It is hard for novelists to become celebrities today, but the prize-winning author Hilary Mantel has finally done it, thanks to her creepy gloss on a new short story about assassinating legendary Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mantel, the Independent explains, “recalled a moment in 1983 in which she saw the now-deceased former prime minister, and explained she thought about what it would be like to kill her. ‘I thought, if I wasn’t me, if I was someone else, she’d be dead.’”
Predictably, an avalanche of tut-tutting has rolled in—most of it on point, as far as it goes, but little of it patient enough to consider what Mantel is really on about. A call has gone up, for instance, that police should investigate Mantel for her “sick and perverted tale.” These kinds of critics clearly have never been artists.
In the preface to his collected early stories, Thomas Pynchon explains that his imagination shaped World War I into “the shape of that attractive nuisance so dear to adolescent minds, the apocalyptic showdown.” After the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction faded away, our contemporary outlet for that weirdly obsessive strain of political fear moved over to terrorist attacks and, sporadically, assassinations.
With both forms of violence—much like school shootings—we recognized an alarming contrast between the power of the motivated person to kill, no matter what the level of security, and the individual’s felt powerlessness in an ever-expanding share of economic, social, and cultural life.
The abrasive frisson between these conflicting realities makes for a convenient way to create “high stakes” art—art that purports to “say something,” to make an “urgent commentary” on “our times,” to cash in, un-coincidentally, on the uncomfortable fascination so many of us harbor for the calculating maniac hellbent on blowing away a leader of the free world.
Hence the veritable flood of Bush assassination art, catalogued by the likes of Michelle Malkin in her book Unhinged. Novellas, movies, rants, columns, docudramas—creative lefties left no outlet unturned. The influence of Oliver Stone, our granddaddy of prurient interest in political violence, hung thick in the air.
But even after the funk of the Bush years dispersed, we were left with a deeper truth. Few artists can be left unmoved by a personal experience, however small, that allows them to notice so viscerally how easy it is to kill.
On 9/11, I was living in the Fight Club building in downtown Los Angeles—the one where Edward Norton’s character blows up his own apartment to begin a life of mayhem as Tyler Durden. I think his apartment was on the 15th floor; I was on the 13th, numbered 14 in the elevator. The morning of the 11th, my father awoke me with a phone call from the Eastern Time Zone to suggest I turn on the television.
As I watched the second plane hit its mark, as I watched eventually erroneous reports of fires breaking out on the National Mall, my eyes flickered over to the view out my window—the panoply of high-rises clustered just to the south, including Library Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi and the alleged target of an al Qaeda “second wave,” which Bush officials claimed was disrupted by waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
In a strange and unhappy coincidence on a number of levels, on 9/11 I also happened to be in the midst of revising a 400-page novel about rock stars, terrorists, and spies—a novel wherein Osama bin Laden makes a cameo appearance, surface-to-air missiles are fired off around trendy L.A. locales, etc.
Since that moment, it has been incredibly, ludicrously difficult for me not to take note of opportunities that a person could have, in locales I visit, to commit acts of colossal violence. Once you begin to pick up on these things, the preposterousness of “beefing up security” becomes worryingly self-evident. It becomes clear that only a modicum of foresight and discipline is required of someone who wishes to take advantage of our inescapable vulnerabilities. Throw in a touch of megalomania or religious fanaticism, and it’s a miracle there isn’t a grisly disaster every week.
I say this not to amp up hatred for Mantel’s political incorrectness but to indicate how obvious it is to me that she experienced what I have time and again: the awareness that if a devoted murderer stood where I stood, when I stood, the politician or actor or building or airplane full of people could be killed dead, at a whim, in an instant. Bang.
It is an open question what responsibilities artists bear when turning the public mind to these matters. On the one hand, no human with a feeling intellect should bash out a dramatized act of butchery without feeling some sickness over the possibility that it might be acted out in real life. At the very least, even an accidentally copycat killing makes your dark imagination feel complicit in a curse—a sensation experienced every day by people who desperately try not to visualize the crash of the airliner they’re on. For artists, that moral sensibility, superstitious or no, ought to be cranked to 11.
On the other hand, it is paramount in these times of generalized, institutionalized panic that we be forced to confront how absurd and abusive it is to accept a behemoth security state. Complete protection from random harm is perhaps the most dangerously unrealistic of fantasies.