Alif the Unseen
Grove: 431 pp., $25
What is the power of stories? That's the question at the heart of G. Willow Wilson's first novel, "Alif the Unseen," which takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern emirate at a time very much like the present, as a repressive security state finds itself challenged by a flowering of freedom in its streets. It would be tempting to call this a reaction to the Arab Spring, except the book was completed in early 2011, just before the protests began in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
But no matter, for this is Wilson's point throughout the novel, that stories channel something deeper, that narrative is the DNA, or the computer code, by which we dream reality (or the future) into being. "So the stories aren't just stories, is what you're saying. They're really secret knowledge disguised as stories," the novel's protagonist, a dissident hacker who calls himself Alif, says to an outsider named Vikram the Vampire, who may or may not be a djinn or genie. Vikram's response? "One could say that of all stories, younger brother."
Vikram's right, of course, although it's also the case that we use different stories for different reasons: to console or challenge us, to support our worldviews or uproot the status quo. Wilson appears to have all of this in mind with "Alif the Unseen," which aspires to operate on many levels, both visible and invisible, at the same time. It is a layered work, in which Alif, on the run from state security for digital insurrection, ends up in possession of a legendary book, the "Alf Yeom," or "The Thousand and One Days." As Vikram explains: "That title is no accident — this is the inverse, the overturning of the 'Nights.' In it is contained all the parallel knowledge of my people, preserved for future generations. This is not the work of human beings. This book was narrated by the jinn."
Whether you're willing to believe that will determine much of what you think about "Alif the Unseen." It is a novel in which the supernatural merges with the natural, in which myths and legends — genies, magic, the idea of an unseen world not exactly beneath the surface but at cross angles to this one — are taken at face value, woven into a larger adventure in which unwittingly, even at times unwillingly, Alif must take on the security apparatus of the state, as embodied by its chief enforcer, a man known only as the Hand of God.
This suggests one facet of the novel, the way it equates cyberspace, where people hide behind virtual names and identities, with the subtleties and ambiguities of the ancient parables. Alif, after all, is the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, not just a screen name but also the symbol of a new beginning, just as the Hand of God stands for all the repressive power of religion, the way faith is used to break us rather than to make us free.
Yet Wilson is after more than liberation theology or politics, although both wend their way through the pages of her book. Instead, she wants us to recognize the extent to which the world, both internal and external, remains beyond us, not just out of sight but literally unable to be seen. "Superstition is thriving," a character tells Alif late in the novel. "Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out.... Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You'll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent. And that, cousin, is why I can't help you."
Wilson is at her best when addressing such issues, placing the secular within a spiritual frame. "In the end, I am not even myself," she writes. "I am a string of bones speaking the word God." That's a beautiful line, and it speaks to the depth of her own belief; American born, she converted to Islam as an adult, an experience she recounts in her 2010 memoir, "The Butterfly Mosque."
Indeed, the two most fulfilled — and fulfilling — characters here are the most observant: an aged sheikh who refuses to miss prayers even amid a full-out assault on the mosque where he has sheltered Alif ("Conscience is the ultimate measure of a man," he explains) and a teenage girl, Dina, Alif's neighbor, who wears the veil by choice and becomes in many ways the moral center of the book for her flinty courage, her ability to see and respond to events as they are. That's a rare talent in a novel where, more often than not, people are fooled by what they cannot see, and it's refreshing also for a young girl to be portrayed as forceful and astute.
Still, as compelling as this is, "Alif the Unseen" has its problems, mostly involving the mechanisms of its own storytelling, which at times become melodramatic and contrived. In one particularly heavy-handed bit, the Hand of God turns out to be not just Alif's digital rival but also his romantic rival; he is betrothed to a woman Alif thought he loved.
For Wilson, this is clearly meant to set up another layer, another play on "The Thousand and One Nights": "[He] asked about my thesis," the woman explains, "and told me how happy he was to have an educated wife. He cares about my mind. None of the other men my father has suggested have given a damn what I think, or whether I think at all." The whole thing, however, seems too easy, too schematic, a problem compounded in the second half of the novel by two clunky and unbelievable deus ex machinas. If we read novels — and I think, in part, we do — to watch people wrestle their way out of situations, then to see a character rescued repeatedly by what amounts to divine intervention is to defuse the tension of the narrative. It would have been more effective, in these cases, to let Alif work out his problems for himself.
And yet, in the end, this may be the point also: that we cannot exist entirely for ourselves. We need others, seen or unseen, human or otherwise, belief systems, stories, narratives. Without them, the universe is too chaotic, and we fall prey to illusion, false faith. Or, as the sheikh puts it, "How can one not be overwhelmed by a creator who gives and destroys life in equal measure, with breathtaking swiftness? You look at all the swelling rose hips in the garden that will wither and die without ever germinating and it seems a miracle that you are alive at all. What would one not do to acknowledge that miracle in some way?"