Joe sits in the office of his detective agency in Vientiane, drinking and smoking, watching the rain come down, and reading trashy fiction:
The book was a worn paperback with a garish, colourful cover. It showed a multi-story building in the final stages of collapse, a dusty African street, and people running away from the blast. The book was called Assignment: Africa and, in an only slightly smaller subtitle, announced it as the third title in the series Osama Bin-Laden: Vigilante. The unlikely name of the author was Mike Longshott.
A woman comes into in Joe’s office with a job for him:
At last, she said, ‘I want you find him,’ and her fingers caressed the book; he couldn’t put a name to the look she had in her eyes then; he thought she looked lost, and sad, and a little vulnerable.
‘Mike Longshott,’ she said.
What follows is a pastiche of the hard-boiled detective genre, in which Lavie Tidhar uses repetition and exaggeration of tropes to underline their absurdity. There’s not just one shadowy group of people ineptly trying to warn Joe off the case, but two. Joe gets beaten up and shot at, and beaten up again, and kidnapped, and tortured, and shot in the arm, but he ties a tourniquet around the flesh wound and it is not mentioned again. He spends pages musing about his existential predicament and the uselessness of what he’s doing, but that doesn’t make any difference to what he does. Quiet moments in the plot are opportunities for more drinking and smoking:
Mo had a bitter. Joe had a French lager. They both had a shot of whisky just to help the beer go down. … They finished the first round and ordered another. Neither, it seemed could find a reason not to. … The girl outside the Pink Pussycat finished her cigarette, dropping the stub to the ground. … Joe lit a fresh cigarette. Mo lit a new cigar. … Mo’s skin had the colour of tobacco leaves, his thin eyes the colour of smoke.
It seems that we are in some kind of alternate history, in which the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere still exists, where smoking in pubs is still allowed, and in which Islamic terrorism is a popular genre of pulp fiction. But what does it all mean?
Well, one thing that an alternate history can do is to present a contrasting juxtaposition with our own history, to make us feel the force of contingency, the sense that the world doesn't have to be the way it is. Here’s how the point of difference is described (from the point of view of the Osama Bin-Laden: Vigilante series):
What if the Cairo Conference of 1921 went ahead as planned, with Churchill and T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell dividing up the Middle East for the British? What if they chose a Hashemite king to rule Iraq, and would that have led to a revolution in the nineteen fifties?
However, Tidhar develops the alternate world in such a threadbare fashion that not much can be made of this. Things are clearly somewhat backward technologically compared to our world, there are still opium dens in London, and Soho remains as seedy and disreputable as it was before the gentrification of the 1990s, but beyond that it’s hard to say that things are better or worse.
What’s clearer than the juxtaposition of histories is the juxtaposition of literary tastes. In our world we enjoy the fantasy violence of hard-boiled detective fiction but terrorist bombings are real; in Joe's world hard-boiled detectives are real but people enjoy fantasies of terrorism. But it seems to me that this equivalence (if it is the argument of the book) doesn't bite, because of the choice of genre. The hardboiled genre was played out fifty years ago: if we still have an affection for it, it's not because it still reflects our fantasies of violence and masculinity. No-one’s likely to be much offended by the comparison.
The one point where I felt that the novel was expressing a criticism that had a chance of hitting a target was when Joe visited the First Annual OsamaCon in New York:
‘The Mike Longshott Appreciation Society,’ Gill said, pronouncing the capitals, ‘has over thirty members.’
‘We just love the Vigilante books, don’t we, Gill,’ Vivian said. It wasn’t really a question. Gill nodded. Joe half-expected paratroopers to fall from the quivering brambles of his beard. ‘Love them,’ Gill said.
But this is weak stuff compared to Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. Spinrad’s 1972 novel was a vitriolic attack on popular taste in science fiction, in the guise of an alternate history in which Adolf Hitler had emigrated to the United States and become a science fiction writer. Spinrad makes the case that Hitler’s fantastic theories of racial conflict, heroism and will to power, closely resemble the tropes underlying much of pulp science fiction, and he beats this resemblance into head of all but the dumbest of readers by presenting the complete text of Hitler’s 1953 science fantasy novel Lord of the Swastika.
There’s nothing like this in Osama. Tidhar presents us with passages describing al-Qaeda operations in Nairobi, Algiers, London, Sharm el-Sheikh and New York, but these can’t be extracts from the Vigilante novels: they are well-written, matter-of-fact, and neither melodramatic nor emotionally manipulative. These passages never appeared in popular pulp fiction. So we are left in a position of plausible deniability: because there’s no real presentation of the Vigilante novels, we aren’t forced to admit (as we are in the case of The Iron Dream), that the fiction we love panders to us with the same fantasies of violence and revenge that we condemn in real life.
So I was disappointed that Tidhar hadn’t been more daring. But maybe that’s too much too ask of any author in the current political climate. It was safe for Spinrad to show us the text of Hitler’s novel in 1972, but probably not safe for Tidhar to show us what the Osama Bin-Laden: Vigilante books are really like.