‘Osama’ is a novel that ought not to work. The idea of Osama bin Laden as the protagonist of a pulp-fiction series called ‘Osama bin Laden – Vigilante’ is as audacious as it is controversial. Yet this is what Lavie Tidhar has done.
OK, it’s a little more complicated that than that. Joe, a private detective and narrator of the tale, is hired (by the inevitable attractive woman) to find the author of the ‘Vigilante’ novels. He sets off on a quest to find the implausibly named Mike Longshott, and the closer he gets, the more he realises that something strange is going on.
All the genre tropes are here. Whisky, hat, cigarettes and wisecracks, all feature. There are mysterious forces at work trying to prevent Joe from reaching his goal, but he tenaciously sniffs out every lead. He’s the type of PI who takes fists to a gunfight, yet somehow stays alive. So on one level, there’s not a lot new here, but this book has a lot of levels.
Firstly, there are the excerpts from Mike Longshott’s novels that Joe reads as he searches for him. These are semi-fictional accounts of real-life Al Qaeda plots and bombings; they are well rendered and compelling. Then there is the fact that the world Joe lives in is subtly different from our own. I won’t spoil how, but Tidhar feathers in teasing observations, that hint at where we might be, and what is really going on.
The work as a whole reminded me of Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’ and Mieville’s ‘The City and the City’, but I enjoyed ‘Osama’ much more. It’s more readable than either of them. Tidhar never forgets to be entertaining, even whilst deep in his metaphysical constructs. He examines our responses to terrorism, as individuals, and by the institutions that represent us. The whole novel can be viewed as an investigation into the fallout of being involved in a terrorist attack, yet it is full of wit and humour. This type of layered reality novel normally leaves me cold, but whilst I wouldn’t pretend to have understood all of Osama’s nuances, there wasn’t a single point at which I thought this was a novel I didn’t want to read.
The hardback is beautifully packaged with a gloriously tactile cover, featuring terrific and evocative art. The production values between the covers match that on the outside. ‘Osama’ is a novel that defies expectations. A peculiar between-worlds narrative, detailing notorious acts of terrorism investigated by a classic noir gumshoe, it’s a mix that could have been an unholy mess. Instead, it’s a compelling mystery with a handle on the state of the world. Highly recommended.