Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Reviewed by Erin Horáková
07 November 2012
G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen begins in the stiff-still stasis of a long afternoon. With a boy—an anti-censorship, and thus anti-state, hacker, called Alif by his internet acquaintances—stuck in a line of work that, while it endangers, challenges, and taxes him, seems to consist of so much monotonous shoving-fingers-into-dikes. Stuck in an awkward, unexplained lull in his relationship. Stuck in a clutch of emirates that has long seemed out of touch with the surrounding world. Stuck, more particularly, in his nameless City, which the Arab Spring has passed over. A city which has "begun to feel as though it were outside time: a memory of an old order, or a dream from which its inhabitants had failed to wake" (p. 11).
Alif's relationship smoulders down into a total collapse, and he decides to sulk gloriously. He creates a program that—no matter what IP, handle, computer, or programs she uses—will trace his former lover's internet presence and conceal him from her. This isn't easily read as stalking. Alif doesn't want to intrude on or watch her life, simply to hide from her—to make her dramatic request never to see or hear from him again a stark reality. This semi-magical act of computing, a product of Alif's passion, disrupts the world's inertia. The chain of stases, personal and political, begins to shudder into dynamic life.
The government of the City wants Alif's program, as well as the Alf Yeom: a magical text written by djinn, which holds the secret of "quantum" computing, capable of eclipsing our current binary language. Unfortunately Alif's former lover discovered the book, and, in the course of the break up, she gave it to him. Alif and Dina, his neighbor and childhood friend, find themselves pushed further and further from the world they know, seeking refuge and answers. They find companions in Alif's fellow hackers, the djinn themselves, a sympathetic imam, and an interested American convert. The novel's scope increases, and it scales up its plot predicaments and its engagement with larger political questions well enough that you could be forgiven for forgetting what a difficult thing it is to take the measure of a situation before the dust has settled, let alone to say something meaningful about that situation to others.
Alif himself, however, is rather difficult to like. His self-involvement is unattractive. At times Dina bears the brunt of his political and personal thoughtlessness. He patronizes her with his half-baked "fight the man" rhetoric, and he ignores her obvious, steadfast love for him. Alif isn't overtly sexist or classist per se, but he at best ignores, and at worst disdains, anyone not particularly clever and/or useful to him—anyone not in his little club of internet-commentariat dissidents. And it's worth noting that this is a largely male band. Alif himself observes later in the book that his disgust for complacency and the everyday rhythms of life around him is bound up in an adolescent rejection of the feminine world, and regrets his attitude.
I don't know that I'd like Alif not to struggle with his privilege, or to simply replace him with a less irritating, squeaky clean character. The fact that he sucks in some ways feels realistic, and connected to his life. Alif was raised by a mother from a disadvantaged culture, who he's ashamed of. Both of them crave love, respect, or even just acknowledgement from Alif's absent father. It makes sense that Alif, given his issues, would have problems with people who reflect his own insecurities back at him. But while I don't think Alif needs to be sanitized, I'd prefer if he weren't just understandable, but interesting.
Bad (or, as in the case of Alif, simply lackluster) people can be good characters, but this necessitates either that they be especially compelling, or that the story and world be strong enough that you don't properly notice or care about a character's blandness. Think Harry Potter. Unfortunately, I was allowed to notice. Alif is clever, but that, in and of itself, is not particularly interesting. He only begins to mature into a perhaps more considerate, potentially engaging person towards the novel's end, after undergoing the standard Great Hardship (not to undermine Wilson's portrayal of chilling, dehumanizing torture—just to call attention to a common trope in play).
Besides, the secondary characters are infinitely more entertaining. I don't feel that I know Wilson's characters well as whole people, whose personhood extends through and beyond the novel, but the narrative sometimes snaps into focus and gives us beautiful, well-realized character moments. What little we know about the imam, Sheikh Bilal, is perfect. He takes in Alif, Dina, and their demon and convert friends when they seek asylum at the city's most important mosque. He is gently wry in the way that only the old can be, because it's a wryness that encompasses both attachment to the world and distance from it—a contradiction that takes time to develop. He is intelligent, educated, and, above all, a man of faith—a faith that reasserts itself when shaken, that shows itself in his honorable acceptance of and civility towards those in need, whatever they've done, and that, ultimately, encompasses difference, including things which initially appear to be its anathema.
Dina, Alif's neighbor and obvious ultimate love interest, is the novel's best character, and really one can't help but wish that she had been the protagonist. She defies easy Western assumptions about women in Muslim culture or women who choose to wear a headscarf (in Dina's case, a niqab), and even the easy assumptions of people within her own culture, including those who know her well, as represented by Alif. He speaks of being stunned by her resourcefulness and dignity throughout their adventure, but then finding his own surprise misplaced. Dina's steadiness, strength, faith, intelligence, and complexity of feeling mark her as Alif's psychological superior. Despite the beauty of some of their scenes together, Dina seems to deserve rather better than the man and the life she wants.
