At the center of Martin Clark’s comic legal thriller Plain Heathen Mischief is Joel King, a fallen preacher from Roanoke, Virginia, who got in a little too deep with a young female parishioner. After a stint in jail, and facing a broken marriage and a life gone to shambles, Joel is taken under the wing of Edmund Brooks, one of Joel’s former flock, a mysterious man whose dealings we quickly learn are rarely on the level. “I work the sag,” Edmund explains, “Sag’s the sneaky tax and the holdback and the cushion and the reserve and the contingency and the ‘ol thumb on the scale.” It’s a whole lot of other things, too, but we soon discover that for Edmund, “working the sag” is mostly insurance fraud. Joel relocates to his sister’s in Missoula, Montana, but by then, vulnerable and destitute, he has already been roped into Edmund’s schemes. Edmund’s co-conspirator is a Las Vegas lawyer of the slickest sort, Sa’ad X. Sa’ad, a smooth-talking con-man. Mischief would have been mundane as a straight thriller, but there’s a comic aspect to the book that keeps it entertaining. The three co-conspirators play tough, each in his own way, but to certain degree they’re each doing little more than playing the part of gangster, and part of the fun of reading this book is seeing through their big talk. Eventually the schemes and scams pile on top of one another and things spiral out of control, and while he has written Joel as an, at times, infuriatingly delusional character, Clark does a great job of untangling the Mischief in the end.
Antecedents to Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir, Malik Sajad’s graphic novel about the writhing valley of Kashmir are not numerous. Born in 1987 in Srinagar, Sajad spent his formative years in Kashmir at the time of curfews and crackdowns, an experience documented in Munnu. This tumult was the result of the continuing political and cultural crisis that followed Partition, with both Pakistan and India claiming the Kashmir valley and thus dividing its citizens — some claim that Kashmir belongs to one of the two nations, while others demand its independence. This divide, also religious, was recalled by Salman Rushdie in The Paris Review:
When I was probably no older than twelve we went on a family trip to Kashmir…When we got to our rest house my mother discovered that the pony that should have been carrying all the food didn’t have the food on board. She had three fractious children with her, so she sent the pony guy off to the village to see what could be had, and he came back and said, There’s no food, there’s nothing to be had. They don’t have anything. And she said, What do you mean? There can’t be nothing. There must be some eggs — what do you mean nothing? He said, No, there’s nothing. And so she said, Well, we can’t have dinner, nobody’s going to eat. About an hour later we saw this procession of a half-dozen people coming up from the village, bringing food. The village headman came up to us and said, I want to apologise to you, because when we told the guy there wasn’t any food we thought you were a Hindu family. But, he said, when we heard it was a Muslim family we had to bring food. We won’t accept any payment, and we apologise for having been so discourteous.
In Munnu, Sajad negotiates the private identity with the public crisis that has gripped the valley. In the monochromatic tiles and anthropomorphism of Munnu, Sajad is unsettlingly blunt about the brutality of army personnel in Srinagar, doing away with the idealism that mars debates in suburban Indian homes, often shaped by news channels, where sensationalists run amok, and Bollywood, which would rather engage in melodrama and merrymaking, and delegate the realism to its estranged cousin, the Parallel Cinema. Both these media are ridiculed in a single speech balloon.
Comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus are inevitable; in Munnu the Kashmiris, as endangered as their state animal, are drawn as Hangul deer, while their poachers or anyone beyond the valley’s limits, are humans. Spiegelman assigns an anthropomorphic quality to every nationality: the canine Americans, the porcine Poles. Sajad assigns, ironically, anyone not native to the valley a human form; the Hanguls — his mother, father, siblings, neighbors, and mates — are pitted against the Homo Sapiens. The sentimentality in such a choice is difficult to overlook. Sajad remains steadfast in his Hangul identity, never flitting between species.
Munnu bursts forth with the sparkling clarity of a neo-Romantic novelistic autobiography, bringing to mind the chronology of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Of course, Sajad’s unique medium of imbibition and narration force a negotiation with oral traditions. The section titled “Footnotes” opens with a glorious collection of panels and it is appropriately titled — smack in the middle of the narration of the boy and his family, Sajad charts the history of the valley, from its folkloric origins involving a terrorizing demon and the monk who engorged himself to become the valley and displace a dragon, to the Indian Army landing in Kashmir on October 27, 1947, the drawing of the so-called Line of Control between India and Pakistan., and the intra-wars of the militant groups. It is not as much of an afterthought as an addendum.
