The San Francisco Chronicle
June 26, 2014
Porochista Khakpour’s new novel, “The Last Illusion,” is not what it appears to be. So much more than the genre Teddy Wayne describes as a ” ‘Jhumpa’d’ tome about cultural displacement,” in Khakpour’s story, what begins as bizarre myth quickly transitions into a recognizable, modern tragedy.
The tale begins with a present-day fable that mirrors the legend in the Persian epic Book of Kings, where Zal, a fair-haired, fair-skinned infant, born to Iranian royalty, is cast out and abandoned because of the way he looks. A giant bird rescues the boy and raises him as her own. Eventually Zal becomes a great warrior and is summoned back to his father, but remains under the protection of his bird-mother.
The Zal in Khakpour’s novel is not raised by birds, but is treated like one. Born to a demented and bitter widow in a rural Iranian village, the woman cannot stand her son’s “albino-ness,” which she blames on her late husband’s bad, old seed. She locks him up in a cage with her other pet birds (whom, unlike Zal, she loves to no end), calls him “White Demon” and treats him with nothing but indifference and neglect. At 10, Zal is rescued by his sister and adopted by a famous New York City child behavioral therapist who looks like Santa Claus and longs for a son of his own.
Knowing Zal is a feral child who will never be completely “normal,” his adopted father and his analyst are shocked when Zal announces he wants to take a trip to Las Vegas to see his favorite illusionist, who claims – to “bird-boy” Zal’s utter delight – that he can fly. Thus begins Zal’s unconventional adolescence, not only due to its commencing at age 21, but also because the part of Zal that he longs to change is the bird baby he has tried so desperately to “molt”: “Eventually he learned to keep the bird in him, any bird in him, so deep within himself that it resurfaced only rarely. … He knew enough of humankind by then to know you did not do a thing like that. The parts of him that they could not get to were perfect like that, best kept to himself.”
Around this time, Zal meets a young woman on the street, an anorexic artist who happens to work with dead birds. “At first he kept thinking she resembled the little black bird she had scooped up.” The two begin an impossible romantic relationship – ferals are supposed to be asexual – in a pre-Sept. 11 New York City. Zal’s new girlfriend turns out to be just as, if not more, damaged than her new boyfriend. Formerly “Daisy” McDonald, in a phase with Islam she changes her name to Asiya (pronounced AWE-see-ya). At first, she seems to possess an acute sixth sense for future events, like meeting Zal, but soon her premonitions turn ghastly: “It wasn’t Asiya’s fear that she was going to die that made her insane – everyone feared that and, of course, it was ultimately a true thing – it was her fear that they all were, together, in the very near future.” Add this to Zal’s magician’s newest and most important illusion to date, the David Copperfield-inspired “disappearance” of the World Trade Center, and you can see where Khakpour’s novel is headed.
Khakpour has been called a 9/11-era chronicler. Her first novel, “Sons and Other Flammable Objects” (2007) deals with post-9/11 New York. As Khakpour has said, after the attack she decided to go to grad school to get away, but, “For an entire semester every story I workshopped started out about something else and ended up being about 9/11.” She quotes Don DeLillo in her essay included in Granta’s issue Ten Years Later: “How can there be closure on something that we won’t let close? Who can call the closure when it belongs to no one and everyone?”
“The Last Illusion” is an epic amalgamation of humanity. Like the novel’s characters, and like Khakpour herself, it is never one thing or the other. It is legend and reality, fiction and history, Middle Eastern and American, good and evil. Zal is a kid who so desperately wants to be normal, to feel human. He has a difficult coming-of-age, more difficult than most, but still a mortal one.
What is more human really than to realize what he does: “The world, thought Zal, was such a very bad place.” While it is a morbid thought, it is also a fair one. There is beauty in truth, even in the grotesque, in the inconceivable. As Khakpour has said, “It took me a decade to realize the only truths worth anything in the end were those very details that, in resisting narrative, told the real story, the only one we can learn from anyway.”
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