Archive for November 3rd, 2012

November 3, 2012

Lavie Tidhar, Osama

I’m quite a fan of Lavie Tidhar, both as a writer about science fiction and a writer of it (in his case the two are frequently tied together). I also suspect, and it’s possible that I’m completely wrong about this and ascribing to him my own motives, that his relationship to some of the more problematic forms of genre fiction is as combative and as fond as my own, and that working through that relationship forms a big part of his writing.
From this weekend’s column:

Most science fiction fans are probably familiar with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history set some years after World War Two – a war which, of course, was won by the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. Within the novel a number of characters are familiar with a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a (in that universe) science fictional alternate history in which the allies won the war.

Lavie Tidhar’s Osama begins with a similar premise. Joe, a detective in Laos, is a reader of a series of pulp novels titled Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante in which a number of familiar incidents take place. There’s the bombing of the American embassy in Dar es Salaam, for example; and the absurd story of a shoe bomber. One of the books is titled Sinai Bombings. Another is called World Trade Centre(“What the hell was a world trade centre?” wonders the narrator). Clearly, Joe’s world is rather different from our own in ways that only gradually become clear as the story unfolds.

(I just really like the cover)

This nesting of books within books becomes more complex when a beautiful woman shows up in Joe’s office. It is soon clear to a reader with even a passing familiarity to the genre that the story has entered the realms of noir fiction. Providing no information or reason for her interest Joe’s enigmatic visitor hires him to find the author of the Osama books. It’s a journey that takes him  across the world as he follows up various leads and finds that the line between fiction and reality, in the Osama books as well as in his own world, are not always as obvious as he might like.

Tidhar’s adherence to classic genre tropes has sometimes made me uncomfortable in the past and it does so again here. It seems clear to me that he is not using these tropes uncritically. Yet seeing the literary gender relations of an earlier age replicated over and over can be jarring, particularly when we’re still struggling to get this right in our own time. Even though, as one reads Osama, it becomes clear that the author needs to replicate these genres in order to undo them.

Because Tidhar is evidently interested in the uses to which literary genres can be put. He’s certainly not trying to be subtle about the noir influence here – at one point he quotes almost directly Raymond Chandler’s famous “down these mean streets” line about the character of the detective. The Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante books are purportedly published by a pulp press in Paris that is best known for pornographic works – and Tidhar’s descriptions of the cover art will sound familiar to those of us who like our literature disreputable. “Load of rubbish, innit”, claims a book seller. Yet Joe’s story is interspersed with extracts from the Osama books, and they are hardly the over the top thrillers we might reasonably expect. Instead, there’s a factual tone that seems more fitted to newspaper reportage, and that sometimes veers towards deadpan. “The threat of political violence in Dar es Salaam had been classified as Low. That was later revised.”

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; this is a terrible cliché, but a true one. Terrorism is rarely mentioned in Osama. Instead, the subject of the Osama novels is given a label more befitting Batman. By showing us our world from the outside and in between the covers of a genre novel Osama plays out questions of how stories are told, and how they invest symbols with particular meaning. Bin Laden himself never makes an appearance in this story that bears his name, but at one point Tidhar rather cheekily juxtaposes descriptions of the famous picture of him, a version of which adorns the cover (“the man with the long beard and the clear, penetrating eyes”)  and of God (“Old man with long beard, yes?”). For a novel that derives its meaning from the meanings with which we invest Bin Laden, this seems entirely appropriate.