Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Lavie Tidhar, Osama (2011)

Since I’m going to praise this novel I’d better start off with a full disclosure: Tidhar is a friend of mine. So, I’m going to go ahead now and assume you’ve pinched your salt, and are keeping it handy as you read.

Osama is a bold, gripping, atmospheric and thoughtful novel; easily the best thing of Tidhar’s I’ve yet read. The protagonist is a Chandleresque private eye, called (of course) Joe, living in a Greene-ily rendered Vientiane, in Laos. He is hired by the requisite bombshell mystery woman to locate a writer of pulp fiction, one ‘Mike Longshott’, author of a variety of lowrent adventure or porn-y novels, not least a series of novels about “Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante”. So, yes, in this alt-Earth Bin Laden is a fictional character. Interspersed between the chapters of Joe's varied, kinetic adventures are excerpts from Longshott’s novels detailing the terrorist attacks in ‘our’ world (Dar Es Salaam, the shoe bomber, London’s 7/7 and so on) with which we are familiar. In other words, Tidhar does that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy thing of giving us a perspective on our actual world from the point of view of an alt-historical location (that’s not quite right, though; because, although the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is closer to ‘our’ world than the world of The Man in The High Castle there are nonetheless key differences between reality and Dick’s novel-within-the-novel. But the analogy is close enough for government work. And there is a Dick-ish flavour to Tidhar's work here -- in a good way. OK; this parenthesis has gone on long enough now.)

Tidhar’s novel generates an impressive degree of emotional traction by setting his deftly replicated pulp noir ’tec idiom (the frame novel) against a carefully rendered neutral, reportage rendering of terrorist atrocity in the interleaved sections. The violence of the main novel figures after the manner of pulp adventure violence -- dramatic, but more-or-less consequence-free -- but the violence described in the embedded section genuinely shocks. And although I’d have said I know Tidhar pretty well, I didn’t know this about him (from The Arty Semite blog):
Because I couldn’t not write “Osama.” As it happens, I have a very personal history with that loose, and little understood, network of operatives that uses the collective name Al-Qaeda. I was in Dar-es-Salaam, in Tanzania, recovering from malaria in a small hotel room in 1998, when the American embassy was attacked. I was in Nairobi a week later, watching the remains of the embassy there, surrounded by soldiers after the fact. And my wife, who was with me there, was in the Sinai in 2004 when a set of bomb attacks rocked the tourist coast of the Red Sea. A car bomb exploded less than a kilometre away from where she was, and I remember that night vividly, trying to establish contact, find out that she was alive, with the phone lines jammed and people passing on messages to each other, reassurances that such-and-such is fine, that they’re alive. Just as I remember being in London in 2005 when four suicide bombers blew themselves up, spreading out of King’s Cross Station, where my wife travelled every day on her way to work (she was out of London that day, and had to travel back through the scene of chaos) … Most recently, a colleague of my wife’s, an aid worker like herself, was kidnapped in Afghanistan and later killed by a U.S. soldier’s grenade in a failed rescue attempt.
So, Joe goes first to Paris, then via London and New York to Afghanistan tracking down the elusive Longshott, and has the sorts of adventures a private detective has in private detective novels—drinks with hookers in bars, meetings with sinister fat men, getting roughed up by mysterious thugs trying to warn him off. Along the way, as perhaps we might expect, the black-and-white distinction between the reality where Osama is only a character in a novel and the reality where he is (was) an actual agent in the world becomes blurred.

Tidhar's assured handling of this two-tone form enables him to do something conceptually clever, I think. Where Spinrad’s Iron Dream (a novel I thought of several times, reading this) is only able, really, to elaborate one satiric point—the quasi-fascistic nature of a lot of SF, the uneasy proximity of the more grandiose SFnal dreaming and Hitlerian fantasy—Osama doubles up, with consequent increase in the richness of effect. In terms of its form, the novel prioritises a sort-of American world in which things like 9/11, though nightmarish, don’t feel quite real, aren’t really comprehensible, feel like intrusions into reality from a trashy, violent novel. But in terms of tone, and (of course) in the book’s relation to real life, not to mention the nicely judged final sections, Osama is saying: something the reverse is true; the grievances and motivations of terrorists are the stuff of news reportage; the realm that denies them is a kind of exotic fantasy. And, more generally, this is a novel that interrogates the extent to which ‘fantasy’ governs our political as well as our personal lives. The members of Al Quaeda who thought that knocking down the Twin Towers would cause the US to pull out of the Middle East, or indeed do anything other than bring prolonged misery down on many many Arab heads, were indulging a fantasy just as acutely, and direly, as those US policymakers who fondly pictured American troops entering Saddam’s Bagdhad and being acclaimed as liberators, like 1944 Paris.

There are other ways in which this book represents a step forward in Tidhar’s career. He is, if I may, pot-like, address him as kettle for a moment, a very prolific writer, somebody who generates ideas in impressive profusion. With some of his earlier work, there has occasionally been a kind of impatience or even slapdashness in the execution of these many cool ideas. But Osama is a much more assured, carefully worked piece of writing; and some of the descriptions of place and mood are superbly rendered: atmospheric and vivid. Here’s Joe in Paris:
The sunlight hurt his eyes. In the square the pigeons seemed suspended in mid-flight. Above the fountain the saint was frozen in the act of slaying a dragon. The water seemed to hover like mist. [80-1]
Nice. The passage goes on:
A girl was painting the Notre Dame cathedral in the distance.
Wait: is the girl or the cathedral in the distance? (And that first ‘the’ is superfluous).
The wind picked up out of nowhere, snatched a hat from a man passing by and threw it in the air. Joe followed the girl, who made for the narrow, twisting alleyways of the Quartier Latin. He lit a cigarette and blue smoke followed him as he passed, like the steam being snatched from a moving locomotive.
Good, although a more pernickerty writer might have balked at the close proximity of two uses of ‘snatched’, and of ‘followed’, here. But Pulp Noir perhaps ought not be written like Nabokov, so I’ll stop nitty-picking.

Despite the exceptionally cool cover image (up top, there) Osama Bin Laden is not actually a character in this novel. But that’s as it should be; Osama the novel is in the largest sense about the way ‘terrorism’ is actually a mode of making war upon our imaginations, and not, however it might appear, upon our bodies and our infrastructure. Accordingly this is a novel about the power of fantasy, about the proximity of dreams and reality, about ghost people and ghost realities. Lavie Tidhar has written a fine, striking, memorable piece of fiction here, one that deserves to be widely read. Kudos to PS for picking it up.


Peter Hollo said...

Can't wait to read this. Great review, sir kettle.

Just thought I'd mention that I've noticed a bit of this "same word in close proximity" thing going on in a few chapters of Tidhar's Camera Obscura, which I'm reading (and loving) now, too. It's odd when in almost every other way it's impeccably constructed writing.
I've loved his short stories and haven't noticed this going on there.

Also, you seem to have written the review in Word (or something), which has turned your quotes into smart quotes, thus breaking a couple of the links up there...

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks Peter; I've fixed the broken links.