Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Mirage

Posted by Kurt

Matt Ruff has written a novel that, in many ways, is a perfectly fine political thriller. Three government agents fight a terrorist plot and find themselves drawn into a world of political intrigue full of gangsters and corruption and gunfights. At that level, the book would be at home on a rack in an airport bookstore - nothing special, but a perfectly competent example of the genre. The central hook to this book, though, the thing that makes it a must-read, is that this is not our world - in this world, at some vague time around the turn of the twentieth century, the United States degenerated into a loose sprawl of squabbling states run by fundamentalist despots, and the Muslim world united into the globe's dominant superpower. So in this mirage world, the three government agents are named Mustafa, Samir, and Amal, they work in a Baghdad still adjusting to the loss of its World Trade Center towers (after Christian fundamentalists flew planes into them), and the leaders of organized crime and political corruption are Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

This book could have been a simple political satire. Ruff has thought through many aspects of the mirage world's culture, from a popular children's TV show called "Open Sesame!" to a primetime thriller called "24/7 Jihad," in which a man fights terrorists and every Christian on the show always turns out to be a terrorist who gets killed by the end of the season. Everyone does online research with the aid of a Wikipedia-style site called The Library of Alexandria, and they buy and sell goods on eBazaar. In one of the best lines of the book, a character is surprised by an intruder and thinks that at least, since the intruder is an Arab, he's probably not a terrorist. This pervasive attention to details and attitudes make for a very funny satire that slices into the assumptions readers make within the framework of our dominant worldviews.

Ruff doesn't stop there, though, with a string of jokes and details justifying itself by its own audacity. He takes the time to tell a compelling story. The basic thriller plot is just fine, but the characters are much more textured than typical thriller characters. Each of our three main characters has at least one dark secret, and the dynamics to how they hide and reveal themselves is fascinating. Also, Ruff has a surprisingly sober appreciation for the idea of faith and mystery. Individual characters vary in their levels of religious devotion, in a way that feels deeply respectful on Ruff's part. On a more abstract level, as the book progresses to its climax, Ruff slips quietly away from certainty into a surprisingly perfect ending that answers very few questions but hits exactly the right thematic notes to complete the story. I sympathize with readers disappointed in the ending, but I loved it as proof that this novel is something special. It's bigger than a "here's some plot, and here's some more plot" paperback thriller, it's bigger than a "here are arbitrary reversals of your familiar pop culture" satire, and it's bigger than a "let me tell you what you should believe about this culture" essay. It incorporates those elements, of course, but Ruff has crafted a near-masterpiece that transcends its component parts. I recommend it for anyone.

(I think I'm supposed to mention here that I received a free copy through the Amazon Vine program.)

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