Alif the Unseen is simultaneously one of the most complex books I’ve ever read and the simplest. Set in an unnamed middle-eastern security state, Alif is the story of a young hacker who has made it his mission in life to protect the internet freedom of anyone who asks for it, and who can pay. He and his hacker friends are in a constant state of war with the State and its enforcer, an amalgam of both man and software, whom they call The Hand (as in, ‘of God’). But when a broken heart spurs Alif to create a dangerous new program, the Hand comes after him and he’s caught up in a chain of events that lead him to become a fugitive, protecting himself, his childhood friend Dina, and a 1000 plus year old book given to him by the girl who broke his heart. The book is The Thousand and One Days, or the Alf Yeom, and its stories belong to the jinn, something Alif realizes only when his adventures lead him to a real-life jinn who calls himself Vikram the Vampire, and then the shit REALLY hits the fan. The Hand wants the book for his own nefarious purposes, but in Alif’s quest to protect it, his life changes in ways he never could have predicted.
Wilson’s non-stop narrative and beautiful prose is both an examination of Alif’s character and an exploration of all things unseen (I’m not going to elaborate on this, because it’s one of the pleasures of the book seeing how Wilson teases this theme throughout the novel).
I had a hard time getting into the story at first, despite Wilson’s way with words. In theory, this should have been one of the best books I’ve ever read. You bring examination of mysticism or fantastic elements into close range of technology and religion in a story and chances are I will lose my damn mind over it (see: Battlestar Galactica, for example). I think part of my problem with this was that the world Wilson was writing about made me uncomfortable, both because it’s intentionally an uncomfortable world that she’s writing about, and because her main character, Alif, is a little bit of a sheltered douchebag at the beginning of the story, and I didn’t really enjoy reading about him. But in retrospect, that’s the point. At the end of the prologue, after a scribe has just finished forcing a jinn to narrate the last of the Alf Yeom for transcription, the jinn leaves the scribe with a warning. He tells the scribe that once he hears the final story, he will become a different person. Even before I’d read the whole book, that line resonated with me. Even though the jinn in the story is being somewhat literal, every experience that we have as human beings changes us in small ways, shaping our thoughts and personalities, and what are stories if not experiences?
There is no paradigm of comparison that I can easily fit this novel into. I’ve never read anything like it. Whether that’s because it’s the first of its kind or because I need to stretch my horizons, I don’t konw. This is not the Middle-Eastern Harry Potter. This is not “The Golden Compass for the Arab Spring,” as Steven Hall is quoted as saying on the blurb on the back of the book. It’s not even close. I would even go so far as to say they’re diametrically opposed to one another. The Golden Compass is about the death of spirituality and innocence, and Alif the Unseen is about its rebirth. Alif the Unseen is about the re-discovery of things ignored, things not believed in, things that are hidden like treasures. This book is about learning to believe again in things that we have hidden from ourselves. Wilson’s book positiviely screams out her belief that there is power in the unseen, both mystically and religiously, and in terms of the people who are made unseen by the domination and tyranny of others. It’s about an ungrateful, spiritually barren young man learning to discover the wonders in his life that were there all along, but he was just to willful to see them. It’s about learning to accept the spiritual, unquantifiable part of life without feeling shame. As one jinn tells Alif, “Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.”
Plus, it’s full of beautiful passages like this:
“I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. I the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.”
This is the type of book you come back to, that you re-read over and over again to delve for meaning, and the kind that makes it possible to do so, giving you a different answer every time you ask the same question. This is a book ripe for literary analysis, for inquiring minds to rip it apart and put it back together. I like it more and more the longer I think about it. And yet, as dense as it is, it’s also light and terrificaly readable. It’s scary and thrilling and has magic and genies and shit, and you can totally ignore the thinky parts if you’re inclined to not, you know, using your brain and stuff. It’s a win-win for everybody, really.
The only people I wouldn’t recommend this book to are racists, and fuck those guys anyways.