Cogito: John Branch


Between Two Worlds:
Alif the Unseen

G. Willow Wilson’s first novel is a fabulously complex piece of work. It tells a tale steeped in magic, in which wonders are worked as much by fanciful human technology as by a host of jinn from Islamic mythology. Its plot relies on the discovery of a presumably fictional book written in Arabic, called Alf Yeom wa Yeom (the Thousand and One Days), but that’s a book that an actual French Orientalist claimed to have read and translated in the late 17th century, and his translation—if it wasn’t his invention—still exists. The novel seems to be an adventure fantasy, but it’s so well grounded in the real that in some ways it anticipated the Egyptian revolution. (Wilson delivered the manuscript to her publisher just before protests began in Tahrir Square, in February 2011.) Though it’s hard to describe, it’s easy and just plain fun to read.

At the center of its dizzying mix is a young hacker in an unnamed, present-day Persian Gulf emirate. He doesn’t like his given name and is known to everyone by his online handle of Alif. Though the author labels him a “hacktivist” in a short introductory note, at first his aims aren’t moral or political but merely commercial. He’s a gray hat, selling online concealment and other defenses to whomever is willing to pay: “a coterie of bloggers, pornographers, Islamists, and activists from Palestine to Pakistan.” Alif is against censorship, but he’s not really for anything.

So he resembles Rick, the bar owner played by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: like Rick, the uncommitted Alif needs to find some courage. It’ll help if a woman is involved, of course, and in Alif’s case there are three. Intisar is the upper-class woman he loves at the outset, who soon breaks up with him but gives him a parting gift. Dina is an Egyptian and his childhood friend, who lives next door and has taken the veil. And then there’s a woman referred to only as “the convert,” an American student who has adopted Islam and is something of an expert in ancient books.

The bad guy is a state security figure that the gray hats have nicknamed the Hand of God. The Hand hijacks a highly capable program Alif had written, which works almost magically well without Alif’s understanding why, and traces it to our hero. Alif is soon on the run, accompanied by Dina.

The tale has already been more elaborate than I’ve let on. The first chapter, numbered zero in the manner of computer coding, is set in Persia long ago and depicts the writing of that book called the Alf Yeom. It’s dictated under duress by a jinn who has been caught in a spell, and the old man who has summoned the creature translates it into Arabic as he writes it down.

Now, Alif finds that the gift Intisar has just sent him through Dina is that same book. He doesn’t know what it is or why Intisar bestowed it on him. (Eventually he decides it encodes a kind of knowledge that he can use in a program.) He and Dina need protection while he figures things out. They seek it from someone known as Vikram the Vampire, whom they think is merely a “black-market thug.” They find he has yellow eyes and very peculiar legs; Alif is perplexed, but Dina realizes right away Vikram is a jinn. (He proves to be mercenary but good-hearted, like Signor Ferrari, Sydney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca.)

As should be clear by now, the dimensions of Alif the Unseen are political, cultural, and technological, but also theological and fantastic. Wilson’s story abounds in oppositions, some of which end up being united. Among the oppositions: life online versus life on the streets, aliases and nicknames versus real names, the veiled versus the open, the natural or “real” world versus the supernatural, the seen versus the unseen. Much of the book is devoted to depicting a realm that’s ordinarily unseen by humans and that’s populated by jinn, marids, sila, and the like. Though these are figures in Scheherazade’s tales in the Thousand and One Nights, jinn (apparently the broad term for them all) are named in the Koran, as Dina pointedly tells Alif. Like angels, they’re imaginary unless you take the word of your holy book that they’re real. Wilson’s perspective isn’t either-or but both-and: the jinn are both figures from fable and real.

That dual perspective probably comes from Wilson’s life. Born in the West and raised by atheist parents, she converted to Islam (just as one of her characters did) and now divides her time between Egypt and America: two worlds. She has written journalism, a memoir, a graphic novel, and comics. She doesn’t mention any of this in her introduction. But she does make clear that in this novel she wished to address three audiences she has kept separate: geeks, literary-political types, and Muslims.

It’s hard to decide how to take some of the details, such as those involving computers. An ordinary desktop simply isn’t going to overheat, melt, and catch fire when it’s asked to work too hard—it’ll either plod ahead or balk. However, if it’s running a program that’s part magic, there’s no telling what it might do, and that shift into the fantastic left me uneasy.

How to take the novel as a whole is another tricky question. In my view, it ends too well, and the characters we favor fare too well, for Alif the Unseen to be taken entirely seriously. And yet the novel isn’t entirely fanciful. Much of the setting, characters, action, and themes tie the book to contemporary, observable reality.

Graham Greene originally classified some of his fictional works as “entertainments,” feeling they weren’t serious enough to be called genuine novels. He later relabeled them, deciding they were just a different kind of novel. G. Willow Wilson’s first work of fiction is akin to Greene’s entertainments: it’s a fantastic tale that’s also a serious-minded novel.

[A longer version of this review has been posted at Goodreads]
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