The legendary comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre once based an album on the premise that “everything you know is wrong.” And if that record was the sound of an alternate-universe gauntlet being dropped, novelist Matt Ruff has picked it up in The Mirage and run with it to a very distant and completely unexpected place.

Ruff, author of the critically lauded Set This House in Order, Fool on the Hill and Bad Monkeys has constructed a funhouse-mirror mash-up where H.G. Wells and Graham Greene collide with The Arabian Nights and The Matrix.

Consider this: In Ruff’s world, not only did 9/11 not happen, but on 11/9 of the same year, Christian fundamentalists—whom some would call terrorists—flew planes into Baghdad’s iconic Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers. Saddam Hussein is a gangster. Osama bin Laden is both a murderer and the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Israeli homeland is in the northern half of Germany, and America is a disjointed jumble of fiefdoms with no cohesion and little global influence, save perhaps for the Evangelical Republic of Texas, which is a member of OPEC. You’ll recognize many of the names and places in The Mirage, but with Ruff’s bizarro-world spin on them, you’ll want a notepad handy to keep track of friend and foe. Fortunately, the book includes a convenient set of sidebars graciously provided by The Library of Alexandria (a user-edited reference source not unlike Wikipedia) to give the reader a hand when the ground seems unsteady, which is often.

As the post-11/9 war in America is winding down, the novel’s three main characters—Amal, Samir and Mustafa, working on behalf of Homeland Security—must track down the source of some “artifacts” that threaten to tear aside the veil concealing a world very different from the one they inhabit. From Baghdad to Riyadh to the “Green Zone” in Washington, D.C., their progress is being monitored not only by their superiors, but by forces that have a markedly different agenda.

It’s no easy task to recreate the universe in its own, if slightly distorted, image, yet Ruff has succeeded handily, dizzying and dazzling the reader with a fantastic—and fantastical—story. But in some ways, the most remarkable element of The Mirage is that its Muslim protagonists aren’t remarkable. Neither saints nor demons, heroes nor villains, they’re just everyday cops trying to do a difficult and often thankless job in a world that seemingly loves to pitch obstacles in their path.

Thane Tierney lives in Los Angeles, and has visited both Alexandria, Egypt, and Alexandria, Virginia.

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