It’s been about ten years since Al Qaeda operatives flew jets into three U.S. buildings (and were thwarted before they could hit a fourth). In that time we’ve all suffered the effects, which is to say: a couple of wars, a lot of political punditry, the unfortunate rise of Sean Hannity, and the end of flying for fun thanks to security theater (at least, in the U.S., where I live). I think it’s safe to say that most people wish the bombings had been nothing but a story, a book they could read and then put down again.
In Lavie Tidhar’s new novel Osama, that’s exactly the world the characters inhabit.
Osama is the story of Joe, a private detective residing in Vientaine (in Laos), who is commissioned by a mysterious woman to find a man named Mike Longshott. What makes Longshott special is this: he is the author of a series of pulp novels entitled Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. With a nearly unlimited line of credit, courtesy of his employer, Joe travels to Paris, London, and elsewhere in search of the mysterious author, only to find his way blocked by false leads and government agents who kick the crap out of him.
Despite being a short novel — under 300 pages — it took me a while to finish the book because it just didn’t draw me in. I’m usually a fan of alternate history — both in short and long form, from Pullman to Turtledove and beyond — but my issue with Osama was that, while a Turtledove novel (for example) will pick a single point in history to change, I was never really sure what was different about Osama — or, even, when it took place. If the book shows a world where Bin Laden didn’t commit or mastermind terrorist acts, then I clearly don’t know enough about the history and impact of the man, pre 9/11, to comprehend what might have changed because he didn’t exist. That was a major sticking point for me while reading the novel, and someone better versed in recent history might not have that problem*.
Osama did have a lot of rich scenery — Tidhar is a well-traveled writer who has lived in many locations worldwide, and as such he has a wealth of experience to draw on in creating an Osama-free world. He also changed enough about that world that, if it was supposed to be contemporary to our own, readers are forced to wonder just how much technological advancement was driven by terrorism (or violence in general). The big difference was that no one used computers. And, as for air travel, things were very different in Joe’s world: he is still allowed to smoke on airplanes, non-first-class passengers get meals, and if there is any airport security to speak of, I completely missed it.
I generally read books for enjoyment, not enrichment — although I don’t mind being required to think or project my knowledge to get the full benefit of a book. However, I think that, to enjoy (or even fully appreciate) Osama, readers have to engage far more critical thinking skills than I really felt was necessary. I had to fill in too many expository gaps and I’m not even sure I did that correctly. While well-written, the story, though straightforward, didn’t keep me as interested and engaged as I think it could have done.
You may enjoy this book, especially if you like alternate history or are a student of (or commentator upon) current events. But it wasn’t the book for me.
Special thanks to the author for providing a review copy.
Note to parents: this book contains violence and adult subject matter. Plus, if younger readers don’t have more than just a passing familiarity with terrorist acts beyond 9/11, they may find themselves lost. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
* The first time I was truly exposed to the name Osama Bin Laden was the morning of 9/11 — I was working on a morning radio show and we saw the video of the first tower just after the first plane hit it. The host, a Lebanese-American, took one look and (off-air) said “Osama Bin Laden”.