Osama by Lavie Tidhar
I want to start off thinking about Osama by Lavie Tidhar (Solaris Books, 2012) with what may seem like a totally irrelevant connection I made about thirty something pages into the book. We’re talking about Osama and the publisher of a book about him in this work of fiction is Medusa Press so, of course, I’m immediately reminded of The Medusa Touch by Peter Van Greenaway because of the cover to the first hardback edition. It’s not the Empire State Building but, as you can see below, the image on the dust jacket is strikingly appropriate. This has to be deliberate. If not, then it’s a spooky coincidence. The question I’m left asking myself is whether I want to know the answer to this question. Here I am living a relatively comfortable life. Do I want to disturb it by inquiring into the way this author works his magic? It doesn’t benefit me to know whether this is an example of the author’s arcane knowledge of modern firsts. Perhaps it’s better to live in ignorance. That way, I can say admiringly of the author, “Wow, fancy a young man knowing about that old book!” and have no-one disabuse me of the right to praise him. Did I mention the other day, as I was out walking, there were shots nearby. I ducked down. Not the most rational thing to do. After all, who would want to shoot me? I think it was men sent by the local council to shoot the crows. They didn’t seem to be looking at me. So I went on my way, unhurt. Although I did later think it was strange these men should be wearing polished boots like those worn by policemen. Yes, I know this is the stuff of paranoia and it’s completely irrational I should fear the possibility of death just because I thought of contacting the author. . .
Several reviewers have compared this book to the work of P K Dick so we need to deal with this early on. Essentially Dick was an ideas man and, since he was out of his tree because of drug use for much of the time, many of those ideas betray symptoms of mental illness. This includes thematic paranoia about the authoritarian surveillance state and the direction in which global capitalism was headed. In the midst of all this he questioned what it means to be human and what we should understand as reality. This was wrapped up in the politics of simulation, deceit, and self-deception. In 1960s terms, we should describe this as “heavy” but, because it was usually buried in a science fiction context, many people overlooked the philosophical implications of what he was writing about. He was a cult science fiction writer, not a cult philosophy writer. However, for all the fascinating subtexts in many of this novels and short stories, there’s one truth. He was not a very good writer of prose. It’s serviceable at best. Whereas Lavie Tidhar’s prose is in a completely different league, being elegant in the primary narrative and functionally factual in the quoted extracts from the books — yes, it’s another work of intertextuality in which the primary protagonist sets off the track down the author of books which are extensively quoted in the main text.
So where are we with this text? As a metaphor, let’s think of a mouse living in someone’s clothing. To the mouse, this is a pocket universe, kept warm and comfortable with food supplied at regular intervals. Mice are notoriously unimaginative and so rarely wonder where they are, what the heat source is, nor how the food is so conveniently delivered. So what would happen one day if the mouse decided to look out of the pocket? Such a change of view might force the mouse to reappraise its position in the world. Not that mice have beaks, but it would establish a new pecking order for it. Or perhaps the perspective might change if the clothing somehow because infected by opium. Although it’s not hallucinatory, the absence of stimulation provokes a change in mental state, helping our mouse to see things differently.
This is a gently melancholic book which has a private detective reluctantly leave his “safe” environment and venture out into the world on a commission to find the author of some books about Osama. As in all good PI novels, he follows the trail, asks questions, drinks too much, smokes endlessly, and gets beaten for his trouble. What he finds is disturbing. He begins to wonder whether something is nibbling at the reality of the world. Are all the people he sees really there, or are they, well, just a little fuzzy round the edges? In the end, it’s no longer clear who he is but, by then, in a sense, it no longer matters. No matter who he is, he’s not going to change. Indeed, the more fantastic his experiences, the less impressed he becomes. This could be because he has deep roots or, lacking any roots, he retreats into a kind of stubborn refusal to admit any alternatives to his version of reality. If we must think in P K Dickian terms, does it occur to Rick Deckard he’s anything other than human? He would be in full denial mode if even a hint of it arose. So, in Osama, Joe is so comfortable as a private detective living in his quiet unassuming backwater, he would always deny he was anyone else. This is beautifully written and a most thoughtful and engaging story that flirts with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy to think about what it means to be human and to resist the attempts of anyone else to make you into something you’re not. For the record this won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.