BEIRUT: The eeriness of Southern Californian suburbia, a neophyte punk rocker with a self-destructive streak named Sam, an Israeli gas mask as a gift given in exceedingly bad taste, a lifelong obsession with the television series "I Dream of Jeannie" and an erroneously triggered anecdote about the bad games boys play with birds, a lighter and some kerosene. The stuff of Porochista Khakpour's debut novel is so far from that of other, lately fashionable fictions and memoirs of Iran that comparisons to them, through probably inevitable, seem utterly pointless.
The publication last month of Khakpour's "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" may equal a trend, adding to Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and Dalia Sofer's "The Septembers of Shiraz" while subtracting the fuzzy nostalgia and political expediency. But perhaps more interesting for readers of literary fiction - especially those who seek out contemporary novels for their piercing insights rather than for the support of armchair opinions - it signals the arrival of a dazzling stylist who spins wild streetwise language around probing investigations of memory.
Divided into 10 parts, Khakpour's jazzy, jump-cut narrative traces the ups and downs of the dysfunctional Adam family - father Darius, mother Lala and son Xerxes - as they leave Tehran and land, via Istanbul and Paris, in Los Angeles (Pasadena, more precisely).
Darius is stern, brutal, incommunicative and prone to bouts of odd behavior - the novel opens with him kidnapping and "belling" his neighbors' cats to save the local bird population from that vicious feline death squad. Lala, who changed her name from Laleh to banish her traumatic Iranian past and embrace her amnesiac American future, adopts such idiomatic expressions as "get a life" and "lose your mind" in a sincere, if awkward, bid for assimilation. Xerxes, meanwhile, suffers all manner of adolescent humiliations while growing up feeling freakishly different from his white-bread peers.
As soon as he can, Xerxes books it out of Eden Gardens, slams through university and ends up in New York. A colossal underachiever, he doesn't find full-time work, much less a career, but instead ekes out a living as a lowly temp. Darius pays him a visit, and the trip goes so badly it ends with them firmly incommunicado. There's no major blowout, just terse exchanges:
"You like being alone like this?"
Eventually, and soon estranged from both parents, Xerxes gets a girlfriend. Suzanne is a trust-fund kid with tepid artistic aspirations who is "less than half" Iranian but nonetheless clings to it as something, somehow meaningful (her awful, acerbic parents give her the Israeli gas mask as a joke after September 11, 2001). Profoundly misinterpreting the role Iran plays in Xerxes' life, and grossly overstepping the intimate boundaries between them, Suzanne buys two tickets to Tehran for his birthday. He goes ballistic. Then his dad learns of their impending trip, books himself a flight and "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" ramps up for a final showdown.
"One of the first lessons of adulthood for Xerxes Adam: memory, and how the key to happiness was learning to detach yourself from its many machi-nations," Khakpour writes. "It was the reason humans were more ghost than mammal. They couldn't come to terms with its devastating systems: how all things were connected; how one thing was only important in that it would remind you of another." To the word of things "absurdly incestuous and painfully co-dependent," she continues, "Add human minds and amnesiac faculties to the equation and it was a mess."
"Sons and Other Flammable Objects" is rife with triggers that give rise to deeply rooted traumas. Yet unearthing one always seems to reveal another. After all, what memories destabilize Khakpour's characters most? The Iranian revolution that ruptured their lives or the horror of a son stuck in Manhattan on September 11? The fact that Lala finds and loses her brother (and then finds him again in an incident projected beyond the novel's temporal parameters) or the initial car crash that killed their parents and broke his brain? Even the root of Darius' and Xerxes' falling out is misleading - Xerxes asks him about those belled birds and Darius misremembers the incident and tells him instead about how he and his mates used to incinerate doves for fun.
The nightmares, paralysis, inexplicable binge drinking and bouts of pathological, cross-generational violence that addle Darius and Xerxes - these are all symptomatic of some serious psychic damage. And Khakpour goes one further. Her characters cannot contain their most terrible experiences in words. Language cannot hold them. When Xerxes belts Suzanne in the face, they dodge around the incident and convey it to readers obliquely.
Someone could probably write a fine dissertation giving "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" the full psychoanalytical treatment. Reading Khakpour's prose is infinitely more pleasurable than mucking around in the writings of Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan, but at the same time she illustrates their concepts brilliantly, giving them a heartbeat, a sex drive and a dang, double-dang sense of humor.
The "dangerously tenuous yet steadfastly elastic daisy-chain of memory" that floors Xerxes concerns foreign objects falling from the sky. Who knows what they are or which memories they recall and doom to repeat - fireworks, anti-aircraft missiles in the early years of the Iran-Iraq war, hijacked planes slamming into skyscrapers or a common fear of falling, those recurring dreams where you're in perilous freefall until you wake in a full-body spasm? Even Xerxes doesn't know, but he's haunted no less.
And speaking of precipitous plunging, let's recall another, rather more archetypal faller, Icarus as imagined by Ovid in "The Metamorphoses." Icarus' father, the architect Daedalus, is jailed by King Minos on the island of Crete. "Weary of exile, hating Crete, his prison, / Old Daedalus grew homesick for his country." Adopting the guise of artist and inventor, he fashions a set of wings from wax and feathers. His "artless" boy gets gleeful over the creation so Daedalus makes some wings for him too and they flee. The rest is well-worn myth. Despite Daedalus' warnings, Icarus flies too close to the sun, the wax melts and down he goes into the drink.
In "Sons and Other Flammable Objects," Darius and Xerxes make a similar journey, with Xerxes cracking up in the sky - first in flight as a bird kamikazes into an airplane engine and second as he loses it, literally, in front of the Lufthansa information desk at Frankfurt's airport. Independence and the desire to be his own man burns Xerxes just as an audacious thrill fells Icarus.
Though Khakpour's book has so far earned positive reviews, the author has taken some flak for her lack of detail. True, she doesn't paint any of her set pieces in excruciating detail - neither Eden Gardens nor New York nor Tehran. But she does force her readers, through language and rhythm, to feel as her characters feel.
When a neighbor confronts Darius about the bird business and curses him out on the family's doorstep, Khakpour's writes: "Dang, thought Xerxes, double-dang. It was hard for him to pretend not to have heard ... What Mrs. Cook, his last elementary school teacher, had once referred to as the 'effin word' had suddenly surfaced naked, loud, toxic in all its verboten glory, like a defecating bogeyman, perfectly and shockingly used, by, of all people, an adult, an adult stranger ... Xerxes was thrilled."
Any more on Mrs. Cook? Please, who cares? Khakpour's prose rings true to how memory works as a sensation of dread, say, rather than as visual specifics. When a short-lived best friend gives Xerxes a card adorned with a camel, "Xerxes suddenly felt his face grow boiling hot ... He got that taste in his mouth and felt the dull sting in his eyes. He was about to. Oh, he was close. He hated that. Sometimes, especially at that age, Xerxes would get dangerously close to full-on bawling, but would by some masculine miracle be reined back and rescued at the final moment."
And then there are the experiences of which we retain no image at all. In "Sons and Other Flammable Objects," only Lala's brother, a character we barely encounter and even then as a man with his mind wiped clean, "bore the burden of pure memory, the night in which he and his little sister - too little to fathom anything but a vague entrapment in an icy silent darkness - endured 12 hours in a car with dead or maybe slowly dying mostly-mutilated parents, until finally well into daylight a farmer discovered the wreckage." Khakpour never cracks open the brother's account, but somehow in leaving it alone, she gives it more meaningful weight, and renders it more tragically real.
Porochista Khakpour's "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" is out now from Grove Press