Joe is a private investigator tasked with finding Mike Longshott, author of the novel ‘Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante’ in this eerie book that perfectly nails the sense of dazed disconnect following the terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001. As in ‘The Man in the High Castle’ ‘Osama’ (the book I’m reviewing, not the book within the book) features an elusive author who appears to have narrated an alternative reality that bears uncanny similarities to our own.
Unlike the Philip K Dick novel, in which the Axis powers won the Second World War, this book features more recent atrocities. Odd to think that there are 16-year olds around now who didn’t experience the existential shock of the destruction of the World Trade Centre; for those of us who did, this novel seems incredibly bold, perhaps even bolder than the same author’s ‘A Man Lies Dreaming’, which reimagines Adolf Hitler as another gumshoe PI.
All the more reason for it to happen in my view, although there is always the risk that events in the ‘Osama’ novel are overshadowed by the astonishing reality, particularly when elements of ‘Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante’ narrate parts of the actual terrorist attacks, including Al-Qaeda’s bombing of an African embassy.
‘Osama’ bravely resists building on the thriller elements of these passages, instead following Joe on a strange journey across the world as if he is riding some kind of emotional shockwave from the events themselves. Correspondingly, there are elements don’t appear to make much sense, especially when one sequence moves to another with little transitional movement across space and time.
It’s a good device for showing how fiction and reality seem to trip over each other, much as in they did in September 2001; from the sense that the exploding skyscrapers were something out of a Hollywood special effects extravaganza to Bin Laden’s mythical status to both his followers and pursuers. In another twist, ’Osama’ was published the same year US Navy SEALS killed the Emir, revealing his hermetic existence in Pakistan spent watching old videos of his speeches and dyeing his beard. It was as if the man himself had become subservient to his own legend and ‘Osama’ feels like it inhabits that dissonant hinterland that is the preserve of those who influence purely with ideals.
Both the PI and the vigilante are outsider characters; archetypes the author uses here to refract experience of the events that defined our new millennium in ways none of us could have imagined. We know these images so well because their horror was recorded with such dreadful accuracy. I actually can’t watch the footage any more, even sixteen years later; kudos then to Lavie Tidhar for enabling me to reconsider this scar on our collective memory in such an imaginative, haunting way.