Whilst Spiegelman’s “Prisoners on the Hell Planet” adds an after-aftereffect to the mass incarceration ordered by the Führer, “Footnotes” is more of a succinct recapitulation of the treatment of Hanguls by the various waves of visitors to the valley. The prosperity of the valley as it thrived upon the Silk Route is on full display on the left supplemented by words from Abhinavagupta and Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani.
On the right, the famous declaration of love by Amir Khusrau is cruelly borrowed first by the Mughals, then the Afghans, and then the Sikhs. “If there is a Paradise on Earth” paints the invaders in the guise of marauders as they are perched gloriously upon their horses while at their feet lie the Hanguls, first in their military garb, then their arrow-pierced corpses, then with their skulls and ribs laid bare. The decomposition is complete with each “It is here,” reminding one of Walt Whitman’s “heart, heart, heart” that imitates, gloriously, audibly, the “bleeding drops of red.”
The nuanced bildungsroman that is Munnu, the steady metamorphosis of the naive primary schoolchild to the blood-boiling political cartoonist, employed in his adolescence, is some distant cousin of Marjane Satrapi’s Marji in Persepolis. United by their experiences, both play a daily game of hopscotch with armed personnel which is an early entry into disenchantment with their lands: as a rectification for his physical abuse, Munnu’s father takes him on a tour of the old city on his bicycle while the conclusion of the novel contains a shady episode involving two men and a woman in a guarded auto rickshaw. An adjustment to curfews and crackdowns — to avoid being whisked away by armed men, at least — is the plight of the Spiegelmans, the Satrapis, and Munnu’s family. However it would be elementary to homogenize their experiences, just as it is elementary to conflate together the experiences of the North-East Indian states, Kashmir with Assam or Nagaland (the Naga experience, specifically, documented by Temsula Ao in These Hills Called Home and Laburnum for My Head).
The tools Sajad uses to contain his experiences into tiles is inspired partly by observing his father who etched patterns into wood and metal. Whilst Spiegelman conforms with an inky aesthetic with a consistent cross-hatching, and Satrapi a monolithic chiaroscuro, it seems that individual lines never crossing paths might as well have been a recreation of the texture of un-veneered wood. The Hanguls are as angular as matchsticks or the faces Munnu carves into pieces of chalk and fashions out of nibs of pencils to impress his schoolmates. The melting frames of the humans might as well be a Munch-ian nod or an homage to “Prisoners on the Hell Planet.” Sajad is acutely aware of the history of the genre: in the text he fawns over Joe Sacco’s fine hair detail, a DVD of Ivan’s Childhood is fodder for empathy, and R.K. Laxman’s Common Man is out of place and out of character in a fateful Delhi cyber café. Although the Laxman jab might have been a little foolhardy, Sajad has produced a probing visual memoir that translates anger and shame, perhaps incites it, too. More importantly, it delights with its recklessness; the strokes, sometimes practiced like an established language system as rich as Urdu, sometimes unshackled, flip the bird to censors.
Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story “Lihaaf” challenged heteronormative relations and landed its author in court. There was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Arundhati Roy too is a guest at the party. It is noteworthy that all this subjugation is for pieces of what we call fiction. Munnu is a revelatory testimony, resplendent with observation and direct, uninhibited interrogation of a state that makes Munnu a citizen of war who cannot meekly submit and cannot wildly revolt and must therefore compromise for a state somewhere in-between, a state that has characterized his own nation.
