You will, of course, forgive me for a digression. I’ve not done one in a while. But as this is the biggest and loudest platform I have, it seems the best one to do a meandering review. And since I’m being almost totally ineffectual at thinking (or more to the point writing) about things that aren’t this right now, I figure I may as well just write it, post it here, and call it a bonus post.
So, there’s a book that just came out: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. And it’s the first book I’ve read in a while that has required a substantive reordering of my thoughts – one of those books that requires me, after reading it, to live in a slightly but substantively different world than the one I was previously living in.
The pithy description is “this is the book Neil Gaiman would write if he were an American-born convert to Islam who split her time between the US and Egypt.” And if you’re sold on it with that, you may want to just go buy it, read it, and come back, because the rest of this is a spoilerish discussion of why I think it’s a terribly important book. If you’re not sold, well, here’s a spoilerish discussion of why I think it’s a terribly important book, and maybe that will convince you.
So, obviously a big fascination for me is the interplay between the world of metaphors and material social reality. The secret of alchemy is material social progress and all. Wilson has been mining this vein for some time, and quite well. One of her starting premises – a solid enough one, I should think – is the standard post-colonial perspective that the Middle East has had its self-identity eaten by the west.
In some ways, then, it’s odd that she’s using her “western convert” status to write a western-style contemporary fantasy novel about these problems. Contemporary fantasy is a thoroughly straightforward genre these days. All neatly Campbell-structured and shop-worn. Create some clever juxtapositions of recognizable myths and contemporary tropes and you’re good to go. Play your cards right and you can get a decent movie or HBO series out of it. It’s not done to death, but it’s a very well-developed, well-defined western genre. And nobody is going to mistake Alif the Unseen as being anything other than an example of that genre.
But it’s not a straightforward one. At virtually every turn it finds ways of resisting itself. Rescuing the princess proves not so much pointless as facile. Using the magical powers gained by understanding of the hidden world is both impossible and disastrous. There’s even an absolutely hilarious embedding of Twilight within the book as an obvious author surrogate marries a vampire and has his half-jinn baby. But even here the book ducks and weaves around the cliche – the character quietly drops out of the narrative just before the climax.
This is, actually, instructive for a way in. Because for all that this is a contemporary fantasy book, it is also one written from a profound and genuine commitment to Islamic thought. In this regard the appropriation of Twilight is delightfully clever. Twilight, after all, is one part pervy wish fulfillment about hot vampires and one part moralizing propaganda from a Mormon perspective. Likewise, Wilson’s obvious surrogate not only gets to wed the hot vampire, she does so in a way that is thoroughly based around Islamic thought, particularly the fact that “Islam” is itself a word meaning submission (though not, crucially, in the crass “submit to your husband” way that Twilight ultimately settles on). And so instead of being a preening and narcissistic author surrogate Wilson’s avatar, upon wedding the vampire, disappears into the narrative, becoming a plot function while retaining her dignity and strength in a way that is consistent with the underlying moral and religious thought of the book.
This is the central move of Wilson’s book – allowing the tropes of her western genre to break upon the rocks of Islamic thought, which proves itself to have beautiful, crystalline depths that transcend the bullying certainty of her genre tropes. (In this regard the realm of the unseen is a useful metaphor to her – the Jinn are, as is pointed out several times, explicitly acknowledged by the Quran. As such, they stand in well for the aspects of Islam that are erased and marginalized by the current political system – the aspects that, as a liberal feminist committed to social justice, tangibly form so much of the heart of Wilson’s faith. In this regard her first book, the non-fiction The Butterfly Mosque, is worth reading.)
But it’s the ending that’s really fantastic. Over the course of the book both Alif and the book’s antagonist create significant computer programs. The antagonist creates the Hand – a giant Internet filter and censorship program. Alif, on the other hand, creates Tin Sari, a program that can identify a user by the patterns of their typing, word choice, and other such things. And both Alif and the book’s antagonist, at different points in the story, try to create magical computers based on the contents of a book described as One Thousand and One Nights as written from the jinns’ perspective.
In a standard Campbellian fantasy Alif would succeed at this task, using knowledge gained by his initiation into the realms of the hidden to overcome his problems. This is not what happens. Instead Alif defeats the villain with Tin Sari, a program that is explicitly noted as being able to capture and understand the hidden – the discernment of someone’s identity through a veil of anonymity – by observing only the mundane and the visible.
This is not a rejection of mysticism or of the unseen. As I noted, Wilson is adamant in her grounding of the realm of the unseen within Islamic thought. She takes care to have an imam of deep faith who encounters the unseen and accepts them, and, as I said, stresses the passages in the Quran that acknowledge the unseen. And it is impossible to parse a character arc like that of the convert without some reference to the genuine spiritual importance of the unseen.
And yet in the end it is the material that has mastery over the unseen, not the magical that allows the shaping of our worlds. Given that the climax of the book takes place over the backdrop of the Arab Spring, this is absolutely vital. The book could easily have veered into tastelessness by erasing the real and material struggles that led to that uprising, giving Tharir Square a supernatural origin instead of one based on the genuine issues and people who led to a genuine revolution. Instead Wilson gives us a material revolution, with material causes, that is nevertheless clearly understood as a mystical and spiritual act. It is nothing short of astonishing.
To say that the writings of an American-born convert to Islam with feet well-positioned in both cultures matter in 2012 is banal in its obviousness. Of course, when both America and the UK grapple with entrenched and distressing Islamophobia, someone like G. Willow Wilson is an important writer. That goes without saying. But what is perhaps most striking about the book is the way in which it avoids the Scylla and Charibdis of this sort of cultural dialogue – the same imperialist/xenophobe dualism we’ve been discussing in terms of Doctor Who lately. The standard and blase liberal western response to Islamophobia – “they’re just like us” – is as wrong-headed as the xenophobic “they’re horrible others.”
Alif the Unseen demonstrates the middle road. Islam isn’t a part of western European-derived culture. Nor is it wholly outside of it. Rather, it’s the other side of a conversation. Dare I say it, it’s the unseen of our culture, often spoken of and rarely encountered. Alif the Unseen marks a truly delightful encounter, in which a set of shop-worn tropes of western fiction find new light in service of a different but nevertheless still compatible vision.
As I have put it in the past, the secret of alchemy is material social progress. I can’t recommend the book enough.