‘Anything to declare?’ The girl was pretty in her uniform. Joe wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted to declare he was here to investigate a global conspiracy of mass murder; or say, perhaps, that he was trying to understand a war no one seemed to understand, not even those who were fighting it the hardest; or to explain about the ghosts that kept flickering at the corner of his eyes when they thought he weren’t looking. He said, ‘No, nothing,’ and gave her an apologetic smile, and she waved him through. (location 2421)
Joe (no last name given, I believe) is a private detective, hired by a femme fatale to find one 'Mike Longshott', author of a series of pulp novels featuring Osama Bin Laden, Vigilante, who --
At which point it is obvious that this is not our world.
Longshott (an alibi, you say?) writes of terrorist attacks in a way that Joe dismisses as wildly improbable. The reader may recognise some of those attacks, some of those names. ("[Joe] stared at the paperbacks. Assignment: Africa. Sinai Bombings. World Trade Centre. What the hell was a world trade centre?" (location 287)). Joe is ignorant of them, of the world in which such atrocities can occur.
Joe's world, on the other hand, may seem familiar. ("He had never been there before, and yet it felt as if he had. The knowledge of a memory, rather than the memory itself, nagged at him." (786)) This is a world where de Gaulle died in 1944, where Saint-Exupery was president of France, resonant with echoes of Astrid Lindgren and Woody Allen and Rick's Bar in Casablanca. Where everyone smokes, everywhere. Whisky and cigarettes, unrumpled sheets, £100 notes. Osamaverse fan-fiction. Then Joe tracks Longshott to London, and realises that his world is slowly unravelling.
My sympathies are with Joe here, lost and disoriented, wanting more than anything to solve the case and close the book on all the atrocities in Longshott's novels. Osama is full of wit, allusion and layered realities. It doesn't glorify terrorism, nor demonise the terrorists. And while I'm not entirely convinced by the finale, the novel as a whole will remain with me.