Roundtable Discussion: Lavie Tidhar’s ‘Osama’
In a world without global terrorism Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find a man: the obscure author of pulp fiction novels featuring one Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante…
Joe’s quest to find the man takes him across the world, from the backwaters of Asia to the European Capitals of Paris and London, and as the mystery deepens around him there is one question he is trying hard not to ask: who is he, really, and how much of the books is fiction? Chased by unknown assailants, Joe’s identity slowly fragments as he discovers the shadowy world of the refugees, ghostly entities haunting the world in which he lives. Where do they come from? And what do they want? Joe knows how the story should end, but even he is not ready for the truths he’ll find in New York and, finally, on top a quiet hill above Kabul–nor for the choice he will at last have to make…
In Osama, Lavie Tidhar brilliantly delves into the post-9/11 global subconscious, mixing together elements of film noir, non-fiction, alternative history and international thriller to create an unsettling–yet utterly compelling–portrayal of our times.
Recently, Athena Andreadis moderated and took part in a discussion of the novel with Kay Holt, Paul Jessup and Fábio Fernandes. Here is what they said…
1. How does Osama fit into Tidhar’s larger oeuvre? Is it a move forward, sideways, a riff on topics of obvious previous interest to the author?
Based on what I’ve read of Tidhar’s work, I know to expect to have my buttons pushed by his writing. Osama is consistent with that in the sense that it was, in places, uncomfortable to read – particularly as an American and as a woman. This book also aligned with another expectation I’ve developed of Tidhar’s work, and that is an unfortunately rare compulsion to consider it at length and discuss it with others. I found Osama hard to finish and forget which is refreshing in its way, if not exactly the way I’d hoped.
Not sure I’m the one to answer this one, I mean how do we place a work of fiction within the whole of a literary landscape that is a writer? Especially someone as prolific as Lavie is. It does contain a lot of his usual themes, thoughts and ideas, and it riffs on quite a bit of stuff he uses in other works of fiction. I think, really, it works best as a criticism of escapism itself, and in a way that goes hand in hand with all of his other works. It’s a theme he seems to return to a lot… although this is just me as a reader prescribing some motive to a fictional Lavie Tidhar as author that I’ve built in my head. The real person might scoff at this, laugh at this, or just give me a bewildered look.
I would say “diagonally”, that is, forward and sideways at the same time. Based on the themes and the atmosphere of The Bookman and An Occupation of Angels, his mystery/suspense/espionage side is coming more and more to the forefront of his writing. Even though I suspect Lavie is mighty interested in science fiction, I wouldn’t be surprised if he alternated his more SF-oriented novels with other, more spy-oriented ones. A 21st-Century Dan Simmons (but only in this aspect).
I’ve read several of Lavie’s short stories but Osama is the first novel of his for me. It seems like an extension – or perhaps a longer parallel retelling in an alternative universe – of his story “Travels with al-Queda”, as well as a sideways move into the wider domain of literary SF/F.
2. Do you think that the various literary and stylistic influences in the story (to name just a few: T. S. Eliot, le Carré, noir detective thrillers, “learned” quest novels à la Barnhardt’s Gospel and games like Broken Sword, movies like Inception and The Adjustment Bureau) have been used/hybridized/transmuted successfully? Does the story amalgamate genres well?
It does that, and it’s the best-written example of the noir genre I’ve read in a year or two. It was technically strong, too, but I felt its emotional range was stunted. That contributed to the surreally detached experiences of the main character from his own life, but it also robbed certain scenes of impact by keeping the reader at arms length.
Again, how can we ask or answer a question as this? What do we mean by well? How can a work of art be graded, how can it be transfused? Is it considered well if he asks the right questions, gets the wrong answers? Is it well if the reader is clueless and can’t participate in the conversation with the work at hand? Where does the author’s talent consist of this grading of a work end and what the reader brings to the table begin? In other words, what is a work of failure? A work of success? And where does the fault of either lie?
It may seem like I’m avoiding the question, but in a way I’m participating with the text of Osama. In my thoughts it seems to question the nature of escapist/thriller literature, bubble gum books, by turning the lens of their own creations onto itself. It questions our escapism by flipping worlds, by showing horrors glossed over by pulps. Its structure defies the genres it absorbs, it breaks the lens apart, and shows us the horrors of the page we which to ignore.
In that case, this reader saw something in Lavie’s work that he might not have actually put in there, whatever. It seemed to me he was critiquing these writers, and not being influenced by them. In other words, this isn’t act of imitation but of evaluation and distortion.
During the reading, I could see PKD, Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Graham Greene, Le Carré, and Gene Wolfe (and those authors were just the tip of the iceberg – I’m pretty sure there are plenty of others I missed). A plethora of references could also be found, from Dick to Woody Allen, Casablanca and many other films, novels, and authors. Lavie knows the amalgamation game. I personally can’t think of a 21st Century literature (mainstream and SF alike) without hybridism, and Lavie Tidhar is one of the authors of the new generation who does it better, in my opinion.
