“For the first time, the books struck him as strangely unreal. He thought of all the attacks described. If you added all the wounded and the dead, he thought, they still wouldn’t amount to how many people died in a single month in car accidents in just one city. It was a war about fear, he thought, not figures on the ground. It was a war of narrative, a story of a war, and it grew in the telling. For some reason he thought of a hill of beans, which was a strange thing to think about. Lives in a hill of beans. He laughed.” – Lavie Tidhar, Osama, p. 151
I usually avoid writing reviews in the column, at least in the strict sense of the term, but I have been wanting to write about Lavie Tidhar’s book Osama since it came out this past fall, and given my response to the novel, I think it’s worth discussing at length. There have already been a number of reviews (and a roundtable here at SF Signal), so what I would like to focus on are some of the themes and effects that I gleaned from the text. It is, for me, one of the best novels of 2011; as I put it last week, it is a “heady, disturbing example of what fantastika can be.” The mixture of terrors and anxieties, the growing sense of displacement contrasted with various textual elements, and in the end, the failure of mimesis to assuage the reader all contribute that feeling of heady disturbance and make the novel an affecting work of literature that is less about the figure of the title and what he directly represents than it does a larger point about how we relate to reality through stories.
Osama is the story of Joe, a man with no apparent past who seems to be a private detective in Vientiane, Laos, but who does nothing but smoke, drink coffee, drink whisky, and sit at a cafe or his office. When a strange woman offers him a job, to find the author of a series of pulp novels about “Osama bin Laden, Vigilante,” Joe reluctantly accepts and begins a journey that takes him to places he never knew existed. His story reads like a classic pulp paperback, until it, and he, begin to unravel as he follows the trail of his quarry. He ends up traveling to Paris, London, New York, and ends up in Kabul where his story…resolves.
The novel is a fusion of noirish pulp elements with some Dickian aspects of identities and realities unraveling. There is resonance and disjuncture in the conjoining of these in the novel, and at first, I was perplexed by the way Tidhar was writing this story. The prose is very direct and strives to be concrete and mimetic for awhile, an impression which is reinforced by the book’s structure of short chapters, each titled by words in the chapter itself, from single words (“cells”) to linked phrases (“a man reading a newspaper, standing up”). Physical descriptions of individual things, of places, of one-on-one meetings with other people are bound together in this long chain of moments that both cohere as the plot of a mystery and simultaneously begin to undo the narrator’s sense of certainty about his reality and his self.
Interspersed with these chapters are snippets from the Osama bin Laden novels, which are ostensibly the worst sort of sensational pulp (they are published by someone who also disseminates various sorts of porn novels and sneered at frequently by other characters) and are written under the name of Mike Longshott. But, in contrast to the story we are following, the excerpts from the Vigilante novels are matter-of-fact renditions of actual acts of terrorism well-known to the reader from recent history. We read about Dar-es-Salaam, Sharm el-Sheikh, the 7/7 London bombings, and others (some of which Tidhar was quite close to in real life) in clinical detail. As the novel progresses, these selections do not change in tone or format, even as the rest of the novel becomes transitional, phantasmal, and even suffers unpredictable shifts in perspective.
‘ . . . but is it crime or an act of war?’
‘Depends on who’s telling the story—‘ Osama, p. 220.
A central paradox of Osama that adds to the tension and perplexity of the narrative are the nested contradictions between “the real” and the illusory, closed linked to the use of expectations encoded in the language, starting with the mimetic straightforwardness of words, phrases, and even chapters. Any hint of the fantastical is smothered by physical description, by random details, by rote observations and interactions. On one level the noir detective story progresses, and the descriptions set scenes and document conversations. Joe smokes and drinks again and again, moves from place to place, picks up clue after clue, and then has a conversation that leads him to the next step in his journey.
