Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Most Fascinating Novel I've Ever Read

In mid-February, I attended a lecture / booksigning at Powell's City of Books for an intriguing novel. The novel is The Mirage by Matt Ruff. The basic premise is an alternate history of the events leading up to 9/11 and the aftermath. What this means is that the countries of North Africa and the Middle East are part of the superpower known as the United Arab States, which defeated the Axis Powers in World War II and created the state of Israel in Germany as part of reparations for the Holocaust. The United States of America doesn't exist, but is made up of different countries, including a Christian States of America, the Republic of Texas, and a few kingdoms and theocratic states in the South, Midwest, and Rocky Mountain regions.

In this world, Baghdad is New York City; Riyadh is Washington, D.C.; the United Kingdom is Iran; the Republic of Texas is Saudi Arabia; Louisiana is Kuwait; the Rocky Mountains region is Afghanistan; Germany is Israel. The timeline of events starts with a bang as Christian crusader terrorists hijack four airplanes and crash two of them into twin towers in Baghdad, one into the defense ministry building in Riyadh, while the fourth one is brought down by passengers somewhere in the Arabian desert.

Also interesting about this alternative universe, Osama bin Laden is a Senator, Saddam Hussein is a gangster, and Gadhafi is a long-term governor who claims to have "invented the Internet" and dreams of making Libya into an eco-topia example for the rest of the country. The state of Lebanon has a former action film star as Governor. The most popular band is Green Desert, who had a hit album with Arabian Idiot. The 1990-1991 Gulf War refers to Gulf of Mexico, when coalition troops had to intervene on the Republic of Texas' behalf when the Christian States of America invaded Louisiana and annexed it, threatening to invade Texas next. The president of the Christian States of America is Lyndon B. Johnson, who assumed power when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. As a reader can tell from reading the novel, the Christian States of America is meant to be the equivalent of Iraq with Johnson the equivalent of Saddam Hussein.

The terrorist attacks happen on 11/9/2001 (November 9th) and resulted in the UAS to invade the Christian States of America two years after launching a war against the Rocky Mountain states. Part of Washington, D.C. is within "the Green Zone" (which includes the U.S. Capitol building, the National Mall, the White House, and the Watergate complex). Johnson is captured and executed on the same day that Saddam Hussein was in actuality in our world.

I spent two weeks reading this intriguing novel, taken in by the characters. It is one of the best novels I've ever read. Seriously! I'm just amazed with the well-thought out creativity, not to mention the nice touches to present this alternative history as authentically as possible. In between each chapter is a segment from "The Library of Alexandria" (which stands in for Wikipedia) that gives the reader some background information on relevant topics to the storyline. Besides using Green Desert as a pop culture reference (in place of Green Day), there is also eBazaar (instead of eBay). The novel features a couple of agents who are investigating Christian crusader terrorists cells to prevent another 11/9 (as the event is known) when they learn about the alternate history where the United States of America is the superpower and that it was attacked by radical Islamic terrorists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This leads to an investigation which takes the investigators into the palaces of Saddam Hussein, the slums of Sadr City, the Green Zone of Washington, D.C., the dangerous red zone areas of northern Virginia, and back to Baghdad again. There are a few surprise appearances of well known Americans that will be apparent to readers, as the mystery of "the mirage" is investigated.

If the novel has any flaw, I did not like the way it resolved itself. After investing so much in reading it, savoring every word and thinking about the equivalents between this alternative universe and the one in which we live, I had high hopes that the novelist would land a perfect ending. Unfortunately, though, it was rather ambiguous. I can understand it, somewhat, but it still came off as a slight disappointment in an otherwise great read. The novel still gets high marks from me, though, because of its creative genius in the way it inspires the reader to think about events and people, as well as the story being moved along by three interesting characters with their own messy histories, one of whom has a shameful secret that enemies use to blackmail him into committing an act of betrayal.

During the Q & A segment of the lecture, one lady in the back of the room said in a loud voice, "How dare you!" to the writer. She was so incensed that he would even write such a story, as she felt that it betrays the memory of all those who died on 9/11. However, he defended himself well and engaged her in a meaningful dialogue. She admitted that she had not read the book and planned to, but her initial reaction in reading the description of the novel was one of disgust and said that it made her even more mad that no one else at that lecture seemed to have a problem with the novel's premise. Well, I was one of those who attended this lecture because I thought the novel had an intriguing premise. I went through my whole 9/11 deconstruction process quite a few years ago that the event no longer has any emotional pull on me like it used to. A part of this could be because I believe Dick Cheney is the true mastermind behind this event, but I won't get into that.

Someone else asked the author if his book tour has gone to "Dumbfuckistan" yet, which he stated was the red states of America. I was stunned that he used that term, which he admitted that he got from the political cartoon that appeared after the 2004 elections where the blue states (that went for John Kerry) was called "The United States of America" and the red states that voted for Bush was referred to as "Dumbfuckistan." Even I, though, consider this term to be too crude, rude, and unnecessarily divisive. It got laughs, though. To me, the guy's comments signified the liberal snobbery of Portland that appears occasionally. As one of few Americans who has been to all 50 states, I can say that there is much that is worth seeing in the middle part of our country and I get very annoyed when people refer to it as "fly over country" or worse just because they don't like the values or the voting patterns of the majority who live in this part of the country.

As it turned out, though, the girl who asked the "How dare you?" question told a few people while waiting in line for the author's autograph that she was actually a visitor from "Dumbfuckistan" (Oklahoma, to be exact). Great! A Portland native just gave something for this poor Oklahoma visitor to share with family and friends back home about the kind of snobbery that liberals in Portland have regarding those who live in the "red states." I wanted to apologize to her on behalf of that guy, but I didn't see her after she got her book signed (she was several people ahead of me in the line).

When it was my turn to meet the author, I thanked him for writing such a thought-provoking book and that I looked forward to reading it. I also shared with him my frustrations with evangelical Christians in their inability to see how similar they are to radicals in other religions. I told him about the Thanksgiving in 2004 I had spent with conservative Christians who are friends of my family. I had mentioned the torture scenes in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ and connected it to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal that was big news that year. The response I got was, "At least we didn't cut off their heads!" (this was in reference to radical Islamic terrorists who beheaded some American prisoners on camera). The author shook his head, alarmed perhaps by people's inability to see the similarities in the extremist views.

I had never heard of this author before this novel. He lives in Seattle and has a few published books. I hope this novel will bring him greater recognition. If you want to read a truly original and well thought-out and thought-provoking novel, then please read The Mirage. It is well worth your time and will have you thinking beyond our own reality. There is a line in the novel that truly resonated with me. It went something like this: "Who we are at our core wouldn't change no matter what the outer circumstances are." What this means is that even in this alternate world where the UAS is the superpower and not the USA, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are evil, as is Dick Cheney. I thought similarly since childhood, usually along these lines: even if I was born in Iran in 1971, I still think I would be as skeptical about religious dogma and jingoistic nationalism that I'd be the same person: spiritual rather than religious, universal rather than nationalistic.

So, read with an open mind and prepare to think about religion, politics, and world events in an entirely different way. This novel is definitely one of the best novels I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Hopefully the "How dare you?" girl read it with an open mind and understood the point the author was trying to make with this novel.

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