I enjoyed Vikram the Vampire, the djinn that Alif and Dina rope into helping them learn more about the Alf Yeom, but I can't help but feel that sassy immortals with, if not hearts of gold per se, more going on inside than might at first appear, are a bit cheap. There's nothing damning about "cheap"—occasionally we all get the filthy craving for a Big Mac Super Value Meal. But it's that sort of satisfaction.
The American convert character is particularly interesting, given Wilson's much-discussed position as an American who has converted to Islam and lives, for much of the time, in Cairo. What work is "the convert" (never named) doing? Is she addressing the author's own anxiety with her position and her authority to write about the non-Western world, or is she the author's means of negotiating the inevitable criticism on this point? I don't believe, as Philip Sandifer does in his engaging reading of the book, that she's a parody of self-insertion, here to enact her own mini-Twilight before exiting stage left—though it's an interesting and not altogether unreasonable conclusion. For me, the convert's presence flags up questions of authorship, making them textually inescapable: what right does this woman have to be in this world? While I'm not ultimately clear on what Wilson actually is doing with the convert character, I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with the many reviews of the book that have flagged up her status as a Western author writing about the world outside the West. Do these remarks function as a fetishization of her as "the convert"? Do they amount to an interrogation of whether Wilson herself has a right to write in this capacity? Either proposition is uncomfortable, and the latter more complicatedly so. There are legitimate questions to be asked about Wilson's project, and no simple answers.
For all its merits, the book is far from perfect. The ending unravels. Its networks of causality become difficult to follow. A part of me thinks this is a mimetic effort to track revolution, including its ability to rupture the emotional and historical chronologies that normally order our lives. But even if this is what Wilson is attempting—and if this is so, that is interesting—when a book becomes difficult to follow, it becomes difficult to care about. Especially towards the end, it can feel as if the author is meat-puppeting the characters about. Characters' idiolects collapse, as they are seemingly, semi-arbitrarily, assigned the author's not-uninteresting thoughts on the revolution and the nature of politics. There's also some embarrassingly self-congratulatory treatment of internet activism. At one point two hackers stop to look about them in the middle of a civil disturbance and marvel at their own power in slightly purple language—like you do?
"We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone—"
"They have to share it in the real world."
"In real life."
"Holy shit." (p. 377)
Very soon after, Dina, truly the reader stand-in, recalls a time she threw up. Alas, the writer does not connect these incidents. All this may be fine for a Pynchonesque clunker-of-ideas, but in the case of Alif, it undermines one of the book's key strengths, i.e. its great character moments.
The novel's fantastic underbelly is pleasing and solid, a smooth fusion of the "quantum" element in genre fiction and the mystical/mythical world of the djinn. But ultimately the unreality introduced into the novel can't be accommodated within it. True, some humans and some djinn are opposed to some other humans and some other djinn, and there are free agents who don't fall within either party. But the final battle is just humans vs. humans, controlled magical creatures vs. free magical creatures. There's no genuine opposition between opposed magical interests (i.e. no magical creatures are, for any reasons of their own, in support of or opposition to the human events in question), and the conclusion doesn't offer much of a place for representatives of the other world in ours. But at least in refusing to make the revolution "about" supernatural events Alif dodges that hideous X-Men: First Class/Captain America scenario where a major geopolitical conflict is trivialized by having been "really about" melty-face Hugo Weaving, or Baron Xeno, campiest of Nazis.
Alif the Unseen reads like the work of a writer who will go on to do great things, even if this novel is, in some ways, not the apotheosis of its own potential. Alif is being touted as Wilson's "first novel," which is pretty meaningless, given that she's worked substantially as a professional writer across a variety of titles—though I supposed it's not quite as dumb as calling Ben Aaronovitch a fresh face when he's been writing for the BBC, including spin-off novels, for yoinks. Fetishization of "first novels" is a silly business. Nevertheless Wilson is still an early-career writer, and I look forward to seeing more from her.
But, for the time being, you should read this book. It's well-written, with an elegant genre sensibility and moments of literary-fiction brilliance. Alif the Unseen has managed to speak about the Middle East as it is now, in the course and immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, with a direct frankness that amounts almost to bravery, and without embarrassing recourse to rash, feverish, over-the-top judgements about those events and their importance. Alif isn't cashing in on the revolutions, it's reckoning with them. I appreciate the honesty and earnestness Wilson displays in asking questions about politics and faith, leaving herself (aside from a few rough spots) unprotected by hipsterish irony. It's one of the novel's greatest strengths. Alif the Unseen functions as a measured response to important questions and events. Perhaps it may seem churlish to ask for more, but I think Wilson's worth asking.