The Decade that Dare not Speak its Name

In the documentary “Imagine,” John Lennon comments that his song “Starting Over” from "Double Fantasy" was a message to fans his own age in which he aimed to ask them: “Hey, how’re you? Weren’t the Seventies a drag? Let’s hope the Eighties will be better.”

If John had lived on through the Eighties to experience the decade just gone, I’m sure he’d have used a stronger word than “drag” to describe it, and it would’ve been an adjective that came easily to his lips. The noun, however, would’ve been harder to place in that sentence.

What to call the first decade of this century has been the subject of numerous articles, all of which seem to me to reflect a desire ultimately not to name the decade at all. To forget it. To put behind us its litany of disasters (Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina), terrorism (9/11, Madrid, London, Bombay, every third city block in Pakistan), war (Iraq, Afghanistan, the intifada) and assorted horrors (Depression, Darfur, Dick Cheney).

Op-ed writers opine about whether to call these 10 years the “Aughts” (an American-English misapplication of the word “nought”) or the “Naughties” or the “Zeroes” or the “Ohs.” But no one seems able to name the decade authoritatively.

That desire to forget suggests to me that the secrets of this last decade – the nastiness lurking beneath its ugly surface, the things we’d like to escape simply by refusing to name even the time in which they took place – will be perfect material for fictionalized history in years to come.

I’m thinking in particular of the kind of books James Ellroy has written about the Sixties and Seventies or David Peace about Britain in the Seventies. In “American Tabloid,” “The Cold Six Thousand” and “Blood’s a Rover,” Ellroy mined the suspicions we all had that Kennedy was really a poonhound murdered by the mob with the FBI’s connivance, that Martin Luther King went pretty much the same way, and that a group of drug-taking, pinko-fearing psychos were the engine of history, rather than people like John Lennon.

The first decade of this century seems to me prime Ellroy territory. Halliburton, Blackwater, rendition, the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security all seem geared toward the secret, second history that makes Ellroy’s novels so fascinating. And the characters? Wouldn’t you like to know what really drove the recovering addict who stole the world, and what he heard from the tight lips of Uncle Dick?

In the case of Ellroy’s style, which involves using real public figures, writers have to wait for them to die, so that they can’t sue. That could hold things up. My money is on W living to be a hundred and being laid to rest in a casket made out of one of the last trees, while bloggers tweet their tributes directly into our “iFrontalcortexes.” (If I’ve violated an Apple trademark here, I apologize. Sorry, iApologize.)

So I’ve tried to get rolling on the job of fictionalizing this decade early – to show, through the prism of fiction, what really happened, and what the newspapers missed.

My series of Palestinian crime novels is intended to show the reality of life in the West Bank and Gaza during the intifada. To unveil the tribal conflicts and the battles over corrupt cash that truly dictated the course of the “uprising.” To contrast with coverage by news journalists who only got at the tip of the real meaning when they portrayed it as a struggle over a “peace process.”

I used real characters – their names changed either to protect them from attack, or to protect me and my sources from reprisals and law suits – to show the very things that journalists, who use “real” named figures in their work, failed to demonstrate.

Next month, the fourth book in the series will be out. THE FOURTH ASSASSIN takes my Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef abroad for the first time — to New York. My aim is to examine the way the West looks at Muslims and how Muslims become marginalized or turn to extremism. To confront what we all know to be the most important issue of the decade that dare not speak its name.

You won’t find Dick Cheney in the book. But his fingerprints are all over it.

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