Meet Joe, an archetypal low-rent private detective living in Southeast Asia. Except, in Joe's world, 9-11 and other terrorist attacks never took place. Instead, they're just plot elements in a semi-popular series of pulp novels called "Osama bin Laden, Vigilante", which even has a yearly fan convention devoted to it.
This matters to Joe because a mysterious woman appears at his office and hires him to track down the author of those same novels. Soon, as he travels the world, he finds himself running into people who don't quite seem to belong. Then he meets people who don't want him investigating further. And then things start to get odd. Philip K. Dick comparisons seem apt, though I was also reminded of China Mieville's City and the City and the mind-bending story in the computer game Braid.
This is, without question, a novel whose meaning hides in its obliqueness and blurring of reality. Who is Joe, exactly? Who are the ghostlike "refugees"? What is the connection between his world and ours? Tidhar offers hints, but no certain answers. I thought it was a stroke of brilliance that Osama bin Laden himself becomes an anti-presence in the story. Made imaginary in Joe's world, he becomes more visible as what he really is in ours: a omnipresent icon that haunts without having any real definition or connection to what the actual bin Laden was. The symbolism is open to interpretation, but, to me, it expressed the ultimate elusiveness of either escape or understanding in the endless feedback of the human response to terrorism.
Of course, open-ended, strange-loopy novels aren't the sort of thing that speaks to every reader (at least, not without chemical enhancement), but this one hit most of the right notes with me. I liked the audacity of Tidhar's vision and the tight, noir-ish, slightly hallucinatory writing. And it's not a long book.