Lacar Musgrove Lacar Musgrove is the associate non-fiction editor of Bayou Magazine, published by the University of New Orleans, where she is pursuing an M.F.A. She has a B.A. in English from Boston University.Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City is a strange and fascinating self-portrait.The first time I read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul was on a train from Istanbul to Bucharest at the beginning of a two month journey through southern Europe. I’d been living in Istanbul for a year and a half and was interested in the book not as a memoir but as a book about Istanbul. It’s a strange way of writing a memoir, as entire chapters are dedicated not to Pamuk’s life but to Western and Turkish writers and artists who have depicted Istanbul though painting and writing. Pamuk writes of viewing himself and his city through Western eyes, sometimes borrowed, sometimes, he suspects, his own, recognizing his education and intellectual life as westernized.I was delighted to find many of Pamuk’s observations of Istanbul echoing what I had perceived through my Western eyes. I was particularly amused by this:It snowed on average between three and five days a year, with the accumulation staying on the ground for a week to ten days, but Istanbul was always caught unawares, greeting each snowfall as if it were the first.I cannot tell you how true this is. When it snowed my first winter there and my students refused to come to class, I thought it odd. But the next year it happened again, and the people of Istanbul reacted with the same surprise. It happens every year, and every year they are unprepared.The second time I read Istanbul was for a graduate non-fiction survey course, and it was the inclusion of this title on the reading list that solidified my decision to take the course. Upon deeper study, Istanbul revealed itself as an intricately woven portrait of place, memory and self. Pamuk’s narrative of his childhood and adolescence is confessional and his tone humble as he guides the reader with exquisitely subtle steps through this portrait. He handles the portrayal of his adolescent self in crisis with the same clarity and compassion with which he depicts a fallen empire city struggling with decline. Pamuk invites you into the hüzün, the collective melancholy of the city’s people, but does not break your heart with tragedy. Rather, he allows you to bathe in the comfort of it, to feel the resignation, the longing for a more glorious past as he describes old houses one by one going up in flames, the wealth of the city flowing from the old Istanbul families to the newly rich, a city unable to cling to the past but also incapable of defining a future: paralyzed.So what does this book have to offer one who has never been and may never go to Istanbul? You’ll have to look deep to find it. This is a book about extracting one’s identity from the world, about finding the line between self and society and occupying the place where each is served, finding stasis. In a self-portrait in which self and place are inseparable, Pamuk’s struggle is that of reconciling the two. The history, the geography, the buildings, the people tell him who he is. He recognizes himself as, rather than a unique individual, a character shaped of the collective experience. The habits and possessions of his family are not unique, his hüzün, his melancholy, is not his own but the collective hüzün of Istanbul, his life is not only his life but the life of the city. Young Orhan, however, occupies not only Istanbul but a secret inner world, the solitary world of his daydreams, which he expresses, in childhood and adolescence, through drawing and painting. He is tormented by anxiety and guilt over the separation of this inner world, and when painting no longer serves his need to bring the inner world to the outer, he hits a crisis which is only resolved when he learns to occupy both worlds simultaneously through writing, a moment in which he, unlike Istanbul, manages to disentangle himself from the past, “warmed by the flame of my brilliant future.”Through its theme of inner and outer worlds, the text explores the tension between our sense of self and our sense of how others see us. “Once imprinted on our minds, other people’s reports of what we’ve done end up mattering more than what we ourselves remember.” We know ourselves through our own memories as well as the memories of others. At the beginning of the opening chapter he writes, “This book is concerned with fate.” Pamuk fancies himself unique in his struggle, but I would say his metamorphosis is common if not universal, at least in modern Western societies in which the individual is expected to cultivate a discreet identity and is responsible for harnessing his “true” self in order to fulfill a destiny.I understood Pamuk’s point of view through my own experience, not with Istanbul but with returning from Istanbul to Louisiana, my home and my family and grappling with my claim to this place and its claim to me. Having come to view Louisiana through the eyes of an outsider and myself as separate from it, I found myself confronting the truth of my own identity’s inseparability from place and my need to not only claim but defend it. I empathize with Pamuk’s sense of shame knowing how the rest of the country views our poverty, the ignorance of our citizens, the corruption of our government, the state of our infrastructure. Through confronting the connection between my identity and this place, I can accept this melancholy and embrace and the promise of the past’s claim on my destiny.
Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts of it, story-wise, worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged ponderously along, and then the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed, as if impatient to be over. But the imagination of the novel –– the lovely images annotating the text, T.S. himself –– is undeniable, as is the talent of its author. But one can always forgive a debut novel its ambition, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder, beginning with its almost archetypally postmodern opening:
It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating slightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.
Without warning, the room plunged into total darkness.
The “imminent cranium” belongs to Radar Radmanovic, the center, if not exactly the protagonist, of this tale, and when the lights come back on in the delivery room, Radar comes out a pitch black baby — was it the electrical event somehow? — with white parents. It’s 1975 in New Jersey and rumors spread, leading Radar’s mother, Charlene, to find every doctor she can to figure what happened to her son. Soon, the family lands in Norway so that Radar can undergo an experimental procedure involving a machine called a vircator, which can emit a large electromagnetic pulse and somehow rid Radar of his skin abnormality. It works, Radar’s skin lightens until it becomes “a slightly yellowish, flushed cream color,” but it also causes Radar to suffer epileptic seizures. The procedure is overseen by a group of artists/activists/puppeteers called Kirkenesferda, who are, as a group, the real protagonist of I Am Radar. After the first section, we’re launched into various histories surrounding Kirkenesferda. First we learn of the group’s master puppeteer, Miroslav Danilovic and his father, Danilo, both caught in the precursors to the Bosnian War. Miro’s creations seem impossible, puppets with no puppeteer. We get the history of a man named Raksmey Raksmey who, as a baby, was found floating on Cambodia’s Mekong River in a basket. There is also a man in the Congo who is attempting to collect every book in the world. And finally there is Kermin, Radar’s father, who may have inadvertently caused a giant rolling blackout in New Jersey.
