Another blast from the archive, my review of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama originally appeared in Interzone in 2011.
Lavie Tidhar, PS Publishing, 276pp, hb
After the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, literary commentators speculated about the form of the first 9/11 novel. Speculation turned to disappointment when the novels did begin to emerge. Perhaps they had anticipated panoramic novels that witnessed the heroism and tragedy of those terrible hours, promoting the grand narrative of national survival, validating America’s moral victory through military action. However, the consequences of 9/11, and the other terrorist attacks of the last few years, in London, Europe, across the Middle East, Africa, are less easily marked as they ripple out through the lives of everyone involved however peripherally, uncommented on but always present.
How does a writer address this? For that matter, how does a writer address the existence of someone like Osama Bin Laden, a figure so abstract one suspects he exists only to act as a scapegoat for society? How else but as a fictional character in a pulp fiction. Which brings us to Lavie Tidhar’s remarkable new novel, Osama. At first glance it seems to be a provocatively titled private eye novel, focusing on Joe, who has been asked by a beautiful young woman to find Mike Longshott, the undoubtedly pseudonymous author of the very popular Osama Bin Laden – Vigilante series which everyone seems to be reading. As is the way of detective novels, a new case brings danger and Joe finds himself targeted by mysterious assassins. His only clue to the whereabouts of Mike Longshott is that his publisher is based in Paris. Joe sets out on an odyssey to find Longshott, a journey which will take him to Paris, London and New York.
While the story may start as a genre detective novel nothing is quite what it seems. Our expectations are constantly challenged in tiny ways. For example, unconventionally, Joe works as a private investigator in Laos rather than LA His new client has given Joe no reason why he must find Longshott but the task seems to be peculiarly meant for him. The presence of the Osama bin Laden books is sufficient indication that Osama is set in an alternative universe but it’s not so much detail as mood that alerts the reader. If this novel were a film, it would be in black and white, reflecting Joe’s own sense of the past gathering around him.
If life is simple on a day-to-day level, reality is still constantly reshaping itself in ways that don’t always quite make sense to Joe or to the reader. Characters waver in and out of view, literally. Events lack even a fictional logic. Something is always indefinably ‘off’. It is therefore possible to read this novel as a narrative about the nature of literature, about the way genres speak to another, how borders are never quite as stable as people like to imagine they are. I interpreted the novel that way the first time I read it, seeing Tidhar happily confounding the reader’s expectations.
But this novel is as elusive as it is allusive (and it is filled with references to pulps, children’s books, film); a second reading brings a different, richer and much darker understanding of what’s going on, with clues to the nature of the mysterious ‘refugees’ who are constantly referred to, who seem to press around Joe as he continues his journey. The journey itself now seems strangely drawn out, with no proper end in sight.
Given the genre conventions in play, you may already be anticipating the denouement of this novel; you will be correct, but you will also be wrong. While Tidhar has transformed terrorist attacks into narrative intrusions into Joe’s world in order to write about them without glorifying them, the deeper question that needs to be grappled with is just what kind of world is Joe living in? Or rather, given that Osama is clearly a metafiction, who is constructing Joe’s world and from what? This is a question each reader answers for his or herself, in part because we also re-construct Joe’s world, based on what we know. This prompts us to think about how we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world; that is what lies at the heart of this novel. Layers of fiction mount up as Tidhar works his way deep into the emotional debris of Joe’s life. As a result, Osama is incredibly complex and intensely moving. It is already on my best of the year list.