How sure are you that the world you see around you every day is real?
How sure are you that it's the only one? That there aren't other, stranger, worse or better worlds existing simultaneously, right next door, a breath away?
How sure are you that you're not living in one of them right now?
Lior Tirosh is pretty sure that there's only one world when he boards a plane from Berlin, meaning to go home to visit his ailing father. He is an author of pulp detective novels, not particularly famous, not particularly loved. He's fleeing from a tragedy in his own life, grieving as the miles unwind behind him. And when he lands in Palestinia — the Jewish homeland on the Ugandan border, offered to Europe's Jews in 1904 as a place of safety — he feels like, finally, he has come home.
Tirosh grew up in Palestinia. He remembers the sights, the smells, the polyglot languages and the giraffes snarling traffic at red lights. The giant wall that's being built to keep out African immigrants is new. The security checkpoints at the airport, the intense scrutiny of him and his things. He knows, in some vague way, that there have been some troubles in Palestinia, but on his first night in Ararat, the capital, he witnesses a suicide bombing. He's surprised by an old friend from school who asks him to find a niece that he barely recalls. And then he's accused of murder.
Lavie Tidhar is a genius at conjuring realities that are just two steps to the left of our own — places that look and smell and feel real, if just a bit hauntingly alien. Unholy Land develops slowly. It begins with banal strangeness (this Palestinia, so like and unlike modern-day Israel) and leans gently into it. Tirosh is almost achingly dull. He moves slowly. He sees things as if through a lens clouded by existential exhaustion. Tidhar is 11 pages in before there's the first sense that something here is ... odd.
At a customs checkpoint in the airport, an officious man (an investigator named Bloom and Tidhar's first-person voice to Tirosh's third and another character's second — the yous and yours as disorienting as those things always are until you settle into them) searches his belongings, explaining to him about contamination, about the dangers of things being brought in from Outside:
I wanted to tell him about mimicry, about how organisms can disguise themselves visually in a foreign environment: like weeds pretending to be useful crops so as to avoid destruction.
From there, the world begins to unspool. There's the bombing, the murder. Tirosh's connections to the world outside Palestinia — his family, his past, his career as a novelist — become stretched and tenuous. When he gets a cell phone call from his agent, it seems to come from a million miles away — full of pops and static. For a moment, Tirosh forgets who he is. He becomes one of his own characters, a detective searching for his missing niece. People stare at him like he's crazy. When he takes his hand away from his ear, he finds he's been talking into a glasses case: No one in this place has a cell phone. They don't even exist.
This is a story that gets weirder the deeper you get into it; that cultivates strangeness like something precious. It has three narrators: Investigator Bloom, Tirosh and a woman, Nur, who works as a field agent for the Border Agency. There are echoes of Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union in it, wild strains of P.K. Dick and Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. But Unholy Land is its own thing. Something that no one but Tidhar could've written. Gorgeous in its alienness, comfortingly gray in its banality, and disquieting throughout.
And yes, it's a story about the magic of writers, partly, and that may rub some people the wrong way. Normally, it might rub me the wrong way, but because it's Tidhar, somehow, that makes it okay. Because he approaches it with a certain reverence for the pulps and the hacks, for the cheapness of collections of Golden Age sci-fi space-ships-and-ray-guns imaginings, for the sadness of worlds that never were. Because writers — his writers, the writers loved and tolerated by his slouching, strange, murderous characters — shape worlds without knowing their own power; for pennies a word; in lonely rooms never understanding what they do.
"History is not one thing," Tidhar writes, in the voice of an instructor from the Border Agency. "It is a tapestry, like an old Persian rug, multiple strands of stories, criss-crossing. Some are strong, central. Some fray at the ends, or fall off altogether."
The places where they meet are the important places. The most interesting. That's where Tidhar's characters live. It's where they die. It's where they come together to create or destroy or protect the realities that are most central to them.
The ones that each of them think — or have imagined — is the real world. The only one there is.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.