Of all the literary gigs out there, "Prologue Character in Espionage Fiction" has got to be the worst. Strike two if you find yourself in the Windows on the World restaurant, and it is a clear fall morning and the date has just been given portentously. So opens The Mirage, the latest from Northwest author Matt Ruff. What sets this novel apart is that the date is 11/9, the World Trade towers are located on the banks of the Euphrates River, and the men who are about to fly airliners into them are homicidal Christian "crusaders." Yep.
The plot is a bizarro version of your basic airport bookstore thriller. Mysterious items are beginning to crop up among the possessions of Christian terrorists, and it is up to Mustafa al Baghdadi and his team of United Arab States supercops to sort things out. When said objects (and the terrorists who had them) begin to disappear, suspicion points to Senator Osama bin Laden. Is Osama bin Laden up to no good? I am going to tell it to you straight: Osama bin Laden is up to no good. The gangster novelist Saddam Hussein makes an appearance, and that guy is no Eagle Scout either.
America, on the other hand, is the heavily armed fundamentalist Balkans we've always kind of suspected we were. The best action of the story occurs here. The Washington, DC, "Green Zone" is full of palaces, golf courses, and creationist "museums" overrun by boisterous Pan-Arabian marines. Alternate history is a genre predicated on squicky "might-have-beens," and to the book's credit, this world feels as unsettling as you'd imagine it would be.
But after that the problems start. Problem the first: the thriller side of the book is not particularly thrilling. Start-stop bricks of exposition hobble the pace, and while the characters all have interesting backstories, they are often used interchangeably to further the plot. Problem the second ties back into the whole Osama bin Laden thing. Ruff doesn't quite pull the trigger on his conceit. The villains in our world are still villains in The Mirage, and that kills any sense of mystery. When Ruff does flip the moral script on some well-known figures, the results are chilling.