Osama – Lavie Tidhar

With hindsight, I did not do justice to Lavie Tidhar’s Osama the first time I reviewed it. I loved it – it was one of my favourite novels of last year – but I did not do it justice, rather as I suspect I am about to fail to do it justice all over again.

A feature of those of Tidhar’s novels that I’ve read so far is the way in which they draw on his own prodigious knowledge of genre fiction, and not just science fiction. Intertextual references abound in his work; at times it can be like taking part in a literary treasure hunt, though at other times one can walk away feeling like an ignorant fool. In The Bookman and its sequels, the references are blatant, not surprisingly, given the nature of the eponymous character, and there is a sense that the reader is engaged in a pleasant battle of wits with the author to collect the set.

But in Osama Tidhar’s engagement with fiction in general and genre in particular is an altogether more serious business, though this doesn’t prevent him from once again playing intertextual games. And here I should note that while it is possible to manage without spotting most of the references, it would have helped me first time around had I been just a little more familiar with Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle.

Joe, the novel’s central character, is a private detective in Vientiane, Laos. We learn very little about him other than that he is fond of the Osama novels by one Mike Longshott. They’re clearly a generic series, Longshott is probably a pseudonym, possibly even a team of writers. Anyone familiar with the history of genre writing knows how this works. Excerpts from the novels are interspersed between chapters; terse, laconic descriptions of actions and events, recognisable as bomb outrages that have occurred in the reader’s world, suggesting some odd connections already.

Then a woman arrives in Joe’s office, asking him to search for Mike Longshott and Joe begins a curious odyssey across the world, hunting for a man who has covered his trail well, so well one might wonder whether he exists at all. I use the word ‘odyssey’ advisedly, because it seems that there are certain similarities between these two wanderers, undergoing strange adventures but somehow never quite coming closer to the truth, or finding a way home. There is a touch too of Orpheus about Joe, descending into some private underworld, hoping to bring back … who? The strange fading girl he encounters first in Paris, as he searches for Longshott’s publisher, Papadopoulous? Someone else.

And what of Joe himself, this fictional everyman, plagued with memories of having been to places before though believing himself not to have previously visited them. Gradually we come to realise that Joe’s world is not ours but an alternative world, but how many worlds are there. He seems to be slipping from one universe to another, most of them similar, distinguishable from one another and from the home world of the reader by small details and discrepancies, easily missed or discarded.

When Joe himself employs a private eye to help him in London, he describes Mo as having a ‘grubby, well-used look, like a paperback’.  We might even wonder then if this whole adventure is an act of imagination by a Vientiane detective with time on his hands and a penchant for reading genre fiction. Is any of this happening or does Joe still have his feet up on his desk at home as he places himself in one of the novels he loves so much. Given I have mentioned The Man in the High Castle, readers familiar with it may have worked out by now what seems to be going on and guessed that there is a reason why Joe seems to have little ‘reality’ beyond what is happening to him at any given moment. One could of course lay out a case for Joe’s having come to some sort of self-awareness within the fiction he inhabits and he is now literally trying to find himself.

There are, though, other things going on in this story. The novel’s name is a powerful indicator of this. One perhaps feels a slight sense of shock at seeing a novel named after the great bogeyman of the west. What light does it shed to see him cast as the ‘hero’ of a series of novels? It perhaps reminds us that however abhorrent his acts might seem there is more than one side to this story, and in this instance Joe literally stands on the other side of that story, although the veil between the worlds seems to be thinning all the time.

And that perhaps is the most interesting thing about this novel for me, the way in which it engages with theories of genre and reading, through the form of the novel itself. At least, I think that is part of what Tidhar is doing. The novel constantly collapses in on itself, like a wave on the shore, only to return again and again, building gradually to a revelation that is as inevitable as it is shocking. What delighted me so much about this novel when I first read it was its shape-shifting quality, the way in which it constantly reinvented itself. I liked too the way in which the novel explored how readers engage with the fiction they love. There is even a convention for fans of the Osama books, where people gather to speculate about the identity of Mike Longshott and deliver learned papers on the topic.

That is one form of fantasy, of course, and we have already speculated that the novel may indeed be Joe’s own fantasy, but similarly, the possibility remains that we are ourselves trapped in a book, looking out of the pages into a very different world. In the end, how can we ever know? The refusal to permit certainty lies at the heart of this novel as Tidhar posits a series of interleaved worlds that from time to time bleed into one another, complicating the reader’s perspective. It’s an ingenious and very subtle utilisation of that old sf trope of the alternate world, invigorated by the energy of Tidhar’s storytelling.