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The Mirage

February 29, 2012
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After reading a description of The Mirage, by Matt Ruff, I asked HarperCollins to send me an advance copy. It sounded like something I would absolutely lap up, a satire structured by reversing the characters in a story, so that on 11/9 Christian fundamentalists fly airplanes into the World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and the United Arab States declares a War on Terror.

As in so many mediocre science fiction novels, however, the idea is way better than its execution. There are amusing bits, but the conceit wears thin after a while and the characters—too many of them–aren’t developed enough to make me care that much about any particular one. It took me so long to make my way through the advance copy that the novel has already been released, but I kept going because there were some good parts.

The best parts are the entries from the “Library of Alexandria,” which looks a lot like Wikipedia. Here is the first part of one entry:

“Saddam Hussein Abd al Majid al Tikriti (born April 28, 1938), a Sunni Muslim, is an Iraqi labor organizer, philanthropist, bestselling novelist, and reputed gangster and bootlegger. Though he emphatically denies having anything to do with the manufacture or sale of alcohol, he is more coy on the question of whether he has other ties to organized crime. To date, he has been indicted nine times on various felony and racketeering charges. He has never once been convicted.”

And here are the first three parts of another:

“Lyndon Baines Johnson (August 27, 1908-December 30, 2006), a Protestant of the Disciples of Christ sect, was president of the Christian States of America (CSA) from November 22, 1963 until April 9, 2003. He seized power in the wake of the Kennedy family assassinations and was deposed during the Arabian invasion of America.
Early Life. Johnson was born in Stonewall in the Evangelical Republic of Texas. His father was a government official whose fortunes declined after he incurred the wrath of a powerful Baptist senator. In 1929 the entire family was forced to flee into exile in America.
Rise to Power. Little is known of Johnson’s activities over the next quarter century, but by the mid-1950s he had become a member of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the American national police bureau charged with maintaining internal security. In 1958 Johnson uncovered a plot by a former naval officer named Richard Milhous Nixon to assassinate then-president Joseph P. Kennedy. Two years later, when Kennedy abdicated in favor of his son John, Johnson was put in charge of the DOJ’s Secret Service branch.”

If the whole satire had been structured by means of entries from the “Library of Alexandria,” without the novelized story attempting to surround them, it might have been a more incisive satire. The entries culminate with this masterpiece:

“A ‘Truther’ is a skeptic who questions the official account of the events of November 9, 2001….Some Truthers claim that the intelligence community knew about the hijackings in advance, and some go even farther, positing that government agents participated in the planning and execution of the attacks. Suggested motives for such government involvement in 11/9 include:
–To justify massive increases in military and intelligence spending.
–To create a pretext for the War on Terror and the invasion of America.
–To undermine the popularity of the Party of God and the House of Saud by making them appear weak.
–To halt the ‘secularization’ of Arabian society and frighten people into embracing a new Islamic Awakening.”

But in between entries like these, I waded through pages of lackluster fiction for such small nuggets as the interrogation of a prisoner during which he is asked “Did the Church of England get its hooks in you during your time in London? Did the Archbishop of Canterbury brainwash you in one of his parish schools?” and the blackmailing of a member of Arabian Homeland Security because he is a “sodomite.”

As any decent satire does, this one names names. There’s a good bit about “what kind of a name is Condoleezza?” and an “agent of the Texas CIA” (“Christian Intelligence Agency”) named Timothy McVeigh. Oh, and there’s a character who is referred to simply as “The Quail Hunter,” although Ruff takes no chances, at one point identifying him as a person who would have been, in the mirage world, the vice-president of a superpower, rather than “a glorified secret policeman in a dinky backwater country.”

Wading through the story and trying to keep track of all the characters ultimately isn’t worth the few good bits, enjoyable as they are. Like William Goldman pretending to give you “the good parts version” of the story of The Princess Bride, I have offered you most of the high points of reading through The Mirage; that turns out to have been one of my self-appointed tasks for this week–pre-digesting satire, for your enjoyment.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 8:08 am

    What was the objective here? Why does this book exist?

  2. February 29, 2012 8:36 am

    The major conceit is to see yourselves as others see you. And it is funny, just not for quite so long as it goes on. I think imagining everything has to be a novel these days can inhibit the creation of some better, shorter pieces.

  3. February 29, 2012 8:59 am

    It sounds like an idea better executed in, say, a Shouts and Murmurs piece in The New Yorker.

    • March 1, 2012 9:18 am

      I don’t know–the “republic of Texas” parts are pretty funny, and one of the points is that none of this is purely regional humor. I find The New Yorker intensely regional.

  4. freshhell permalink
    February 29, 2012 9:10 am

    And we thank you for it. I think. Gah, I wouldn’t make it past the premise. This reminds me of most Sat Night Live sketches: a 10 min bit = 1 minute of laughter at cute idea and 9 minutes of boredom and groaning.

    • March 1, 2012 9:19 am

      Keep in mind that I’m more tolerant of the extra nine minutes than you are! Like Joy has said elsewhere, I enjoy seeing someone milk a joke to the very last drop…and sometimes a little beyond.

  5. February 29, 2012 9:27 am

    You wrote:

    As in so many mediocre science fiction novels, however, the idea is way better than its execution.

    And boy isn’t that the case? I’ve read great big giant tomes simply because the storyline itself intrigues me while I find the writing and characterizations utterly lacking. So then I have to wonder why I’m such a glutton for punishment.

    • March 1, 2012 9:21 am

      Because it’s not really punishment if the idea is interesting enough? There’s one author who I find consistently frustrating because his ideas are so novel and so big and really, so wonderful that he can’t possibly write a story with a plot that brings anything to a satisfactory conclusion (Jack McDevitt).

  6. Gwendolyn Bailey permalink
    February 29, 2012 7:38 pm

    Satire is my most favored mode of expression/s. For the past few years, however, I’ve been missing it horribly(to be fair, some of those were near misses), perhaps looking for it in all the wrong places. I thought I found satire again just recently when I found the FDA approved Absinthe. But no. A standardized recipe removing the thrill of a possible near death hallucinogenic experience also removes one’s ability to laugh at purple bunnies and tangerine goats as well. Ah me. More’s the pity.

    • March 1, 2012 9:22 am

      The Onion gives me a daily dose. (Of satire, not absinthe.)

  7. February 29, 2012 8:06 pm

    I always think satire is best when it’s short. Short pieces of satire can be really effective and awesome, but when you try and spin them out long, it gets old very very fast. And then even the effective satire feels less effective.

    • March 1, 2012 9:24 am

      I think that’s generally true of modern satire. As I said above, though, I do love to see a joke milked thoroughly, so I think Swift’s A Tale of a Tub and Pope’s The Dunciad (and his 5-canto version of The Rape of the Lock) and Peter Pindar’s The Lousiad are epically funny. They wouldn’t be as funny if they were slighter.

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