It is these conversations that begin to change both the tempo and the assumptions of the novel. As Joe quests for his objective strange things begin to happen, but they come about as an accumulation of revelations that stem from his exchanges (discursive and visual) with others. Joe’s world starts to fray and fade as he is forced to interact with other people. While he moves through a noir detective narrative, he meets people who question that narrative, sometimes explicitly, but more often through indirect means. The pulpish prose, the standard progression of incidents, the trail of pursuit, and the numerous bars and cheap hotels and seedy districts of great cities soon become distractions as Joe begins to see and unsee his world and another and starts shifting between them. What seems to be the basis of the novel soon becomes a distraction from what is really happening to Joe.
This is where the novel transforms into a Dickian odyssey. As that world of cheap liquor and stock characters moves forward, Joe himself begins to come apart, and the insistence of the reality around him of maintaining its story, of clinging to its predictability and mimetic anchorage, becomes hollow, overdetermined, and confabulated. When Joe finally realizes that he may not be who he thinks he is, and that his world is not the story he had thought it was, what emerges as more concrete are those excerpts from the Vigilante novels, and this is driven home more forcefully towards the end as Joe discovers how much his pulpish world has invested in making the world in which Osama bin Laden is real a fantasy. But unlike Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which Osama has some resonance with, the novel-within-the-novel is our reality, at least one view of it. Or, rather, it is a relation of incidents that occurred in our world.
That distinction is important, because unlike Dick’s world, there are symbolic ties to the world that most readers know, the post-9/11 world that has been subsumed by a narrative of terror and endless war. Because of this element, we are not permitted to be as indulgent as we would with a Dick novel: we are brought back to the history we know, to its suffering, by reading about acts of carnage that did happen. The reader can take no comfort in that world, however, because it is only about terror and endless war and confusing moments of collision. Such a world makes the cartoonish pulp world that Joe dwells in seem preferable, and this is the core fantasy of the novel. Towards the end of the book there is an “in transit” section that seems quite out of place, like a hard jolt as you drive along in your car, like someone just rear-ended you and you’ve slammed on the brakes but the car behind you accelerates and you struggle for control, trying to not get knocked off the road. Tidhar is making a different point than the standard Dickian take on what Norman Spinrad called “the multiplexity of reality, . . . the lack of hard and clear-cut distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘illusion,’ ‘authentic’ and ‘ersatz.'” Dick was more worried about his characters’ (and his own) ontological status, which in Osama is more of a strategic narrative device. Tidhar is not writing about our angst or a sense of postmodern slippage so much as he is demonstrating that reality is plotted and that our identities are constructed to make sense of the world around us. Even the way we consider and describe simple things conditions our sense of reality; even the most straightforward, innocent description says something about the story of the world.
The feeling of displacement is the uncertainty of not just the “reality” that Joe exists in, but of the reality of Joe himself. The mimetic reinforcements that create the novel’s structure reiterate a solidity of place that soon becomes undermined by his perceptions and responses. As some people, memories, things become flickering images seemingly cast on the backdrop of Joe’s current reality (intensified by cinematic associations and symbolism), as voices and identifications from some sort of else intrude and fade, we start to question the character that is our anchor through the novel. There are no scenes without Joe except for the excerpts from the Osama novels and the final “In Transit” section of the novel, and the perspective generally seems to be his, but what sort of perspective is it? Is he clueless and powerless, a hack detective, or is he a more active agent, perhaps a self-deluding one? The ending of the novel feels abrupt and a little weak, but I wonder if that is because Joe has artificially ended his journey and let his own weakness drop him back into the life he possessed at the start of the novel. The sudden ending of Joe’s search for some sort of truth is manifested in a moment of difficult choice, and that choice is what makes the novel come together and, in a smaller way, feel disappointing. But this is not a novel that is about satisfactory endings, since it is not about satisfactory beginnings or middles either.
Next week I want to discuss some of Osama‘s resonances and articulations by contrasting the novel with several other works of fantastika, from the aforementioned The Man in the High Castle to Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and also to two recent works of shorter fiction.