Seattle author Matt Ruff's new novel, "The Mirage," turns the tables on the 9/11 scenario — extremists from the U.S. are the attackers; Middle East Muslims are the victims. Ruff reads at several Seattle locations in February.
What if the tables were turned somehow and the terrorist attacks of 2001 actually happened in the Middle East, perpetrated by Christian militants from the United States, and Muslims from that far-flung region launched a war on terror aimed at us, instead of the other way around?
This unnerving but intriguing premise forms the backbone of Seattle author Matt Ruff’s latest novel, “The Mirage” (Harpers, 414 pp., $25.99), one of the most daring 9/11-inspired novels to emerge after that horrific day more than a decade ago.
You will need to take a deep breath and establish some emotional distance from the events of the real War on Terror to appreciate the historical inversions that crowd this fast-paced and heartfelt attempt to put the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.
In the “The Mirage,” however, the terror attacks that shaped that past decade of foreign and in some cases domestic policy don’t happen in New York City and Washington, D.C., but in the Iraqi capital, where the twin Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers are brought down by hijacked jetliners, and Riyadh, where the “Arab Defense Ministry” is also attacked.
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Those two cities are seats of power in what Ruff calls the United Arab States, a prosperous bastion of democracy.
True to the twisted plot, the attacks happen on 11/9/2001 instead of 9/11.
The United States, an Afghan-style hodgepodge of theocracies, white-supremacist refuges and fundamentalist militia zones, is a cultural backwater while the Middle East is a sophisticated global superpower. America gets to endure an invasion by a far-stronger nation bent on revenge. The Muslims are the traumatized invaders and occupiers who set up a Green Zone in Washington, D.C.
Many of the characters and settings come straight out of our collective consciousness, from Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and the infamous 1990s cult leader David Koresh. But they’ve been recast. Hussein’s a gangster. Bin Laden is a UAS senator — and influential chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Spread throughout the novel are alternate-reality entries from The Library of Alexandria, a fictitious, Wikipedia-like, user-edited information source.
The entry on the CIA says the acronym stands for the “Christian Intelligence Agency” and that its mission is to act as the espionage arm of the “Evangelical Republic of Texas.”
“The Mirage” comes complete with colorful bad guys, common-man heroes, epic sandstorms, dream sequences, even a genie. But Ruff goes deeper.
The question of what is reality and what is a mirage dogs the UAS’s leaders as well as government operatives like the grieving lead character Mustafa, an Arab Homeland Security agent, after captured American militants insist that the world the Muslims are living in is an illusion.
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.
The underlying suggestion here, though, is that America’s sometimes fanciful attempts to remake the Middle East (a region that just might end up remaking itself) are just as unrealistic as anything depicted in this novel.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.