three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
By: 
Matt Ruff
user_rating: 
0

737242.pngWith novels that include Fool on the Hill (1988), Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997), Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (2003), and Bad Monkeys ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2007), award-winning novelist Matt Ruff works on the fringes of the familiar. Ruff’s latest effort, The Mirage, offers up alternate reality on a grand scale.

The Story: On 11/9/01, in the United Arab States: "This is the day the world changes." Four planes bound for various points in the Middle East crash into Baghdad’s twin Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers and the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh. Blame for the attacks is placed squarely on the United States, a third-world, fundamentalist theocracy intent on destroying a world superpower. The UAS invades the aggressor and establishes a Green Zone in Washington, D.C., taking down dictator Lyndon B. Johnson in the process (a host of other familiar characters, on both sides, are here as well). But intelligence gathered from a prisoner who claims that things may not be as they seem—his story hinges on a newspaper dated September 12, 2001—could turn the familiar world upside down.
Harper. 432 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780061976223

boing boing 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This extraordinary novel … transcends a gimmicky exercise in Arabifying America and vice-versa and becomes a top-rate war novel, a thoughtful and sly commentary on the war on terror, and a scathing critique of religious partisanship, all at once. … This is one of those books that you read while walking down the street and long after your bedtime, a book you stop strangers to tell about." Cory Doctorow

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s bracing to read a novel that generates a fresh look at Our Troubled Times without the exhausted polemics and manipulative sentiments. In fact, The Mirage is a 9/11 novel we’ve been waiting for, audacious, funny and bold." Anne Saker

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the most daring 9/11-inspired novels to emerge after that horrific day more than a decade ago. … It’s probably never going to be a great time to plumb the events of 9/11 for fodder to incorporate into a piece of leisure reading, but the straightforwardness of Ruff’s approach gives the proceedings a gravitas that serves as a nod of respect for what the United States, the Iraqis and the Afghanis farther afield have gone through." Tyrone Beason

AV Club 3 of 5 Stars
"While it’s easy to appreciate The Mirage as furious entertainment, it lacks the substantive kick of speculative fiction that dares to offer a clear message. … The Mirage, like the great sandstorms that appear in the Arabian States late in the novel, pulls apart into nothing more than little grains of sand." Kevin McFarland

Strange Horizons 3 of 5 Stars
"The Mirage is important as post-9/11 literature. … It’s about Americans: American lives, American fears, and the longing, on the part of many Americans, to go back in time and do something different—a longing reduced, in The Mirage, to a helpless murmur." Sofia Samatar

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"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." David L. Ulin

Critical Summary

Quirky, smart, and funny, Matt Ruff’s mash-up fiction exists somewhere in the slipstream—not always squarely in the realm of science fiction, but with one eye on that genre’s limitless possibilities—and he often asks readers to straddle the uncomfortable line between their own reality and one of his choosing. Turning the tables on the events of 9/11 and their consequences, Ruff, a capable guide recalling similar narrative setups from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, asks one of the biggest "What ifs?" in recent fiction. Although the setup is terrific, a few reviewers felt that it never felt completely real and that Ruff’s metafictional approach (he explores the writing of alternate histories) felt forced. Most critics, however, opined that The Mirage is no parlor trick, and he "holds up a moment in time that we think we all know and dares the reader to consider a different universe" (Oregonian).