Book review: 'The Mirage' by Matt Ruff

The Mirage

A Novel

Matt Ruff

Harper: 414 pp., $25.99

In his essay "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later" — published posthumously in 1985 — Philip K. Dick lays out the challenges of the novelist who invents a world. "It is my job to create universesas the basis of one novel after another," he writes. "And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes that do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe — and I am dead serious when I say this — do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or a universe."

Dick knew what he was talking about; his 1962 novel "The Man in the High Castle" remains among the finest alternative reality fictions, positing a universe in which the Axis powers won World War II. As to why it works, let's call it balance: that, for all its believability — a divided America, German on the East Coast, Japanese on the West, with a demilitarized Rocky Mountain zone as a buffer — Dick never loses sight of the relationship between the reality he's constructed and the actual world.

This becomes explicit late in the novel, when a character named Mr. Tagomi slips inexplicably, terrifyingly, from his surroundings into ours. The journey lasts only a couple of minutes, but it destabilizes him, and the narrative, which reminds us that even the most carefully rendered universe is little more than a projection, a consensual hallucination that might show its seams at any time. Then reality snaps back into place, and Mr. Tagomi goes on about his business. "He rose to his feet," Dick writes, "gripping the handle of his briefcase. Duty calls. Customary day once again."

I found myself thinking about Dick and "The Man in the High Castle" as I read Matt Ruff's "The Mirage," which offers an alternative universe of its own. Here, it's not World War II that's turned on its head but the War on Terror, with a fundamentalist America — a collection of rogue states and small theocracies — as the antagonists against a secular Islamic democracy called the United Arab States.

In such a world, 9/11 never happened; rather, it is 11/9, the mirror image, in which Christian terrorists "hijacked four commercial passenger jetliners … crash[ing] two of them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry headquarters in the federal district of Riyadh. The fourth plane, which is believed to have been bound for either the Presidential Palace in Riyadh or, possibly, Mecca … crashed in Arabia's Empty Quarter after its passengers attempted to retake control from the hijackers." After these attacks, the UAS captures Denver, then launches a wider military campaign on the East Coast, establishing a "Green Zone" in the hostile environs of Washington, D.C.

This is a terrific setup, using fiction to take events and tweak them, albeit recognizably. Yet for all the enthusiasm Ruff brings to his efforts, the illusion never feels completely real. Why? A couple of reasons, I think, beginning with the proximity of the narrative to recent experience.

For me, the most effective alternate histories are the most organic, those that have an internal logic of their own. That's what Dick did in "The Man in the High Castle" — or what William Gibson and Bruce Sterling did in "The Difference Engine," Philip Roth in "The Plot Against America," Michael Chabon in "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" — to create a world that stands alongside the real one, while not depending on it, exactly, for all its context clues. Thus, while these novels feature historical players (Goebbels, Göring, or, in the case of Roth, Charles Lindbergh), they are not protagonists but more part of the social fabric.

Ruff has something similar in mind, building his book around three Arab Homeland Security agents: Mustafa, Samir and Amal (whose mother, the Rudy Giuliani-like former mayor of Baghdad, rallied the city after the terrorist strikes). Still, the logic of his novel and of its universe begins to slip when he portrays better-known figures in ways we don't fully recognize.

I can buy Saddam Hussein as a John Gotti-like master of the underworld; that's not so far from what he was in life. But while it's funny, shocking even, to imagine Osama bin Laden as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he behaves in a manner more befitting a terrorist than an elected official — even in this mirror world. Then there's LBJ, who, in these pages, survives to become an American Saddam, as well as David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh, both part of the American insurgency, a fragmented movement led by, among others, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. The idea, I suppose, is to use the alternate landscape of the novel to comment on the absurdities of our situation, but it's never quite clear what all these people have to do with one another or how they ended up within the same sphere.

To mitigate this, perhaps, Ruff creates his own form of chaos by evoking, à la Dick, a pathway back to the actual world. This takes the form of artifacts (a New York Times from Sept. 12, 2001, reporting a terrorist strike on Manhattan; Iraqi bank notes bearing Saddam's image) that hint at the existence of a reality beyond that of the novel — another interesting idea but again one that isn't fully developed, relying on coincidence, on supernatural phenomena to explain how the whole thing unfolds.

I don't want to give too much away, but in the end, this leaves the imagined world a flimsy simulacrum, with no particular integrity of its own. The same is true of the history Ruff creates, interweaving throughout the book a series of pages from the Wikipedia-like "Library of Alexandria" ("a user-edited reference source") that seek to answer context questions yet never explain convincingly how a tolerant secular Arab union arose out of the Ottoman Empire or how the U.S. descended into tribal war. Like the intersection of, say, Koresh and Cheney, he's relying on a kind of wow factor to make the narrative believable, when, in fact, that's not how reality, alternate or otherwise, would operate.

Perhaps the main problem has to do with the origins of the story, which, Ruff notes in the book's publicity materials, "started out as a TV pitch." This is telling, because in the end, "The Mirage" recalls the sensation-starved aesthetics of Hollywood. It's not, in other words, a world Ruff is creating so much as it is a high concept, in which reality is less important than spectacle. And that, as Dick would tell us, is no way to build a universe — at least, not a universe that works.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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