Except for Austen zombie mashups and their ilk, I can never have enough cross-genre hybrids. My overall impression of Osama is of a dish starting with the best ingredients and a talented and ambitious chef that does not fulfill the promise of its purported recipe. The premise is intriguing; the start is fascinating: it’s atmospheric, taut and contains passages of great beauty. But it never fuses; it runs out of steam and resorts to name-dropping as a substitute for depth.
The shortcomings are encapsulated in the novel’s “Rosebud” moment, when a character cryptically utters “Nangilima.” Nangilima is a realm in a Scandinavian children’s fantasy novel to which the dead go when they die a second time. This may be considered relevant, since one interpretation of Osama is “It was all a fever dream.” But there is no followup that justifies the term’s solitary use. This is true of many of the novel’s references, which reduces them to video game Easter eggs.
Osama wants to be a noir thriller that is also a P. K. Dick-style meditation upon identity, reality and the blurring of several kinds of boundaries. Despite its great starting promise, it devolves into a quest RPG game along the lines of “We collected the required items from location X; the clue in that last scroll tells us to go to location Y.” The story also follows the eternal-return “Back where we started, though now transformed” of The Odyssey and Eliot’s Four Quartets – except it feels like it cheated by taking shortcuts along the way.
3. How authentic does Osama appear as a work by a non-Anglosaxon that visits Western/ized locales and tropes (including orientalist ones)? Conversely, how does Tidhar’s approach compare to similar works by insiders (examples: Bacigalupi and MacDonald’s cultural hoppings, which have received significantly different evaluations from “natives” and “non-natives”)?
Fairly authentic, but that was heavily constrained by the main character’s perspective. And given that the main character was never fully aware or accepting of his own identity, it makes sense that his worldview was spotty in places.
That said, I recognized as I read that even where many background and setting details were given, much was left to the assumptions of the reader. Part of that was probably intentional and served to maintain the mysteries supporting the story, but it follows that people with different backgrounds will likely read into those assumptions very differently.
There is plenty of room for quarrels of interpretation around Osama. Whether that engagement makes it a better read or worse is debatable, but it seems likely that every ambiguity and layered connotation will provide attractive targets for people reading from a variety of perspectives.
There is nothing authentic about the cultures in this book, and there is nothing inauthentic either. The existence of cultures in the textual landscape of this novel are imaginary signifiers that exist as conversational archetypes, and the way they exist in the story (in this humble reader’s jumbled approach at diagnosing and performing surgery on fiction) is a contrast to actual reality. By using signs and archetypes and contrasting them with the horrors of our reality (and labeling these horrors pulp) he is actually tearing them down. They are artifice built of cardboard that is recently been in a fire, burnt to a crisp, devoid of meaning, empty things. Hollow men.
I think Osama rings truer than, say, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl. I’m talking particularly about this novel because it takes place in my country – I like very much McDonald’s stories, but after reading Brasyl, I must say that I felt as if I could suddenly see the strings of the puppeteer, and now I wonder if I will ever get to read another McDonald novel in a foreign country without feeling that somehow he almost got there, but still didn’t get it right. Can’t say the same about Bacigalupi – I loved The Windup Girl, but then I’ve never been to Thailand and I don’t really know how are things there – but his narrative felt right.
As for Lavie, he’s from Israel but he is really a citizen of the world, having lived in several countries (I know for a fact he lived in Vanuatu – how many of us can even say they know where Vanuatu is located on the globe?? – but he also lived in other countries and he seems to mingle easily with the cultures – not necessarily becoming one with the natives, but living well among them and accepting their ways. My guess is that he don’t seem to find anything really strange in foreign cultures, so everything comes easily to him. So I can believe what he’s trying to tell me through his writing.
The increasing influx of non-Anglosaxon writers into SF/F as well as the recent fashion of “exotic locations” (from Yellow Blue Tibia to The Dervish House) has brought the issue of authenticity very much to the forefront. It was amusing and satisfying to see Lavie – a sabra and a cosmopolitan – best the Anglosaxon armchair internationalists at their game by using both remote and well-trodden playgrounds as way stations in his protagonist’s pilgrim’s progress.
That said, Lavie was smart not to attempt the small telling touches by which authenticity is (rightly) judged, but instead resort to genre shorthand conventions and the slippages granted to alternate histories to denote sense of place.
4. Do the characters go past being “types” and become individualized – particularly the two “muses” but also the various local sidekicks and the main antagonist? Is it useful to have characters as easily categorizable pegs to hang concepts on, if this is a novel of ideas? If it is, what is its kernel idea and how convincingly does it get realized? How well will it date as either genre or literary fantastika?
