“It’s Just A Pulp Novel”: Lavie Tidhar’s “Osama”

Manflu did it for Osama. I speak not of an alternative history in which the mastermind of 9/11 was struck low by fatigue and fever, but of the post I had intended to write about Lavie Tidhar’s BSFA-shortlisted novel: a fug of the last few days has led not just to an inability to write it up, but to a clouding of the glass through which I read the novel. I experienced Osama  as a compulsive whereisit, a gumshoe noir focused not on the perpetrator of crimes (although it is, in its own way), but on the literal location of the detective. The reader cracking Osama‘s spine to read an Inglourious Basterds-type tale of fantasy revenge will be disappointed.

On the recovering side of one of those frustrating winter bugs which knocks the stuffing out of you without providing the externalised symptoms – snot, sweat or squealing – to justify your indolence, I find myself remembering Osama differently. In his friendly review of the novel, Adam Roberts writes of the “impressive degree of emotional traction” Tidhar achieves by juxtaposing the generically hard-boiled story of his pocket universe PI, Joe, with the mimetically crystalline reportage written by the missing pulp novelist he is asked to find. The events these latter fictions describe, however, are recognisable to us as grisly remixes of a hundred newspaper front pages. With this inversion of style and content, Osama dramatises the horror of terrorism – the individual human lives obliterated – better than anything else I can recall reading. John Clute makes Matt Ruff’s similarly-premised The Mirage sound well worth the read even in the wake of Osama, but he doesn’t succeed in convincing me that Ruff’s novel will be as visceral. Tidhar’s effect in Osama is a real achievement.

Roberts also hovers, however – delicately, like the humming-bird of criticism – over what are at times the novel’s stylistic farts. “The point of transit was like the epicentre of two opposing forces,” the voice blunders at one point, for instance, “like the equilibrium found when an equal pull is exerted on a body from all directions, creating the moment of stillness that is freefall.” This sort of clumsiness is relatively common throughout Osama and is, I think, the reason for its transformation in my Beechams-addled memory: the craftiness of its structure keeps the reader turning its pages, encouraging us at all times to think we can crack the mystery of the ‘Fuzzie-Wuzzies’ who drift through these terrorism-free streets; but on reflection Osama can also be rather bumpy ground.

Joe’s world is one in which Al-Qaeda exists only in gaudy pulp novels sold next to pornography and science fiction, and in which the impressionistic jonbar point appears to occur around the time of the Cairo Conference of 1921. Except that this may not be Joe’s world, and from very early on we are asked to question his place in this weirdly retro 21st-century. Others seem to perceive Joe as if through a haze: “And if I didn’t smoke? I might not even see you,” remarks the vendor of several of the works of Mike Longshott, the elusive hack who churns out endless fictions centring on the impossibly evil genius, Osama Bin Laden. Osama is, then, a novel intensely interested not just in the connection between fiction and reality, but in how we perceive it – and how we signify it. Those confrontationally lucid evocations of terrorist attack are dismissed by Joe’s contemporaries as crass filth, to be sold in paper bags.

This world’s dim understanding of the nastier one which lies beyond it, meanwhile, is defined almost entirely in terms of popular culture. “How do cell phones work?” an interrogator demands of a thoroughly nonplussed Joe. “What is an iPod? What is in Area 51?”  In a sense, Tidhar has been overtaken by events: Bin Laden has now been found and killed extra-judicially, no longer the elusive pop culture meme which might have given Osama more punch. Ultimately, after all, this is a novel about the mutability of symbols – about the siteing of meaning within a given, yet in truth moveable, space. We locate our own wispish understandings of Al-Qaeda in what we establish as sober and terrorised tenors, encasing the future we are more commonly experiencing (and which Joe’s world does not) in a ghettoised and patronised genre of paperback fluff. Throughout the novel, Joe is “trying to understand a war no one seemed to understand, not even those who were fighting it hardest”; Osama works entertainingly to interrogate the discourses we use to (fail to) achieve that understanding.

This, however, is where the occasional clumsiness of  its prose can come also to characterise its wider project. In the novel’s final denouement, which takes place in a blissfully unbombed (and apparently unTalibaned) Afghanistan, I’m not sure what Joe’s liminal position on the border of two worlds really tells us about either. Over at SF Signal, John Stevens argues that “this is not a novel that is about satisfactory endings, since it is not about satisfactory beginnings or middles either”, but the circularity of Stevens’s nevertheless very interesting piece suggests to me that nor is Osama a novel with a clear thesis about the absence of clarity. Simply, it is just a tad uneven. Sometimes it gets lost – Tidhar has a weird fetish for describing the movement of people around London as if staring at an A-Z – and sometimes it’s too bald – “was mass murder a crime, or was it a political act? And who decided?” Osama deserves to be read for the imaginative way in which it uses genre to challenge the semiotics of the war on terror, but it doesn’t seem to know what to do with the discourse once it has been deconstructed. It may well be a feature rather than a bug, then, but Osama is in one sense a fuzzy-wuzzy sort of book.

But that may be the manflu talking.

3 comments
  1. “The humming-bird of criticism …”

    I like that! Might get it on a t-shirt.

    • danhartland said:

      You’re welcome! You’d have to change it to the wild hornet of criticism during awards season, mind.

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