Monday, March 26, 2012

The Mirage by Matt Ruff: A Book Review

I need to introduce you to my friend Matt. Okay, so he’s not my friend, he’s an author whose books I enjoy, but still…you need to get to know him, if you don’t already. For googling purposes, his full name is Matt Ruff.

I first met Matt one day when I was walking around in Borders. I saw a book with a bright yellow cover—and what seemed from a distance to be a Darth Vader helmet, though upon closer inspection it was a monkey—and I picked it up, read it over, put it back down and walked away. It wasn’t that the book didn’t interest me; it just wasn’t what I was in the mood to start reading that day. As often happened back in the day of the actual book store, I spent a good hour walking around picking up books, reading the back covers, sampling the first pages and moving on to see what else might strike my fancy.

I kept coming back to the Matt Ruff book. I sampled it like an old woman in a grocery store inspecting the fruit. I remember not liking the shape of the book (yes, I’m THAT picky). It was a trade paperback, but it was narrower that I felt it should have been. And who was this Matt Ruff guy? I’d never heard of him before.

In the end though, I came back one final time and after an hour of searching and not finding what I was in the mood to read, the numerous re-reads of the back cover and first few pages of Ruff’s book Bad Monkeys finally convinced me to pull the trigger and take it home with me.

It didn’t take very long at all before I found myself very much in the mood to his book though. To say it hooked me is a vast understatement. Bad Monkeys is a fast paced, smart, witty and fun read. It’s one of those rare books that keeps jerking you back and forth, constantly diverting your attention until you can no longer tell which cup the red ball is hiding underneath.

The next time I read a Matt Ruff book was approximately 30 minutes after I finished Bad Monkeys. If immediately driving to the book store to find another book by an author doesn’t tell you all you need to know about how much I liked the first book of his I read then—well, you’re stupid. Stop it.

I was skeptical about the second book. It had a few words in the title that no man wants to read and never wants to be seen holding. I dreaded the question, “So, what are you reading?” Fortunately though, Set This House In Order, A Romance of Souls was my second Matt Ruff book. I wouldn’t have chosen it if my book store had had another of his books in stock, but like the way Bad Monkeys kept calling me back, this books seemed destined to find it’s way into my hands as well. Once again, I was very much surprised and pleased.

The thing about Matt Ruff that you can’t help but enjoy is the complexity of his stories and his characters while neither ever actually overwhelms the reader. There are lots of complex characters but after a while you lose them or worse, you lose your personal connection to them because they are inaccessible to you. And complex plots—well, nothing fails bigger than a complex plot gone wrong. So often, an author obviously writes a story with a complex plot without first outlining it and the result is that they wind up getting lost somewhere in the middle and then rush to conclude it in the end, in a way that leaves you feeling dissatisfied.

Matt Ruff’s books, conversely, read like a season of LOST, only with a more satisfying finish. He doesn’t try to outfox his readers. He’s confident enough in his storytelling that he wants you to get it all. He wants you see every clue and every red herring and then he turns it all in ways you didn’t think of and always seem like a surprise when you read them. He keeps you on your toes, but more importantly, he keeps you involved. He doesn’t inundate you with information to hide his clues. He says, look, here’s a clue! You make the logical conclusion about where it will go, and then he proves you wrong.


When I heard the premise of Ruff’s latest book, I was, once again, skeptical. It had been some time since I’d read his books and while I remembered his ability to turn a story on it’s ear, something about the premise of the new book just made me think it wasn’t going to work. Predictably, in my experience with Matt Ruff books by now, I was wrong.

The Mirage is his latest title. It almost defies explanation. In an alternate reality, the United States does not exist; worse, we are a backward, third world grouping of countries. Christian Fundamentalists, in opposition to the constant involvement of the United Arab States—a world Superpower—in the affairs of their world, hijack four airliners on 11/9 and crash them into twin towers in Bagdad, another into a government building and, of course, the final airliner was taken back by it’s passengers before crashing.

The UAS has no choice but to declare a War on Terror. Rumors of Weapons of Mass Destructions in North America cannot be ignored.

The story revolves around three UAS Homeland Security Agents. In the course of their duties, they break up a terrorist plot and arrest one of its conspirators. Before the prisoner is disappeared into one of the secret prisons, he tells the investigators of The Mirage.
The Mirage, he explains, is the wool that’s been pulled over the eyes of the world. Everything is backwards. The USA is the world Superpower. The Arab states are backwater, third world countries. It was Muslim Fundamentalists who started a War of Terror against America.

The agents, obviously, think their prisoner is delusional, but they find an artifact amongst the prisoner’s things: A newspaper called the New York Times, printed on 9/12, a day after airliners were flown into two twin towers there.

Obviously, a fake; but Homeland Security must stay up to date on these terrorist myths so the investigation goes on, and when more artifacts begin showing up they raise question after question without an intelligent answer. Could The Mirage be true?

This book ties history into knots and then slowly untangles them again. In typical Matt Ruff fashion, up is often down, left is often right and the lines between good and bad, altruistic and evil get brilliantly blurred.

Along the way, you’ll meet alternate versions of characters you already know: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Tariq Aziz, Donald Rumsfeld, “The Quail Hunter,” Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh and a father and son with the same name—one called H, the other W.

The most interesting of these characters is Osama bin Laden. It is said only about him and repeatedly so that, “an evil prince in one world is an evil prince in any world.” Though, by a continuation of that logic it can, of course, be said of all the “real world” characters we meet, which greatly indicts “The Quail Hunter,” and Mr. Rumsfeld.

Since finishing this book I’ve read some criticism that it doesn’t take sides. What’s given to you isn’t the work of an author with an agenda. He’s not telling you what to think. He’s asking you to think about it in a different way that you previously had. And in that, I find the criticism unfounded. Not all books are meant to tell you what to think—or to even tell you what the writer thinks. Some books are simply written to make you think. The conclusions are left for you to draw on your own. The implications are such that it leaves many different interpretations. Ruff isn’t interested in telling anyone that they are wrong. He isn’t interested in telling anyone that he is right. He very simply retells history in a way that makes you walk a mile in a different pair of shoes. How you feel about the information when it’s presented in a new way is up to you.

It was an ambitious undertaking and one that could have gone wrong in so many different ways. Ruff’s skilled writing and storytelling skills, along with what must have been exhaustive and extensive research culminate in an extremely well written, interesting and thought-provoking book. And like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Dagobah, what waits inside is only what you bring with you. Your weapons…you will not need them. What you face inside is yourself and if you’re honest and true, you just might come away with a different point of view.


Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of this guy before you mentioned him, and now I'm definitely excited to check him out.

Hey, did you know Josh Bazell published a sequel to Beat the Reaper? It's called Wild Thing and I'm reading it right now. So far? Bizarre and funny, just like the first, though a little slower.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry, the above (or below?) was Glennman.

Anonymous said...

I want to pick up The Mirage NOW.
P.S. Great review, Al!


iSwim said...

Huh - I've never heard of this dude but you've sold me!