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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mirage


I don’t care what you say.  This one will, at least at first, make you feel a bit uncomfortable.  In the tradition of the best alternate history fiction, Matt Ruff uses The Mirage to turn history on its head in a way that makes one think.  American readers, in particular, will be forced to do some soul searching as they make their way through the mad journey that Ruff has prepared for them.

The Mirage, you see, begins on 11/9/2001 just as a group of Christian fundamentalists highjack four Iraqi airliners.  Two of the jets crash into the World Trade Towers in Baghdad, one into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh, and one heads for Mecca but, before it can reach its target there, passengers manage to crash it into the ground.  Soon, the United Arab States (UAS) are waging a payback war on terror and have invaded the East Coast.  Washington D.C. is turned into a Green Zone safe haven for the invaders who are ruthlessly attacked almost every time they venture outside its protected perimeter.  Eight years later, the invaders are still there, hoping to leave a stable government behind before they call the war done.

Ruff softens the shock of this jarring setup by creating several sympathetic Iraqi characters tasked with the mission of stopping further Christian terrorist attacks on Iraq and the rest of the UAS.  Mustafa al Baghdadi and his cohorts spend their days tracking threats and terrorist cells, hoping to stay one step ahead of the fundamentalists who want to bring more mayhem to the country.  So far, with a lot of luck, they have been successful.  But when Mustafa, during one of his arrests, finds an old newspaper that a suspect has hidden away, his world is shaken. 

This is not just any old newspaper.  It is a back issue of The New York Times dated 9/12/2001, and it tells a surreal story that Mustafa cannot comprehend.  Surely, it is a hoax; it has to be.  Then other captured terrorists begin to tell stories similar to what is in the newspaper, and Mustafa starts to doubt the world he lives in.  Is it all a mirage?  If it is, who is responsible and how did they do it?

Matt Ruff
Readers will enjoy the way that Ruff uses the main players from the 9/11 murders in The Mirage.  Most of them are there, but in entirely new roles – some of which are guaranteed to offend as many readers as they will please.  More intriguingly, others who had no actual connection with events following 9/11 participate here in key roles: David Koresh, Lee Atwater, Timothy McVeigh, and Terry Nichols, among them.  Although some will skip them, Ruff uses clever Wikipedia-like entries as chapter-breaks that should not be ignored because they fill in the narrative blanks, making it easier to understand this strange new world.

The ending Ruff chose for The Mirage, however, is weak.  His story, and his readers, deserve better.  Based upon the rest of the story, it is difficult to argue that the ending is too fantastic to be taken seriously (and the argument cannot be attempted without straying into “spoiler” territory).  But it is, and it lessens the impact that I belief Ruff was going for in The Mirage.  That said, do not miss this one because it is still one of the more intriguing novels you will encounter in 2012.

Rated at: 4.0
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