Modern hacker culture and ancient Muslim mysticism collide in the debut work of fiction from Wilson, better known as a graphic novelist.
Alif, the pseudonym of the Arab-Indian hero of this novel, is a young hacker living in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, providing support to various groups who want to avoid government censors. Heartbroken when he discovers his love has been betrothed to another man, Alif writes a program that can help him secretly detect her online activity, but the program catches the attention of the government, setting in motion a convoluted series of adventures involving an ancient Arabian Nights-esque tome called the Alf Yeom, religious leaders, otherworldly creatures and, quite literally, the girl next door. The most engaging members of this menagerie arrive early, including Vikram the Vampire, an imposing guide to the world of the jinn, and a female American Muslim-convert who sheds light on the mysterious text. Both give Wilson an opportunity to explore the more mystical elements of the Koran in particular and Islam in general, and she also clears plenty of room to discuss repressive regimes and East-West understandings. The novel is timely, especially as it surges toward an Arab Spring-themed conclusion. But though Wilson, a Muslim convert (documented in her 2010 memoir, The Butterfly Mosque), displays a savvy knowledge of Muslim arcana, the story is overstuffed with left turns and a host of characters and bogs down in jargon about hacker tools and techniques. Given relatively short shrift are samples from the Alf Yeom itself, which, when they do appear, offer some wry fables that are engaging in their simplicity. Larger doses of those stories’ pithiness and charm would give this thriller more spirit.
Wilson displays an admirable Neil Gaiman-esque ambition that isn’t quite matched by this oft-plodding tale.