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REVIEW: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

September 16, 2012

Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui

In an unnamed Emirate in the Gulf lives a young man who goes by the name of “Alif” — the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. This is not his own name, mind you, but that of his digital avatar. Unseen but not unnoticed, Alif is a dissident, a hacker of some ability who makes a living by protecting his clients from censorship and the state secret police. Half-Indian and half-Arab, he is also in love with an Arab aristocrat whose family will never allow them to be together.

But that isn’t where his story ends. In fact, it’s where it begins. G. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam sets her first novel — an exhilarating mix of cyberpunk and Islamic mythology — in a repressive regime where the first hints of freedom are blossoming in the streets and an uprising seems to be on the cards. On the run from state security for his acts of digital rebellion, Alif finds himself with a copy of the “Alf Yeom” (“The Thousand and One Days”), a slightly less well-known twist on Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In that book, which is described as “the inverse, the overturning of the ‘Nights’”, are the narrations of the jinn and all their knowledge and secrets that make up a parallel universe forgotten by mankind.

Alif the Unseen operates on multiple levels, crossing the layers of the visible and the invisible; the technological and the magical; the political and the social, all culminating in a heady clash between exceedingly grey shades of good and evil. It references the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square, but while it is tempting to see Wilson as prescient, the truth is that her début novel puts social consciousness on the back-burner in favour of a much more fundamental question: “What do stories actually mean to us?”

“The stories aren’t just stories, is what you’re saying. They’re really secret knowledge disguised as stories,” says Alif to a mysterious, potentially lethal stranger named “Vikram the Vampire”. “One could say that of all stories,” replies Vikram, he of unusually jointed knees, and a presence that would make Yakuza quake in their harajuku pants. And this, really, is what Alif the Unseen is all about: the fact that tales and legends reach beyond entertainment and metaphor, even beyond social discourse; they are the data that delineate the past, inform the present and create the future. We mortals, Willow implies, have forgotten that, and in so doing, lost a great deal of our own heritage.

This conceit, of mankind’s fickle nature and cultural attention deficit disorder, runs rampant through Willow’s novel. “You are more interested in the veil between man and photon,” a character points out, “than the one between man and jinn.” The Alf Yeom is a symbol of the power inherent in those things that we dismiss as fanciful speculation; the stories that we choose to leave behind in our quest for growth and power. Alif is emblematic of this trend: he lives life as a digital demigod, but loses his own identity as government security —coincidentally headed by his lover Intisar’s fiancé — tracks him down (with irony notable enough to give Alexander Pope pause, this nemesis is known as “The Hand of God”).

As Alif faces the encroachment of “real life” on his digital existence, he starts retreating from cyberspace, writing programmes that erase his own identity and creating programmes that become semi-sentient, capable of identifying people by their typing styles: when the Alf Yeom comes to light (in an interesting development, the book is sent to Alif by Intisar, his lover), the sudden encroachment of the arcane pushes Alif further away from what he considers reality, and into the realms of fantasy and creation, into the underpinnings of what we see as fact. Alif, in retreating from the physical world — and eventually being cut off from it altogether, albeit in an unpleasant fashion — becomes a creator.

Even more poignant is Willow’s equation of cyberspace, where people hide behind virtual names and identities, with the subtleties and ambiguities of the ancient parables. “Alif” is more than the first letter in the Arabic alphabet: it is also the symbol of a new beginning, just as Alif’s opponent, the Hand of God, represents the repressive power of faith when used as a weapon rather than a tool of liberation. Fortunately, despite dips into the frequently-piddled-in pool of theological commentary, Wilson manages to avoid getting sidetracked.

Her excursions into the realm of the philosophical are infrequent, and range from the mildly facetious (if a sin is committed in virtual reality, does it still count as a sin?) to the outrightly hilarious (“Is [Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet] about bored, tired people having sex?...Then it’s Western [not Eastern] literature”). She doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant facts of censorship, sexism, racism, and state-sanctioned brutality that lurk under the shiny gilt facades of the Gulf, but she also treats them with a distinctly unabashed simplicity: they are horrible things that people deal with as facts of life on a daily basis: nothing more, and nothing less.

But Alif the Unseen is more than just a series of wry observations on the state of the world today, or the clash of civilisations. It seems that what Wilson really wants is for us to recognise and acknowledge just how much of the world is beyond our sights: not just invisible, but quite literally something that we are incapable of seeing. “Wonder and awe have gone,” observes one character. “You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent”. In keeping with this, the two most interesting and fleshed out characters in the novel are those who are least-observed or relevant (an aged sheikh who provides Alif with shelter in the mosque of which he is the custodian, and a female neighbour who wears the veil by choice, and challenges Alif constantly on his assumptions and presumptions).

There is an overarching theme though, one that clarifies like slowly melting butter in a hot pan: it is impossible — and unpleasant — for us to exist as solely contained entities who live only for ourselves. Wilson is a powerful speaker for the unheard, for the ignored and the repressed, and her chosen medium is one of narrative: seen or unseen, we are all interconnected through webs of our beliefs and our own stories. Fundamentally, like the most enduring myths and more moving tales, Alif the Unseen is a powerful, well-written story that entertains and provokes thought… but without making it feel like an effort.

Alif the Unseen


By G. WillowWilson

Grove Press, New York

ISBN 0802120202

320pp. $25