If this all sounds eerily Pynchonian to you, that’s because it is. Deliberately. Charlene, Radar’s mother, is described reading The Crying of Lot 49, feeling “overcome with what we are able to accomplish with the simple constellation of words.” The phrase “gravity’s rainbow” appears. One sequence features the mysterious Tunguska Event from 1908, when, in the words of one character:
There was a huge explosion in Siberia. It blew out two thousand square meters of forest, something like this. Eighty million trees destroyed. Center of explosion was seventy kilometers from Vanavara, but people there, they still feel heat blast all across their skin. The shockwave broke windows, collapsed woodsheds. It blew men right off their horse. It was powerful, so powerful. Stronger than an atom bomb.
This perfectly Pynchonian (and perfectly true) historical event was also explored in Thomas Pynchon’s unjustly dismissed masterwork Against the Day, the novel to which I Am Radar is most closely aligned, in my eyes. But Larsen is doing more than simply riffing on one of his favorite author’s themes –– rather, he is riffing on many of his favorite authors’ themes. One can, while reading, pick up references to Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol (Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from one of my very favorite short stories, “The Overcoat,” show ups) and you can sense –– in the structure, in the prose, in the language –– the influence of Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z.Danielewski, and, of course, Pynchon. This is a novel steeped in its own influences.
Additionally, within this 653-page tome are fictional books, like, for instance, a book on the history of Kirkenesferda, which the narrator references throughout (replete with excerpts, images, and footnotes), and a novella on part of the life of Raksmey Raksmey. There is also Radar’s book, which, within the novel’s world, he hasn’t written yet. Is I Am Radar the book Radar will write? Well, yes and no. See, on page 621, there is an image taken, a note tells us, from “Radmanovic, R. (2013) I Am Radar, p. 621,” which would suggest that, indeed, the book we’re holding in our hands is this same book. Yet, just a little later, on page 641, another image credit refers to page 705. Radar, we are to assume, wrote his own version that extends beyond the story here and that we won’t get to read.
So real books and fake books –– but what’s the point? Why engage in such esoteric literary pastiche? The short answer is that, like Radar and the other sons here, Larsen wants to declare himself.
The primary emotional thread of I Am Radar is fathers and sons, of familial legacy and individual identity. Kermin and Radar. Miro and Danilo. Raksmey and his adopted father Jean-Baptiste de Broglie. Each son struggles with becoming their own person while still acknowledging (sometimes begrudgingly) their forebears. They are like their fathers, but they are different. Like father, like son…sort of.
Larsen makes a clear connection between these literal fathers and sons and literary fathers and sons. Near the end of the book, as Radar and companions head up the Congo toward a massive secret library created by the man hoping to collect all the world’s books, an almost Biblical passage appears. It lasts nearly two pages, and comes in the form of a speech by Professor Funes, the ambitious collector who also happens to have “perfect and complete memory.” Because he can remember everything in great detail, he’s able to list all of the authors he read throughout his life. Here is a short excerpt:
I read Defoe and Asturias and Sterne and Stendhal and Verga and Carducci and Blasco Ibáñez and Hugo and Verne and Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Sand and Verlaine and Paz and Maupassant and Ibsen and Wordsworth and Austen and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Blake and Scott and Carpentier and García Márquez and Puig and Cortázar and García Lorca.
And so on, until it more or less moves it way up to “DeLillo and Mailer and Salinger.” This is like a personal version of Genesis or Chronicles with all those endless begats. Larsen, as the finale shows, acknowledges the great authors who came before him, how their influence on him is undeniable, unavoidable, deep –– but that he is still his own writer, one with formidable gifts and looming ambition.
If not everything quite works in I Am Radar –– like, e.g., characters’ names sometimes change and are hard to keep track of, which lessens the emotional impact of some of their arcs; and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re reading an omniscient narrator or borrowed information from one of the fictional books or some hybrid of the two –– it’s partly due to Larsen’s maximalist approach. How can any writer sustain perfection in such a large undertaking? It’s nearly impossible to do. Anna Karenina has parts that lag, that underwhelm (most notably Levin’s long diatribes on his serfs), as does Ulysses and The Brothers Karamozov and Infinite Jest. Novels like I Am Radar, which would technically fall under the “historiographic metafiction,” are especially prone to unwieldy excess and inscrutability. Pynchon’s books fall into that same category, and his novels are unquestionably flawed. And here is Larsen, continuing the legacy, in the same vein but in his own way. Like father, like son. Sort of.