Do you remember where you were when the towers fell? Mustafa al Baghdadi does. He was busting whiskey smugglers on the Tigris River when he saw the planes, hijacked by Christian fundamentalist insurgents, crash into the Tigris and Euphrates Twin Towers, ultimately bringing them down. That act, on November 9, 2001, sent the United Arab States into a full-blown “War on Terror,” driven by President Osama bin Laden, against the struggling theocracy in America. The UAS military forces maintain a presence there for many years, suffering losses from the forces there, led by such terror masterminds as Donald Rumsfeld, “The Quail Hunter” (a man who gets rid of his opponents by inviting them out on quail hunts and then “accidentally” shoots them), and a reference to a man who sounds a lot like George W. Bush. Add in some wild conspiracy theories behind how the UAS government was behind the attacks, and you start to find a lot of familiarity in a novel that upturns the entire history of 9/11 into the alternate history of 11/9.
Matt Ruff has created a compelling read that could have been just a thought experiment into jingoism, racism, patriotism, and the role of government following 9/11, but he also adds a fantastic plot to go along with this story to further cement it into our own history. The plot itself feels like a maguffin, since the point seems to be more about making the reader think, but the plot raises enough questions along the way to keep the reader moving forward through the story, and keeps it from being just a satire. It’s controversial, to say the least (it’s certainly disconcerting to read the words “President Osama bin Laden”), but it all feels deliberate, as if the point of this story is to make us a little uncomfortable by considering the viewpoint of the War on Terror from the other side.
That point makes it a little difficult to rate the novel on its story. It’s a little strange, and requires a significant suspension of disbelief in regards to the plot as the conspiracy begins to unravel, and ultimately I just found it to be hokey and disappointing. It also relies heavily on creating characters out of real people, which grew a little tiresome. They became charicatures of sorts, and as Ruff peppered the novel with more and more of them, swapping their moral and political sides from history to the novel, it turned into a guessing game where you wondered who was going to be the next bad guy or good guy. Thematically, it works, as it drives home the point of which is which in the War on Terror and how much of it depends on one’s perspective; story-wise, it was a bit of a failure for me.
The thing is, I liked the book. I can rely on Matt Ruff to write a compelling, interesting story with some wild suppositions, and that was certainly the case with The Mirage. It’s not as good as Sewer, Gas, Electric (though, admittedly, I should stop comparing his works against that novel, as it’s one of my favorites), but it raises some interesting questions and will keep you thinking long after you finish the book. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone (conservatives would find a lot to argue against here, I think), but if you’re curious about it, I think it’s worth reading.