There are some twists, a few deviations, but the characters in Osama are largely typical for the genre. I anticipated that they would be so, but I wanted better. It was particularly discomfiting to read yet another book in which every female character was insipid, ‘exotic’, a prostitute, or whose main motivation was that her heart was broken by an oblivious man. The stereotypes used were poorly employed in the story, especially for female characters.
Some might argue that the way women appear in the story is given entirely by the main character’s view of them, and that may have been the writer’s intention. But the end result is that only one woman has any significant worth in the main character’s eyes, and by extension, the reader’s. Even she could have been easily replaced by some other motivation – the MC’s true-to-type attraction to mysteries would have been more satisfying, honestly – and the story could stand largely unchanged.
Sadly, I suspect most fans of the genre wouldn’t notice if there were no female characters in the book at all. It’s that true to type.
However, because the book itself is easily typed, and other factors, I believe it will be more widely read and linger longer on internet lists than if it had been released a few years ago or been given any other title. This persistence will be aided by predictable complaints and praise.
The characters are weak on purpose, they exist not as living conceptual beings, but as Artificial Lifeforms, as creatures performing an act. By existing in a pulp frame work, they contain no meat of their own, but this is by design. By showing us how hollow and shallow escapism can be, that archetypes can be, he sets them alight with the lens and makes us question the archetypes we’ve designed in our own mental landscape and flavored with our experiences with the fictional narratives that surround us. For example, I have in my head this writer Lavie Tidhar, who wrote these books and other books, and he is peppered and flavored with not only the actual conversations I’ve had with him, but my brain filling in the cracks from all these novels and movies and other things, creating patchwork personality to fill the holes.
We all do this, and yet, that is not a real person anymore than any of the people in this book, in any book, in any world. His characters are a mirror of unknowing, it reveals our own masks that we construct for others.
I would venture a guess that Osama may become (along, perhaps, with The Bookman) one of the landmarks in Lavie’s career. To me, Osama is a very welcome hybrid of fantastika and espionage which must be read.
Characters are the weakest aspect of Osama. Granted, novels of ideas are rarely strong on characterization and noir mysteries rely heavily on broad stereotypes. Even so, I totally agree with Kay’s “stunted” verdict. The female characters did not thrill me by being generic whore variants (neither did the Greco-Levantine Peter Lorre-like sleazoid in Paris or the Greene-staple sodden Brit in Vientiane). It would actually be better if Osama contained no women, since their presence creates no ripple in the protagonist, the plot or the kernel concept of reversed/reversible worlds.
Authors like le Carré and Cruz Smith remain compulsively readable decades after the events in their spy thrillers have become obsolete precisely because of the vividness and complexity of their characters and their dilemmas. This is the primary defect that will date Osama. With this novel, Lavie has proved he can write with borrowed materials and do so with as much trendy edginess as the best “native” practitioners. Having established this, he should embark on the unique work that only he can write: he has talent and nerve to spare.
5. Would you recommend Osama? If yes, to whom?
I don’t regret reading Osama, so I will recommend it. But selectively. I don’t know many people whom I think will find themselves in an uplifted state at the end of the book, but I know several who bear discomfort well and who might appreciate it purely as the forerunner of what I expect will become an extensive catalog of Osama bin Laden-centered alternate histories.
I would make it required reading to all third graders in the world.
To everyone who digs fantastika in the widest sense of the word – but especially the US readers. I think they would benefit massively from it.
Osama will appeal to readers who like meta-narratives and will certainly jangle those conditioned to the tapioca comfort of endless sequels. It might be a harder sell to people who have plowed through enough primary works that they’re satisfied only with hybrids that have become seamless novel species (random examples: A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects; Elizabeth Hand’s The Least Trumps; Karl Iagnemma’s On The Nature of Human Romantic Interaction; Eugenia Fakinou’s The Seventh Garment; Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched).
Several of our replies touched the topics of sendup and/or deconstruction directly or indirectly. My take on these is that 1) to succeed, these methods must use scalpels not hammers and 2) “deconstruction” is often used as a meant-to-be-devastating riposte from “sophisticated” readers to “middlebrow” ones. For me, and again this is personal, most postmodern meta-stories fall in the category of “deserving the Sokal treatment” (in itself a deconstruction).
If anything, this discussion shows that Osama can be viewed through many lenses and some colors flatter it more than others. It is also interesting that the men in this panel liked it more than the women.
Kay T. Holt is Co-Founder and Editor of Crossed Genres Publications and the Science in My Fiction blog. She also writes – mostly short stories about irreverent women, complicated children, and bloody flash fiction – and has a habit of getting science on everything. Kay lives in Massachusetts with the family of her dreams and the remnants of nightmares past. She can be reached online most easily on Twitter as @Sandykidd
Fabio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Also a journalist and translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translations of several prominent SF novels including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, England, and USA, and in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. There’s another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. II, ed. By Lavie Tidhar, later this year. He writes book reviews for SF Signal, where he has a column on e-books.
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by full scholarships to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, H+ Magazine, io9, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
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