Matt Ruff – The Mirage
28. The Mirage by Matt Ruff (2012)
Length: 420 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Parallel Universe (so technically Sci-Fi/Fantasy)
Started: 05 March 2012
Finished: 10 March 2012
Where did it come from? From Harper Collins for review.
Why do I have it? I saw the ad in Shelf Awareness and thought “New Matt Ruff book!”
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 31 January 2012.
If I don’t write this
haiku, does that mean that the
terrorists have won?
Summary: It’s been almost eight years since the terrorist attack on the twin towers, and the pain of November 9th is still being felt all over Baghdad and the rest of the United Arab States. Troops have occupied Washington, D. C., but Christian fundamentalists are still attempting to spread fear through ongoing suicide bombings. Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi intercepts one of these would-be bombers, but this one has something to say that is markedly different from the usual terrorist propaganda. He claims that the world they are all living in is just a mirage, and that in the “real” world, America is the superpower. And in his possession is a newspaper – called the “New York Times”, whatever that is – dated September 12, 2001, and showing an image eerily similar to, yet completely different from the attacks on the Towers in Baghdad. Mustafa attempts to investigate, but there are other forces at work, as well; the gangster Saddam Hussein has his own reasons for wanting to know about the mirage, and the government – in particular politician Osama Bin Laden – wants nothing more than to keep the whole story under wraps.
Review: If asked, I would say that I am not a particular fan of fiction that uses September 11th as a main plot point. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a news junkie, nor do I follow politics super-closely. Books like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and American Subversive are well-done and all, but have just never been my cup of tea. So kudos to Matt Ruff for writing a 9/11 book that I not only enjoyed, but that kept me actively engaged.
The most engaging part of the book was also the part I was worst at: namely, trying to divine the real-world situations and people that Ruff had inverted, and how they fit in his parallel world. The big ones I got, of course – I’m not completely ignorant of current events – but there were a number of smaller things where I wasn’t sure whether there was something I didn’t know about, or if it was something that Ruff had made up out of whole cloth. He’s pretty discreet about names, too, often hinting or implying rather than actually stating, which made it hard for me to fact-check via casual Wikipedia-ing. (Speaking of Wikipedia, I thought the chapter breaks, which were presented as articles from mirage-world’s version of Wikipedia, “The Library of Alexandria”, were a clever way to do infodump-style worldbuilding without it bogging down the narrative.) So while I got the little thrill of cleverness whenever I recognized a parallel, I also spent a fair amount of time feeling like there was an additional layer of meaning that was going over my head.
While that element of the book was doing its job keeping my brain engaged, I think the part of the book that I actually enjoyed the most were the times when Ruff stepped away from the worldbuilding and the current events and into the lives of his characters. While his secondary characters weren’t particularly complex (or easy to keep straight, at times), his three main characters all had really compelling personal stories, told with some real empathy. Towards the end of the book, however, the plot steps away from the interpersonal stuff and into the action-movie conspiracy thriller, with explosions and secret plots and whatnot, and while it all fit together well enough, I missed the quieter moments with the characters.
Overall, it’s a great concept for his novel, and Ruff builds his mirage world intricately and well, despite the story itself having a few rough edges. As 9/11 books go, it’s probably the best I’ve read; as Matt Ruff books go, it’s not my favorite. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I think news junkies and current events buffs, and fans of conspiracy thrillers will probably have the best time with it, but for anyone interested in book that’s unusual and a bit of a brain teaser without going totally off the rails, Mirage is worth a shot.
First Line: This is the day the world changes.
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