the Little Red Reviewer

Osama, by Lavie Tidhar

Posted on: February 19, 2012

Osama, by Lavie Tidhar

Published in 2011

where I got it: received review copy from the author

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Sacred cows taste the best, and I wish more writers had a thing for sacred cows the way Lavie Tidhar does.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make Tidhar’s recent novel, Osama.  Was it a mystery? Parallel world noir? A dream like mirror?  Lavie Tidhar writes like he’s never heard of genre labels, and that is a good thing. Ever see the movie Dark City?  In texture, Osama reminded me a little it of that, but only a little.

Private detective Joe is on a new case. He’s been hired to find the reclusive author Mike Longshott, who just happens to be the author of Joe’s favorite pulp series, the Osama Bin Laden Vigilante series. Throughout Osama we get snippets of the Longshott books – mediocre pulpy writing with too much detail about people and places and weapons and times and carbombs, all those details that so many of us have desperately tried to live in denial of.

Joe’s world is not our world. In Joe’s world, terrorism does not exist. Carbombs, cell phones, unmanned drones, none of these things exist. Longshott’s books are seen as sensational garbage pulp, sold alongside cheap sexploitation novels.  From Southeast Asia to Western Europe, from market stalls to dusty bookstores  who specialize in “that kind of thing”, Joe gets closer to the truth.  Between seedy hotels and filthy taverns, Tidhar subtly hints that although this isn’t our world, something, or some one, is leaking through.

As the story progresses, Joe begins to question what he’s doing. Who was the mysterious woman who hired him and why does she seem more and more familiar?  Why do the Osama Bin Laden Vigilante books read more like newspaper articles and less like pulp novels? Why does Joe recognize the same smell, everywhere he goes?  Who are these refugees who seem to keep finding him and asking for his help?

But the truth is hunting Joe  as well.  Joe is being followed, and is (spoiler) eventually caught. And you know what? that’s when the story really started to take off for me.  After a hundred pages of coffee, cigarettes, shadows, alcohol and metaphysical questions, it only got very interesting for me after he get caught by the “bad guys”. I’ll leave that in quotations for now, as they are trapped in this world that isn’t ours as well.

I’m not sure if I liked Osama. The beginning moved a little too slowly for me, and I’m finding that traditional noir may not be my thing.  As always while reading Tidhar,  I appreciated the excellent prose, all those hauntingly atmospheric metaphors that seem to shine too brightly on such a dark story.   Whether or not Osama is your type or story or not, there is no escaping what I believe was Tidhar’s intent: that each reader have a personal and private reaction to the people and events that are referred to. And dear reader, you will.

I think my reaction wasn’t exactly what Tidhar was hoping for. Mine was one that focused on smell. Throughout Joe’s travels, he’s rarely more than a page away from an Opium den. There are constant references to the smell of opium, how it infiltrates everything, how Joe recognizes the scent on people he meets.  I very recently had an experience with a book that had absorbed a smell – the smell of farming – of grass and hay and horses.  If I closed my eyes and smelled the binding of the clothbound book, I was in a farm, I was seeing green and brown and tree filtered sunlight behind my eyelids. The paper and cloth had absorbed the memories of the book, its when and where.  Without voicing what I smelled, I asked the owner where the book had come from, and he said his grandparents house. They had lived on a farm for 40 years.

When someone is teetering between this world and the next, smell is the last sense they abandon.  Perhaps there is more to it when Joe recognizes the smell of opium.

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7 Responses to "Osama, by Lavie Tidhar"

I was reading about this just last night. I note your reservations but I find the concept of the novel fascinating nonetheless.

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I completely agree, the concept is incredibly fascinating. I was reading another article about Osama, and it predicted that this will be just the first of a sub-genre of Osama Bin Laden alt-world fiction that’s sure to start popping up.

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Sounds like an interesting book, even with your being not sure whether or not you liked it. I often find that those books that I am ambivalent about stick with me more than a book I simply like, or dislike, as the case may be.

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and that’s exactly what happened to me. I KNOW this is a book that I am going to remember for a long time. It wasn’t so much the concept that I was ambivalent towards, Tidhar’s writing style in this one just didn’t work for me. Everything else I’ve written by him I’ve really enjoyed.

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Oh great, another author for me to get interested in. Thanks a lot! ;-)

Actually I was already there. I got his genre-bending short-story collection “Hebrew Punk” some time back after seeing the Bookman series at the store. I guess I’ll move it up my reading list now. Based on what Laura Gilman writes in her intro, maybe the book should have been called “Hebrew Pulp”.

Tidhar sound likes an author who’s getting more refined and sophisticated as he goes (as any good author should). It’s cool to get in relatively early on and watch that happen. Of course since me lovee anything pulp, even if it’s turned on its ear, I’m sure I’ll find much to like.

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I aim to please! and to make your reading list explode!

I’ve been interested in Hebrew Punk, but haven’t gotten a copy yet. I also read Tidhar’s Tel Aviv Dossier, and it was wonderful.

Something that’s so great about Tidhar is that everything he does is completely different from everything else. I just ordered an anthology that’s got something from him as well.

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Did not like HP very much. I’d say save your money. I will send it to you, if you’re still keen on reading it though. Wish I’d sat right down and wrote this right after I read it, so maybe I could give you more details. Suffice to say not very exciting and not up to my triple P standards (purple pulp prose). Best, Scott

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