At the London School of Economics' recent literary festival, Space for Thought, an audience member asked Jon Courtenay Grimwood and his fellow panelists how to make science fiction plausible. Character, they each responded. "There are always characters who unpick the plot" for the author, for the other characters, and for the reader, Grimwood explained: "characters are the guidebook to the world."
And, indeed, character is key for Grimwood's 2001 novel Pashazade. Not just key, but the key - providing access to a world where everything you're familiar with isn't quite.
You probably know Woodrow Wilson best for his brilliant international statesmanship, particularly his able brokerage of the peace between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in the aftermath of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's 1915 assassination. In an uglier world than ours, the byzantine system of international treaties that bound Austria-Hungary with Germany and Serbia with the UK, France and the Russian Empire likely would have led to some sort of multinational war, lasting perhaps four or five months. Thanks, however, to Wilson's negotiating tactics, the world was spared bloody conflict of an unimaginable scale.
Fast forward a century or so. North Africa is the province of a liberal Muslim Ottoman Empire, and blond, bedreadlocked Ashraf Bey, formerly (and still sort of latterly) Seattle ex-con ZeeZee, has a diplomatic passport (thanks to a father he never knew he had) and a credit card with no limit (gift of a mysterious benefactor he's never met). Ashraf - now Raf - also finds himself possessed of a neice, a fiancée, and a murder charge.
Pashazade's narrative kicks back and forth between characters and over time. Grimwood keeps the central point of view from Raf's perspective, for the most part, but weirds our understanding of the character over and over again, peeling back layer after layer of the character over the course of the novel. The reader skips back and forth through Raf's psyche and chronology, uncovering name within name, history within history, and psychosis within psychosis. When the reader first meets Raf, he thinks of himself as ZeeZee. And ZeeZee has a fox. A fox which lives inside ZeeZee's head. A fox ZeeZee talks to, sees with, and thinks through. A fox which may or may not have a physical aspect. A fox which is dying. As the novel progresses, the nature of fox becomes clearer - although never entirely unambiguous. The same is true for Raf himself. Over the course of the novel, as ZeeZee transmutes into Raf, the reader learns about ZeeZee all the while watching the character fade out. The more we come to know about ZeeZee, the more he slips away.
Grimwood performs the same alchemy throughout the novel. When we're first introduced to Hani, Raf's nine year old niece, we learn she has a puppy. Like Raf's fox, though, the puppy both is a puppy and is not a puppy; as with Raf, Grimwood peels back layer after layer over the course of the narrative, defining and redefining the characters and, indeed, the very world of the novel. It's a trick particularly well suited to the written word; we learn first how Hani feels about the puppy, then what the puppy is. And then what else the puppy is. The more we learn, moreover, the more we're forced to reconsider previous scenes and other characters - an ever-mutating text within the novel's larger context. Nothing is unimportant, as when, at the novel's beginning, Hani asks to to rename her puppy. She begs to be allowed to give him a girl's name so that he's no longer a boy, a scene which initially suggests only that Hani's a child with an infirm grasp of gender identity. By the end of Pashazade, however, the reader has been forced to confront this line again and again, each time with a different understanding of what it meant then, what it means now - and what it might mean next.
And that's without getting into the central mystery. All this and it's a noir? The reader's cup doth runneth over.
Pashazade is a densely layered, carefully constructed book, a character-driven noir that operates as a deeply internalized psychological narrative, an explosive thriller, and every level in between. The alternate history is important, of course - indeed, it's crucial - but such that it becomes necessarily secondary to the novel's action: as a plausible setting. And Grimwood sells it; his El Iskandriya is as viable and sentient as Ed McBain's Isola and Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco. What makes Pashazade special, however, is how Grimwood uses his characters to work and rework the way the reader relates to the world in the novel, and the novel itself; his complicated unraveling and reestablishing of character and chronology, over and over again, is both a staggering narrative achievement and a major storytelling success.