From pulp-minded cynics there is the impression that the literati like nothing more than a book which presents fractals of reality impressed upon social and cultural situations — the more politically and historically significant, the better. If you can somehow throw in the values of literature (meta or otherwise), well, that’s just ink for the Nobel. Post-modern the name of the game, numerous are the works of serious literature (no quotes needed) attempting to portray existence as ever deconstructing relativity for critical acclaim. Speculative fiction is not well known for its forays into this realm of literature, but there have been successful attempts. Jorge Luis Borges, J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Jeff VanderMeer, Philip K. Dick (though perhaps unintentional) are among them. Adding his name to this list is Lavie Tidhar with Osama (2011).
Ostensibly, Osama is the story of the private investigator Joe and the bizarre case he’s contracted to take on. Living in Ventiane, Laos, his only loves are cigarettes, whiskey, and the series of pulp paperback novels he reads religiously called Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. The main character Osama an anti-hero, the books tell the story of bombings, destruction, and the overall machinations of a man attempting to bring his version of justice to the Western world. A strange girl entering Joe’s office one day, she asks him to track down the writer of the fictional antihero Osama, Mike Longshott. Though wanting to say no, the plastic with unlimited credit handed his way serves to change Joe’s mind. Beginning his investigation into Longshott’s whereabouts things quickly become strange: mysterious men in black suits shoot at him for no reason. For poor Joe, however, that’s not as strange as things become, particularly the closer he gets to the reclusive writer.
Reading Osama, it quickly enough becomes apparent that Joe is living in a world that is not ours — very similar, yes, but with key differences. The physics and cultures, travel and language all work the same, but differences in character motivation, certain bits of technology, the seeming randomness with which some events occur, and the fact no acts of terrorism like we have witnessed the past three or four decades in our world have occurred mark it as separate. It is, in fact, the setting for a pulp novel. Osama existing on two planes, Joe’s investigation in his world runs into limits and barriers, and often enough penetrates to enter our world, though this in itself is never unambiguous, events escalating steadily into the surreal. Spiderwebs of imagery inter- and intra-connect the two worlds until the reader isn’t sure which is which. In a direction more and more equivocal as the story progresses, Joe becomes an ant crawling on an M.C. Escher Moeibus strip.
Identifying the social and political concerns under examination are the vignettes Tidhar satisfyingly grafts onto the storyline. Taking two forms, the first are excerpts from the fictional Osama novels by Longshott which describe events from the terrorists’ point of view. Juxtaposing the perspective is a powerful chain of passages that describe the thoughts and experiences had by unaware bystanders and passengers in the last moments before terrorist attacks — the final passage having particularly strong impact. Woven tightly into the storyline, both sets of vignettes effectively pin down the socio-political concerns, strengthening the sub-text. That Joe appears to be a victim of a real world (read: our world) terrorist attack only adds depth and pertinence.
I sometimes pick up the Polish magazine of speculative fiction Fantastyka my wife reads. In a recent issue, Tidhar was interviewed and had the following to say: “On one side I am fascinated by pulp fiction, and on the other speculative fiction with ambition, so I write ambitious pulp fiction.” Fuzzy, disorienting, obtuse, whatever the word used to describe Joe’s experiences with reality, it’s clear Tidhar is indeed playing literary games with genre in Osama. It interrogates the strati of pulp fiction and mimetic reality against the backdrop of the Bin Laden affair, trying to find a reality inherent to both. The end relationship apparent, the stories told by media and government are no less reliable than those told from the terrorist’s side, giving rise to the idea the truth lies somewhere in the middle, as indeed Joe’s experiences in and out of “reality” indicate. Kafka, Ballard, Harrison applauding on the wings, the novel is, as Lidhar would hope, a work of fantasy with integrity.
In the end, Osama is genre that boldly captures and parallels two perspectives on terrorism that superficially seem anti-polar, yet upon quarter-turn reveal themselves to be far less unequivocal. The only complaint about the novel is the inconsistency in style. Christopher Priest praises the novel, stating it’s “ambitious, skilled, and original”, but calls Tidhar a “young” writer — a thought borne out by the occasionally imprecise prose, not to mention the inability to imitate a true noir narrative. (Tidhar’s dialogue lacks true wit and the worldview doesn’t quite have the degree of cutting cynicism one typically associates with the mode.) All else that is post-modern Tidhar nails. From the effective entangling of perspectives to socio-political sub-text, real world relevancy to the holistic vision imbued upon the plot structure, daringness to examine a sensitive issue to the simultaneous usage and subversion of detective noir, Osama is a novel which strikes the right chords, from high-brow literature to genre classic. Unlike Jo Walton’s paean to genre Among Others, Osama is a more complex, motivated novel, and instead falls into such company as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek. “Ambitious pulp,” indeed.