March 29, 2012

BOOKS: The Mirage, Matt Ruff (2012)

Matt Ruff's The Mirage starts off as alternate history, takes a detour into fantastic thriller, and ends by veering into a Middle Eastern version of magic realism.

In Ruff's world, most of what we think of as the Middle East is the United Arab States, while North America comprises a patchwork of fundamentalist Christian theocratic states -- the Christian States of America, the Pentecostal Gilead Heartland, the Kingdom of Mississippi, and so on. The novel begins on November 9, 2001, when Christian terrorists fly two jets into the Tigris & Euphrates Towers in Baghdad.

(The date, of course, is chosen to give Ruff a date of 11/9, a reversal of our 9/11. But don't most countries in that part of the world use the European dating convention -- dd/mm -- as opposed to the American mm/dd? That would make Nov 9 just another 9/11. A minor point, but mildly grating.)

At first, it looks as if Ruff is going to be content with this straightforward reversal, getting easy laughs from the new roles of various familiar players in the region. Saddam Hussein is a Baghdad gangster; Osama bin Laden heads the UAS Senate Intelligence Committee. But fairly quickly, it becomes clear that Ruff is playing a more complicated game. (Sadly, even the teaser on the book flap gives away too much of the plot, in my opinion.)

Some of the characters eventually make their way to America, where figures from our side of history also begin to appear. For some reason, Ruff avoide using the names of American elected officials. Non-politicians and cabinet officers appear under their own names (David Koresh and Donald Rumsfeld, for instance), but both Presidents Bush are unnamed (though their identities are obvious) in their brief appearances, and while Dick Cheney has a more substantial role (he's the head of the CIA of the Republic of Texas), he's referred to only by his nickname: the Quail Hunter.

When we finally find out what's really happening, the identity of the responsible power is a lovely touch, an unexpected nod to the literary heritage of the Middle East. And the brief epilogue, in which the main characters face an unexpected new challenge, is powerfully moving and bittersweet.

I had been a bit nervous about this one; the premise seemed like an easy setup for a cheap, jokey bit of role reversal. But the story Ruff gives us is more than that, and his principal characters are complex and likable people. A pleasant surprise.

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