It isn’t hard to believe The Mirage, the newest novel from Bad Monkeys author Matt Ruff, started out as a TV-series pitch. At its best moments, the story could be a mix of Homeland and State Of Play, set in the Middle East with science-fiction elements stirred in. As with Lost or Alcatraz, though, readers are supposed to go along for the ride, not asking too many questions about the foundation. Any pulled thread might unravel the expertly balanced setup. While it’s easy to appreciate The Mirage as furious entertainment, it lacks the substantive kick of speculative fiction that dares to offer a clear message.
In Ruff’s alternate world, the United Arab States is the dominant world power. On November 9, 2001, Christian fundamentalists hijack planes and destroy the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. The Arab States invade the fractured, evangelical kingdoms of North America, establishing a Green Zone in Washington D.C. and deposing dictator Lyndon B. Johnson. Eight years later, in the capital city of Riyadh, Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi interrogates a captured suicide bomber, who claims the world around them is a mirage. In reality, he says, America is the true superpower, and an inexplicable copy of The New York Times from September 12, 2001, found in his apartment, supports his assertion. Mustafa, his longtime friend Samir, and Amal, the daughter of a famous politician, make up the team leading the investigation.
It’s a gripping inversion from the start, echoing Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, but more comparisons will be made to Philip K. Dick’s World War II re-imagining The Man In The High Castle. Ruff is an economical, entertaining writer, but he can’t match Chabon’s mastery, and The Mirage lacks the strangely fascinating spiritual guiding principle of the I Ching from Castle. Most of the thrills come from the alternate identities of historical figures. Osama bin Laden is the rumored leader of secret police force al-Qaeda, and a senator for the Party Of God, an inversion of “GOP.” Saddam Hussein is an underworld boss in the Al Capone mold, infamously avoiding conviction again and again. Waco cult leader David Koresh is a mad-scientist dream-researcher, aided by Christian Intelligence Agency officials Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
The list goes on, and there are enough interesting twists to the inverted-world discoveries to keep them surprising and clever through to the final pages. Ruff augments chapters of the main story with selected entries from The Library Of Alexandria, the Arab equivalent of Wikipedia, which provides necessary exposition in a contrived but efficient manner. Similar to Drew Magary’s Internet-link interludes in The Postmortal, the entries provide context without bringing the feverish pace to a halt.
But the best moments in The Mirage don’t stem from the high-concept premise—they come from smaller character moments that reveal the three main investigators’ backstory. Mustafa’s musings on the death of his wife, his marital difficulties, and his own moral failings makes his quest for the truth compelling and righteous. He’s grizzled and endearing, a Mandy Patinkin-from-Homeland type. Samir’s struggles with his own identity within a recognizable world of modern prejudices and restrictions create sympathy. Amal’s secret family history lends a much-needed emotional connection to the trio’s journey into the Green Zone in America. Ruff does well not to dwell on the events that caused the massive global social unrest, instead burrowing into how that trauma has led to compromised values, increased paranoia, and dread.
The last third of the book plays out like one long rail-shooter mission excised from Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, with Mustafa, Samir, and Amal shuffling around the world to track down information that feels new, but somehow expected. In shifting from a metaphysical investigation to an action war finale, The Mirage loses its touch.
As The L.A. Times points out in its review of The Mirage, Philip K. Dick’s misleadingly titled essay “How To Build A World That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” confronts the difficulties of effective world-building head-on, and presents the idea that a world coming apart at the seams was more interesting than a precisely ordered one: “I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novel cope with this problem.” Ruff never hits the panic button or lets his characters grapple with the gravity of the mystical explanation behind the mirage; they’re stuck on the plot’s roller-coaster tracks to the finish. Without the inner monologue or emotional revelation of the novel’s first half, Mustafa, Samir, and Amal never fully react to the supernatural elements around them. They hew closer to stock detectives, when they could be existential, questioning the world around them to greater effect. Dick’s stories sometimes skewed so dark that they lost some of their pure pulp entertainment, but at least they had a distinct perspective. The Mirage, like the great sandstorms that appear in the Arabian States late in the novel, pulls apart into nothing more than little grains of sand.