I’ll say this for Matt Ruff: He is clearly unbound by the conventions of alternate history. Almost without exception, writers who set out to draw worlds that never were feel obligated, in the words of David Byrne, to ask themselves, “Well, how did I get here?”
So Robert Harris in “Fatherland” explains Nazi Germany’s triumph with a victory on the Eastern front and a failed D-Day invasion. Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” envisions a Republican Party in 1940 reaching out to the charismatic isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who edges out FDR’s third-term bid in 1940. My own efforts to rewrite history all hinged on events that came within a whisker of happening.
Ruff takes a very different approach with “Mirage.” Like the economist who, when asked to fix a leak, says, “Assume a wrench,” Ruff conjures a contemporary world where the dominant economic and military power is the United Arab States. The UAS is a constitutional republic of 360 million people with a strong pluralist strain and a judicially independent Supreme Court that constrains police with Miranda warnings. Baghdad is the financial and cultural colossus that has been attacked — on Nov. 9, 2001 — by terrorists from the World Christian Alliance, based in the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories. (There is no United States here; North America is nothing more than a collection of warring failed states.)
How did we get here? How and why did the West begin to erode at the beginning of the 20th century? How did Israel wind up in the northern half of what once was Germany? How did Great Britain become governed by a fanatical prime minister named David Irving (the real-life Holocaust-denier), with the archbishop of Canterbury urging boundless violence against Israel and its chief protector, the United Arab States?
The device Ruff employs throughout his novel to sketch this history — a Wikipedia-like entry on “The Library of Alexandria” — provides no real explanation. So we’re left to assume that the Arab world put aside a millennium or so of bloody schismatic division and bootstrapped itself into world dominance, while the British Empire and the American colossus of 1900 just . . . collapsed.
Or are we?
Maybe, Ruff begins to hint, there’s no explanation needed because it didn’t really happen. In the years after the Nov. 9, 2001, attacks and the subsequent War on Terror, various captured suspects have been suggesting that this whole construct is a “mirage” that has somehow entrapped the entire world; that, in fact, in the “real world,” the United States of America is the superpower, and the Arab lands are little more than oil-rich but essentially impotent states. Stray artifacts seem to buttress that case: a New York Times front page from the Sept. 11, 2001, of our experience; a bank note that suggests Saddam Hussein is the dictator of Iraq; and indications that Osama bin Laden is something other than the Afghan war hero who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee of the UAS Congress.
The attempt to unravel this mystery is seen largely through the eyes of a trio of Homeland Security agents. Mustafa al Baghdadi mourns his wife — one of “them” — who died in the attacks. Samir is hiding a private sin that will subject him to manipulation by evildoers. And Amal al Maysani, daughter of a powerful female politician, is a skilled shot and beautiful enough to bring any man within 100 feet to a state of quivering desire. As these three pursue the mystery from the streets of Baghdad to the occupied capital of “America,” with enough gunfights and detective work to fill a dozen slick action movies, one overriding question emerges, at least in the mind of this reader:
There’s no question that Ruff is having a lot of fun, stuffing in just about every “What if?” twist he can think of, such as a president-dictator who killed his enemies and ruled for decades (not Hussein, but Lyndon Johnson). But beyond the chance to drop everyone from Dick Cheney to Donald Rumsfeld to Moammar Gaddafi to Tim McVeigh into different roles, it is hard to divine any greater purpose here. If the point is to offer a parable about America’s costly misadventure in Iraq, that story has been well told in a dozen different books. If the point is to exercise our imaginations, the parade of familiar names, faces and settings left me responding, “Enough, already!”
In his previous novel, “Bad Monkeys,” Ruff showed a deft hand in dealing with the shifting sands of reality. Here, I was left with the urge to hail a taxi back to planet Earth — the real one.
Greenfield is host of the PBS show “Need to Know” and a columnist for Yahoo News. His book of alternate histories, “Then Everything Changed,” has just been published in paperback.
By Matt Ruff
Harper. 432 pp. $25.99