Pornography? And yet it seemed to fit. Sex and violence, he thought. hand in hand through the smoke The image startled him, seeming to awaken something inside. The smoke smelled sweet and the silence was complete – he shook his head, searched for his cigarette, realised he had left it in the dirty-glass ashtray on the second shelf and that it had burned away. He shook the pack out of his pocket, liberated a cigarette and lit it. 'Know anything else?' he said.
Alfred looked at him and the old eyes were suddenly hooded. 'No,' he said. 'If it's Mike Longshott you're looking for – if it's Osama Bin Laden you're after, for that matter – then I suspect you would not find the answer here. But Joe –'
The old man stood up. There was ash in his beard. He scratched a vein in the craggy, limestone visage of his face and lumbered towards Joe. Suddenly the space in the bookshop felt that much closer. 'Are you sure you want to find out?' (p. 30)
Lavie Tidhar's short novel, Osama, is perhaps the most ambitious of the five World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel; it is also one of the shortest, at barely over 270 pages. Yet within those pages, Tidhar attempts to tell a fiction that melds elements of noir police procedurals and alt-history conceits that play with the identity of perhaps the most infamous man of the early 21st century, Osama bin Laden. Too easily such a mixture of narrative modes (not to mention the titular character) could implode, leaving a work that is hollow and devoid of any real narrative or thematic substance. For the most part, Osama manages to avoid these potential pitfalls.
Osama's narrative possesses many characteristics of a noir mystery. There is the prerequisite tough, no-nonsense detective, Joe, who is based in Laos, when he decides to take up the mystery of "Mike Longshott," the pseudonymous author of the popular Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante novels. Over the course of dozens of short chapters (rarely extending more than two or three pages), Tidhar shows Joe traveling across Asia to Paris, London, and New York in search for the elusive writer. Along the way, certain odd descriptions, many of which contained within the excerpts from the Vigilante pulp fictions, begin to creep into the narrative. By roughly the halfway point, if the premise has not given it away at the beginning, it has become apparent that there is some sort of parallel world interaction (perhaps "intersecting worlds" would be a more mathematically correct phrase?) occurring and that events from "our" world are beginning to bleed over into Joe's world, which is not as technologically advanced yet which also does not suffer from the spate of violence and terrorism that has plagued our world for the past two generations.
"Cool" premises and well-conceived milieus can only carry a story so far. There has to be some else about the story, perhaps its prose, characters, and/or themes, that would enable it to stand out and be more than a competently-executed work. For much of the first half of Osama, this was not readily apparent. Although the short, staccato sentence bursts pushed the exploration forwards and onwards, it just felt rote, as if Tidhar were concentrating too heavily on getting a particular narrative tone down and not enough on developing the milieu in which the action transpires. However, the second half of the novel improves somewhat, as the parallel/intersecting worlds element becomes more apparent and the implications of actions undertaken by Joe and others becomes clearer.
Yet despite these improvements, Osama felt like an outstanding novel-in-progress that ultimately failed to achieve all of its ambitions. For all of Tidhar's dedication to getting the narrative tone down, the story rang a bit hollow in places, as the setting felt at times a bit too sketchy and underdeveloped. The premise, however, was very strong, and the problematic issue of identities was handled very well. Osama, like the other World Fantasy Award finalists, did not completely succeed in fulfilling its narrative and thematic ambitions. However, considering that this tale dared to do more with its structure and with its narrative, it is the strongest of the five finalists for this year's award.