Feb. 2nd, 2012

Lavie Tidhar has always had fun playing with reality and the intersectionality of fiction and reality; it's a marker of the Bookman Histories, albeit not one highlighted quite so much as it is here.  Osama, after all, is a noir novel, and noir rather lends itself to existential questions, universal doubt, crises of identity, and similar; which is what Osama really does best, alongside a beautiful prose style and some wonderful writing. This is, after all, Tidhar's undoubtedly strongest and most interesting work to date, and combines that with a potentially explosive idea...

The plot of Osama follows Joe, a PI based in Japan, who is hired to find Mike Longshott, a writer of a series of pulps called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante.  The narrative of the novel intersperses excerpts from these novels - descriptions largely of al-Quaeda/Islamist terrorist attacks from Nairobi onwards, although 9/11 is played oddly - with Joe's increasingly abstracted and frustrated search for Mike Longshott, and increasingly Joe's avoidance of a search for a fundamental truth: what is the nature of his reality?  The alternate history of Osama is slowly revealed, with the effects never quite clear in their totality, only partially; Tidhar's novel is not about the world but about it's nature, and that intersects with the plot in little notes - such as de Gaulle's death in 1944 in Algiers, rather than in 1970; or the failure by the Western powers to carve up the Middle East to suit themselves.  The whole novel's plot relies on those literal differences, to some extent, and our not knowing all of them; because this is a strange world apparently without terrorism, a world where noir is reality, and this leads to the fantastic intertextuality between the fiction of the Mike Longshott books, the fiction of Lavie Tidhar, and the real world, layering in on each other powerfully and incredibly to a point where reality itself - inside the novel, at a minimum, and probably also outside - is a construct, although whose and for what purpose is left tantalisingly unclear.

The character of Joe - the only real character in the entirety of Osama (who, tantalisingly, appears only on posters with the words "Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. Wanted Dead or Alive" in the novel, as advertisements for the Longshott books) - is one ripped straight from noir.  A PI who
drinks, smokes, takes a case because a dame walks into his office and pays him to find Longshott, stubborn and occasionally foul-mouth, Joe is a man lost in his world; his identity fraught with confusion and questions - as becomes increasingly apparent throughout the novel - and his certainty in existence and everything around him increasingly shaken.  The way Tidhar slowly erodes the foundations under Joe's feet is perfectly played, and the ultimate pulling away of the rug - Joe's choice, right at the close of the novel - is brilliant, and incredible; not one we can perhaps accept, but one we can understand, and one in character for him.  This is definitely a portrayal of a character as well as of a world...

But Osama is a portrayal of a world, and it does it beautifully.  The combination of styles - the noir, the evocative, beautiful and lush physical description which makes scenes and cities pop off the page, the powerful language, the short sharpness of the chapters, the clarity and conciseness of the language which says exactly what it means to and neither more nor less, make this not only a compact and pacy novel but one that is also almost leisurely; basking in the descriptions and the language Tidhar uses is just as possible as scratching one's head at the philosophical conundrums and reality-questioning engaged in, and both are as possible as simply enjoying the noir story.  Indeed, the multiple levels on which Osama should be enjoyed make it a book that really works well, because none of them are mutually exclusive, and combine to create a really effective novel.

Osama is up there with Chris Beckett's work in terms of thoughtful intelligence combined with sheer authorial craft; a few more like this, and picking a top 5 of the quarter is going to be intensely difficult! It's no wonder to me that Osama is up for a slew of awards, and good luck to Tidhar in them; I'd really recommend this novel to you.

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February 2012

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