the two separate spatial spheres become intertwined.
On the level of imagery, the text also weaves lines of reappearing words and micro-narratives that connect the narrator's domestic space to the other sphere of the Iraq War and the Abu Ghraib images, but in a more subtle way. When he sees ultrasound images of his unborn daughter, they are ‘folded one upon the other like a tiny accordion’ (TB [p. 1]), and so is the sketch pad of the artist portraying the detainees; as a boy, we learn, he was fascinated with the exiled Nebuchadnezzar and liked pretending to be a spidermonkey, while his description of the Babylonian king reminds us of Saddam Hussein after being found in what was called a ‘spiderhole’ by the media; and, of course, Babylon was what today is Iraq. Those chains of constantly linking signifiers may be compared to what Michel Serres calls ‘spatial operators’.21 In Flynn's text, we have seen those connecting operators at work on different levels: on the micrological level of lexicality, as in this last example; on the level of objects that function like ‘wormholes’, folding spaces that are thought as separate into one another; and on the obvious level of direct encounters.
I hope it has become clear that I am not simply trying to ‘apply’ spatial theory to literary texts, but that I was led to spatial theory and specifically topology by certain configurations and connectivities within the fictional texts. ATTA and The Ticking is the Bomb are indeed the first ‘post-9/11’ novels that respond to the intricate relationality of the event and its truly global effects. Both texts, though arguably in very different ways, do so by exceeding the pre-eminence of the visual and the traumatic and shifting their attentions to the complexities of the spatial.22
With that said, I do not think it is too grandiose a claim to think of literature as a way of ‘mapping’ the world in an age of globalization – not in the sense of geo-cartographical representation, and not in the sense of making sense, but in the sense of recomplicating its textures and looking at a multitude of connections. These, of course, are so complex that they tend towards the unrepresentable – and, in order to be seen, demand a freezing of some sort. This is why a geopoetical narrative – as I understand it – cannot be framed simply in terms of resistance against some sort of master narrative or of incompleteness versus closure; it is always shuttling between the irreducibly complex and the ‘view from above’, just as topology sometimes necessarily collapses into topography and space intersects with and turns into place.