It’s a sneaky trick, this book: an unthemed anthology prettied up to look like a themed one. [EDIT: But see the comments] Why such fancy-dress should be necessary is unclear to me, but apparently it is (at least, with a couple of small-press exceptions, unthemed anthologies seem to be few and far between at the moment), and if that’s what it takes to give me the kind of enjoyable whiplash that going from “Concealment Shoes” to “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” gave me then, well, that’s what it takes. That said, the jump between Youmans’ story and this is only an exaggerated version of the jump between Shepard’s and di Filippo’s, or di Filippo’s and Youmans’. Theme anthologies are all very well, but they don’t tend to give you the sense of possibility, or the shock of the unexpected, that Salon Fantastique is giving me.
Not that the fragmented style, insistent tone, or serious subject of Lavie Tidhar’s story were, in themselves, surprises. Reading “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” after an extremely conventional story like “Concealment Shoes” made those aspects stand out, but in the last twelve months, Tidhar has published a bunch of stories, in venues like SCIFICTION, Clarkesworld Magazine and Strange Horizons; and most of them have been, in one sense or another, bold. They may not have been entirely successful (“My Travels with Al-Qaeda” isn’t quite a home run, either), but they almost always feel like Tidhar has something to say, and is trying to find the best way to say it.
This time around, “something to say” is a meditation on the aftershocks of terrorism, and “the best way” is fragmentation. “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” contains more subsections than pages, and despite its brevity includes two poems (both by Israeli writer Lior Tirosh who, if Google and the law of conservation of initials are anything to go by, is fictional) and two brief statements, by Martin Ayub and Khalid Saleh, taken from real FBI transcripts made in the wake of the 1998 US Embassy bombings. The fictional meat of the story focuses on a couple, a woman called Alyson and the unnamed (male?) narrator, and is stitched out of vignettes set in, primarily, Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, Tel Aviv in 2004, and London in 2005.
What is actually happening is unclear — one senses that Tidhar knows but, either deliberately or inadvertently, has not left quite enough textual clues for the reader to be able to piece together the backstory with certainty. “I keep going back to the disaster areas”, the narrator tells us at the start of the story; one interpretation of the last sentence is that this is literally true, that the 1998 bombings caused the narrator to come unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim style, and that some attractive force exerted brings them back into the world at or near similar events. Another interpretation is that events are simply being told out of sequence: we also told “Perhaps it starts, if it starts at all, in July 2005”. Those appear to be the two poles of the story, at any rate. “Somehow,” the narrator says, “we are caught between these two summers, and the seasons freeze”; later, he likens their experience to a videotape played over and over again, looped with no resolution. A third interpretation is that the story is a dream, a jumbled up mash of recollection and imagination. This would suit the narrator’s omniscience, and their apparent ability to know what the other characters in the story are thinking, are dreaming.
To a large extent, it doesn’t matter which is the case. The power of the story — which is considerable — is in its effect on the reader. “Just another collapsed dream” is how one of the poems describes the ruins of the American Embassy in Nairobi, and whether the phrase is original to Tidhar or borrowed from Tirosh, the feelings of helplessness and resignation that it implies saturate the story. The world itself becomes oppressive — “August heat squats over low buildings” and “Night covers the tarmac as if trying […] to hide the city’s flaws” — and for a dozen pages or so, we are trapped in the loop with the narrator. But even when we’ve turn the page and escaped, the effect of the story lingers: we remember the urgency and economy of the telling, and the sharp sudden pains that are told.