3 smart novels for the last weeks of summer

Three male characters head to the desert in last-ditch efforts to change their lives in this week's fiction roundup.

1.“Alif the Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson

"A computer geek with girl issues” helps remake his country in Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson's outstanding debut novel, which combines hackers, the Arab Spring, and shapeshifting jinni without even a pause for breath.

 Alif, an Arab-Indian hacker whose clients include everyone from revolutionaries to pornographers, is having a bad week. “Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it."

First, he finds himself the target of The Hand of God, the code name of a shadowy government censor. Then his fiancee, Intisar, tells him her father has arranged a marriage for her with another aristocrat. As a parting gift, she sends Alif a used book. In a fit of geek pique, he designs a code that can identify Intisar, no matter what computer she uses, so that she can never contact him again.

This, his fellow hackers assure him, should be impossible.

“What you are talking about – recognizing a complete, individual personality – is something we do automatically. … But machines can't do it,” said Abdullah. “They need an IP address or an email address or handle to identify someone. Change those identifiers and the person becomes invisible to them. If what you're saying is true, you have discovered an entirely new way of getting computers to think.” And then the government confiscates Alif's computer, complete with a program that will let them identify and imprison any hacker in the country.

Alif, who has zero action skills in the real world, and his Egyptian neighbor, Dina, go on the run. An underworld figure named Vikram the Vampire becomes their sardonic shepherd. He also claims to be an immortal jinni, but Alif, no matter how skeptical, isn't in a position to turn down aid. (And frankly, supernatural intervention is probably the only way he's not going to end up dying horribly in prison.)

“He's already in terrible trouble,” Vikram notes. “A little more won't hurt.”

The book Intisar gave him, it turns out, is an incredibly rare copy of “The Thousand and One Days,” a coded counterpart to Scheherazade's famous tales, and the government wants it even more than it wants Alif.

“This is not the kind of artifact you find lying around in a used bookstore. Or in a rare bookstore. Or in the Smithsonian,” a female American scholar known only as “the convert,” tells him.

Alif's and Dina's flight takes them to the Empty Quarter in the desert, a parallel world populated by jinni, eefrits, and other supernatural folk, who, as it turns out, are in need of tech support. After debugging a Dell, Alif is shocked to find out jinnis surf the Internet. “Cousin,” an eefrit tells him, “we have Wi-Fi.”

Wilson's novel delights in bending genres and confounding expectations: It's both a literary techno-thriller and a fantasy that takes religion very seriously. 

Wilson, who has lived in Egypt with her husband for a decade, wrote her memoir, “Butterfly Mosque,” about her conversion to Islam. 

Her unnamed City, walled by quartz, is full of contradictions and societal inequities that Alif used to navigate by instinct.

“They had no idea what it was like to live in a place that boasted one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world, but no proper mail service. Emirates with princes in silver-plated cars and districts with no running water,” Alif thinks about “coddled” American and British hackers. 

As its characters careen from the Empty Quarter to the mosque, “Alif the Unseen” covers everything from theological questions to whether a Westerner has ever written a novel that fully embraces Eastern thinking (a topic no doubt dear to Wilson's heart).

What about Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet," the convert wonders?

“There is a very simple test,” said Vikram. “Is it about bored, tired people having sex?”

Well, yes, the convert admits.

“Then it's Western." 

Based on that criteria, “Alif the Unseen” is most decidedly not Western. But it is one of the most inventive, invigorating novels of the year.

“A Hologram for the King,” by Dave Eggers

Call it limbo of a salesman. 

A washed-up, middle-aged man hangs the shredded remnants of his career on selling an I.T. system to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Alan Clay's house, which is sliding into foreclosure, his daughter's college tuition payment, and more than $100,000 in loans hinge on closing the deal. Only no one can tell him when King Abdullah might be coming in Dave Egger's latest novel A Hologram for the King. 

Clay brought his troubles on himself, as his union-member dad is fond of telling him: He was part of the team that decided to transfer production of Schwinn bicycles to Taiwan – not quite realizing he would be outsourcing himself out of a job.

“Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud. … He had moved from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in '04 and '07.”

Instead of polishing his sales pitch, Clay spends his days in Saudi Arabia in an insomniac haze, obsessing about a growth on his neck, composing letters to his daughter, and being haunted by a neighbor who drowned himself in their lake.

Part of his malaise is his literal inability to grasp his assignment: Instead of something he can hold, he's traveled thousands of miles to sell a hologram – essentially air.

The other members of the team, Cayley, Rachel, and Brad, spend their days sleeping in the demonstration tent and trying to get a decent wi-fi signal.

“None of them started, as he had, selling actual objects to actual people.”

Unable to relate to the younger, decidedly underwritten Americans, Clay spends his time telling jokes to his driver, Yousef, and listening to the latter's tangled, potentially fatal love triangle.

“This is where the money's going. They're sweeping sand in the desert,” Yousef tells Clay when they arrive at King Abdullah Economic City, a Potemkin village with beachfront condos and a Wolfgang Puck sign.

No one could accuse Eggers, author of the excellent nonfiction works “Zeitoun” and “A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius,” of not having his pulse on the zeitgeist.

When a reader lives in a manufacturing state like Michigan, stories of Chinese companies buying patents from US firms and then underbidding them on projects with their own technology have a certain trenchant resonance.

“We're a nation of indoor cats,” a drunk traveler on a plane tells Clay.

But compared with “Alif the Unseen,” this novel feels smoothly done, but familiar. “A Hologram for the King” is a dispirited descendant of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer-winningDeath of a Salesman,” with echoes of “Waiting for Godot” and the travel-induced queasiness of “Lost in Translation.”

“Attention must be paid,” Miller famously wrote of his title character.

Eggers, here, details what happened while Clay and the rest of the country was looking the other way. The revelations aren't new, but any middle-aged person wondering where his or her career disappeared to during the past five years will easily relate to the main character.

And the novel leaves a reader with an unsettling question: What does it bode for a nation of shopkeepers when its salesmen have nothing left to sell?

“Albert of Adelaide,” Howard Anderson

A platypus escapes from the zoo and heads for the Australian Outback in Howard Anderson's quirky first novel Albert of Adelaide.

While the desert might seem like an unlikely destination for the water-dwelling critter, the idealistic Albert, armed only with a soda bottle of water, is in search of the “Old Australia.”

“A semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal of action” won't be a hard sell for any reader with school-age children and a cable bill, but the orphaned Albert would be a sympathetic hero even to those who have never heard of “Phineas and Ferb.” 

Albert is befriended by Jack, a wombat with a handlebar mustache who likes to play with matches, but the Old Australia he encounters is more Wild West than promised land.

“At the zoo, Albert had been an object of curiosity and ridicule. In Old Australia, he found himself an object of hatred and mistrust.”

With society's pro-marsupial prejudice, the monotreme is eyed askance by everyone from drunk bandicoots to bar-keeping kangaroos and soon finds himself an outlaw on the run. Fortunately, Albert's got his own set of spurs, and these are loaded with venom.

Like Richard Adams's “Watership Down,” or George Orwell's “Animal Farm,” “Albert of Adelaide” is about more than furry animals, but Anderson's allegory about racism isn't an overly subtle one. 

More fun are the supporting characters, such as a washed up Tasmanian Devil wrestler and a raccoon, late of San Francisco.

With its oddball cast of characters and frontier setting, “Albert of Adelaide” reminded me of a down-under “Rango” with a higher body count.