There must be something to the experience of a devastating tragedy that seems utterly unreal, if not surreal. You hear it all the time from survivors of such events, that they felt as if the whole thing were a horrible dream, or a bad movie. On September 11, I heard so many people say it was all as if some Hollywood movie had come to life. Reality had become so horrific and absurd at the same time, some of us could only process what was going on through the language of pulp storytelling.
Osama is a startling, haunting, yet strangely moving exercise in metafiction from the extraordinary Lavie Tidhar, who has himself had several close brushes with al Qaeda bombings. The novel was perhaps thus a kind of catharsis for him. Even as I write down my impressions of it, knowing that the story will engross many of you and bewilder many others, I know that I am not done thinking about it, and that — unlike most of what I read, good or bad — it will be a book that I mull over for a long time to come. On that basis alone, I know I've read something quite brilliant.
There have been some comparisons to Philip K. Dick. But Tidhar's playing with multiple and imaginary realities comes from a long magical realist tradition, on which he puts his own stamp. We are introduced to Joe, whose last name is never given, a chain-smoking westerner working as a private detective in Laos, which seems the last place his services would be required. Indeed, he has no clients until a mysterious woman asks him to track down Mike Longshott, the reclusive author of a series of lurid paperback adventure novels about the exploits of the fictional “Osama bin Laden, Vigilante.” She never tells Joe why she wants this author found. She simply leaves him an apparently limitless credit card for his expenses. It is a world that follows the rules of pulp fiction, because its own pulp fiction may well be our reality.
Who is she? How did she find Joe? Why are they both in this city, far from where we assume they came from? For that matter, who is Joe? Is that even his name? Who do the men (naturally in black) who menace Joe, shoot at him from cars and rough him up in the way all private detectives must get roughed up, all the while repeatedly warning him off his quest, represent? And who are the figures of shadow that beseech him at unpredictable moments, whose voices follow and haunt him? It is a trope of pulp detective fiction that any simple job a private eye gets is never really quite so simple, that just beneath the surface lie many darker, bigger secrets whose damage could be vast — like a bomb — if ever revealed. Joe will move towards these bigger secrets, getting answers which in turn inspire decisions. Something feels unresolved at the end, though upon reflection everything has, for Joe at least, resolved itself just fine.
It's not an easy task to launch a story of this type and stick the landing. We are not given absolutely all the answers, because it kind of defeats the purpose of thought-provoking fiction to leave you without things to think about. Tidhar has imagined intriguing worlds here, both real and of the mind, where death is something that opens a door, not necessarily to places you might want to go. Where life is the story we write about ourselves, with little to go on but our dubiously reliable memories. And we aren't necessarily the ones who will write the ending.
Readers worried that Tidhar's story might trivialize global terrorism in general and 9/11 in particular can rest easy. There are observations on the way we all trivialize violence by keeping it comfortably nestled in fiction, where acts that would be considered the worst imaginable atrocities in reality are, in a story, pure adrenaline and entertainment. There are some witty references here, to classic noir movies, and to fandom and convention culture, where people go to blur the lines between fact and fiction with gleeful abandon. The stories of Osama bin Laden that Mike Longshott writes have acknowledged that this blurring of lines has seeped into the world at large, and the reality he uncovers is something so frightening to him that he's taken up opium to dream it away. Joe makes another choice, but it's one he can live with, and perhaps live well. He has a lot to think on, and so do I.