This highly imaginative debut novel by an American-born convert to Muslim has garnered praise from all and sundry. Part fantasy, part mythology, part religious tract and part political tract, Alif the Unseen is as hard to pin down as it is fun to experience. It is the story of a young half-Arab/half-Indian man living in an unidentified Arab sheikdom known as “The City.” Alif (his “label”) is a computer hacker par excellence, and from his mother’s apartment is happy to sell his services to any and all who need him– whether radical Islamicists, revolutionary communists, dissidents, or pornographers–to hide from the vicious head of state security, aka the “Hand of God.” Alif’s only religion is freedom of information.
Our hero’s life is complicated by the fact that he is in love with a high-born girl who has just been betrothed to a high-born man, which he isn’t. She ends her affair with Alif, causing our heart-broken hero to attempt to put a firewall between himself and his former love, only to discover that he has instead written a computer program which can inexplicably detect a person’s identity through their emails. This is of untold value to the Hand, who seizes Alif’s software and uses it to hunt down and imprison Alif’s clients, among others. Alif himself is forced to flee, but not before his former love sends him a rare copy of the hundreds’-year-old Alf Yeom that she had been studying for her college thesis. The Alf Yeom, translated as “The Thousand and One Days,” appears to be a collection of fairy tales but was apparently dictated by djinn, and the Hand is determined to…ahem…get his hands on it, convinced that it contains code that will enable him to create a quantum (versus today’s binary) supercomputer.
And so the hunt is on, involving Alif’s devout neighbor Dina who is in love with him, an octogenarian imam who gets dragged into Alif’s world, several terrifying encounters with the Hand, a strange sexual escapade involving a cat who isn’t a cat, a cross-species impregnation, and of course lots of djinn of all sizes, persuasions and allegiances. The author’s pace is whirlwind and it’s the reader’s job to keep up or get lost in the dusty streets of Alif’s City or in the jinn-populated and ever-moving Empty Quarter as Alif dodges the Hand’s minions. Alif the non-believer gets captured at one point and is nearly starved to death, but he goes through his own Damascus conversion and grows a pair in the process, going from a love-besotted computer genius living mostly behind four walls at the start of this novel to, well, a netbook-wielding computer genius leading a revolution in the streets.
The author lives part-time in Cairo, Egypt and she has clearly experienced the “Arab Spring” firsthand and replicates it in this novel in all its glory, while not sparing us the painful truth that revolutions are dirty, messy things and rarely pure. Also embedded in Wilson’s novel are all sorts of lessons about the power of the word (although sometimes it’s unclear whether it’s the Word of Allah or the Microsoft variety she worships, or perhaps both). In my mind, she devoted far too many of her own words to each; her nearly orgasmic and o’er-lengthy description of Alif’s final coding extravaganza left me in the dirt, although her metaphor for man striving too hard to replicate God was unmistakeable. Alif’s exchanges with the Imam, also sometimes over-long, were at least comprehensible and even sometimes poetic. For all its faith-based meanderings, Alif the Unseen is a fun adventure, and a refreshing offering to readers willing to step off the beaten path.