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TBTS Reviews: The Mirage

February 14, 2012

One of the things I love about Matt Ruff is he never does the same thing twice. He’s given us an epic fantasy taking place largely on the campus of Cornell University, a sendup of Atlas Shrugged, a wild Phildickian thriller and, most improbably, a masterful multiple-personality romance. If Ruff had been born a Boomer, he would have been a counterculture giant, his books passed from hand to grubby hand in acid-tinged hippie circles when they were new and relentlessly pursued by cultish collectors a generation later. But by a stroke of fate he is a Gen-Xer, and though it’s his lot to be writing in this jaded, irony-soaked age, he still manages to come up with something that feels fresh every time.

The Mirage is no different, which means, of course, that it’s completely different. Set in the years after the worst terrorist attack in history, The Mirage examines the way our society has changed since Christian fundamentalists from the grab-bag of Third World countries in North America flew planes into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers on November 9, 2001.

Baghdad, city of the future, doesn’t pull over for anything. Here when the old man steps out of the kitchen for dawn prayer, it’s not just Christians who stay behind working. Here attendance at mosque varies, as if it were the world’s schedule, not God’s, that needed to be accommodated. Here the traffic flows round the clock, pausing only for accidents and gridlock. Little wonder that the sight of it disorients him, producing the flutter in his chest and inner ear that says this is not the place you were made for.

Or so he tells himself. But really, what else could it be?

Yes, Matt Ruff has inverted the world on us. In The Mirage, the United Arab States is the bastion of civilization, Great Britain has been taken over by xenophobic nutjobs, and America has come apart completely. The Library of Alexandria isn’t just part of history, it’s the free public online encyclopedia anyone can edit (and it’s used to great effect to show us more of the world Ruff has imagined. The chapter on Israel is not to be missed. A hint: its border with France begins at the Rhine.) All the familiar players are there, in different roles; for example, Saddam Hussein is a gangster ruling the Baghdad underworld, while Osama bin Laden is an Oliver North-like zealot in the high ranks of the national security apparatus. A secularized society reaches ever higher while a not-insignificant religious base grows dismayed, convinced that the secularists have lost touch with what keeps society moral. He gives us ourselves, through a glass (but not a scanner) darkly. But rather than focus on the big players, he gives us a handful of cops for our heroes, apolitical law enforcement officers who help foil a terrorist plot and end up drawn into something much bigger and darker.

Ruff keeps his sense of humor at hand, but The Mirage never veers into Christopher Moore territory. It would be easy to turn this into cheap gonzo satire, but trust me, it’s far from it. Instead, he turns his premise into something greater, gives us characters worth caring about, real tension and suspense, and a wildly unexpected resolution – trust me, you won’t see it coming, you just won’t. It takes Matt Ruff to come up with something like this. Interestingly, the idea that became The Mirage was first pitched as a TV show, and knowing that, it’s easy to imagine Mustafa and Samir and the rest unraveling the mystery an hour at a time. I could see it becoming a cult favorite, one that attracts a small vocal following and a years-long afterlife on the Internet. Part of me would almost rather have seen it play out that way, but this way, Fox doesn’t cancel it before we fanboys get our payoff.

Sadly, I don’t get to be the first to call this book The Man in the High Castle for our times. Speaking as somebody who has read more Philip K. Dick than perhaps any other writer in any genre, Philip K. wasn’t far from my mind when I was reading The Mirage. But Ruff writes with greater care and far more self-assurance than Dick ever possessed. I said earlier that had Ruff been born a generation earlier, he would have a different place in the literary world; by that, I mean that if he were not placed right next to Dick he’d at least be in the neighborhood, perhaps near an intersection with whatever screwy street Robert Anton Wilson lived on. He might have produced something we’d place right next to The Man in the High Castle, or more likely, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Certainly, when he followed up Fool on the Hill with the freewheeling Sewer, Gas & Electric he seemed to be heading Wilson’s direction. But since Set This House In Order Ruff has found and nurtured a disciplined, enterprising style, and it pays off big in The Mirage. Don’t miss it.

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