The best advice I ever got about photography was that you shouldn't ever try to photograph the thing itself: the fireworks, the touchdown, the sunset. Instead, turn around and take your pictures of the way the world looks when it's looking at those fireworks, that sunset. Try to capture the way a crowd responds to something, or the way the colors of that sunset bleed across the horizon. The way to access a moment is to try to capture its effects.
A decade after the events of 9/11, it's almost easy to talk about terrorism: suicide bombers and the war on terror and Homeland Security and full-body airport scans. But the thing itself, the event, hasn't lessened in impact; it's no easier to watch footage of the Twin Towers falling now than it was to see it live on television, more than ten years ago. And so, with Osama, Lavie Tidhar isn't writing about the moments of horror that make up the connect-the-dots of modern terrorism. He's writing about their reflections.
And noir, with its long history of engaging with questions of violence and culpability, seems an obvious way to try to access, and personalize, a story about terrorism. So it makes sense that Osama is a noir. And not just some run-of-the-mill the-author-just-watched-The-Maltese-Falcon rip-off, either, although Tidhar hits all the right beats: the staccato dialogue, the curling smoke, the steaming coffee, the chases through the chiaroscuro of grimy city streets.
Joe's a consummate everyman, an anonymous PI out of place and happy to be there. Set in a world without terrorism, Osama begins as all good hardboiled novels begin: a beautiful woman walks into Joe's office and offers him a job - find Mike Longshott, the apparently pseudonymous author of the wildly popular, critically derided Osama: Vigilante series of pulp novels. All expenses paid, of course. The chase leads Joe from one end of the world to the other; in his wake he trails confusion and violence, while each clue leads him to question not only his employment, but his own life.
But Osama isn't a straight-up hardboiled novel. It's a noir. And the best noir isn't about the mystery, or the atmosphere - although they're both important components of the whole. At base, noir is about character; that is, a character. A single person, in search of something. Noir requires a complex point-of-view character, someone who's both wholly certain of himself and entirely lost. An shadowy person, in a series of shadowy settings, searching not just for answers to some mystery-for-hire, but for himself. Noir protagonists are not standard hard-boiled detective characters, a la Sam Spade; they're intimately involved in whatever event has set the plot rolling - not as detectives, but as victims or perpetrators. Or both.
If Dashiell Hammett's modern twist to the mystery novel was to "dispose of his victims before the story commences," then Tidhar takes it a step further. His victims are fictional twice over, disposed of not only before the story commences but in stories within that story. Tidhar excerpts the terrorist attacks from Mike Longshott's Osama novels to punctuate Joe's search for Longshott. Except, Tidhar's readers recognize their own reality in those excerpts, those powerful, chillingly accurate depictions of the terrorist attacks on places like London and New York. Joe's search for the pseudonymous Longshott becomes a search for the fictional Osama - but the more Joe engages with his quest to find Longshott, the more the barrier between the fictional and the real begins to dissolve.
These excerpts provide a kind of commentary on the scale and apparent meaninglessness of those deaths - the exploitative nature of pulp writing, where death is presented as entertainment, weighed against the scale and apparent meaninglessness of those same deaths, in our reality. There's death in-between the two, as well; Joe's own reality is likewise punctuated with awful violence - a dead kitten, a murdered contact. The scale is different, but the violence is still apparently without meaning. Except, of course, it's not: this is fiction within fiction: the fictional-fictional world of the Osama novels and Joe's own fictional world (and, unfortunately, our own world, in which we recognize the fictional gloss over very real events).
In every case, death comes at the hands of someone who sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. Terrorism in Joe's world is entertainment, though we find it an awful, painful reminder of our own grim reality. But we're reading Osama for entertainment, ourselves, and the deaths that Joe experiences are there to increase our reading pleasure - to give his character depth, to progress the plot, to contribute thematic heft to the narrative. Tidhar confronts his readers, again and again, with their own engagement with violence, forcing us to question what we read, and why we read it. [Anne]
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.