I have always liked stories that go where I've never been and make me feel welcome and at home there, more so than, say, stories of the "I really enjoy the fact that I wasn't born during the Inquisition" variety. Now, after reading Sons and Other Flammable Objects, an absolutely artful and important first novel by Porochista Khakpour, I know that I also like going to strange new places that tolerate my uneasy presence, or perhaps where I'm not even necessarily welcome.
Places that don't answer my knock at the door -- even though I could've sworn I saw a window curtain move.
Places where people sometimes just sit and stare at each other angrily, occasionally uttering a curse word in a language I do not understand.
With all that, I dug the book a lot, but after having read it, and not always while I was reading it. The reason is that the central male characters, an Iranian-American named Darius Adam and his son, Xerxes, who live with their wife and mother, Lala, in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s, are so capable and likely of being contrary to the flow of the world around them -- so misogynistic, confused, lost, angry, sullen and/or sociopathically proud -- that they can be, to put it mildly, a challenge to be around.
Reading Sons can make a reader feel as if he has rented a room in a house where the family who lives there doesn't want eye contact. At one point in the novel, I literally got so pissed off at Xerxes' behavior that I came close to closing book and not going back, leaving the stupid bastard forever drunk on the six scotches he'd guzzled in an hour in a Manhattan dive bar. It would be a just fate for the dumb dickhead, I thought at the time. And to tell you the truth, I found myself getting borderline pissed off at Porochista Khakpour for writing him that way.
Khakpour never leaves the reader without a road back to reasonableness, but with her daring rendition of her male characters, she makes the road back not so easy. Sons is about reconciling what is difficult, leaden and destructive in the world, embodied in the lives of Darius and Xerxes Adam, with what is hopeful and light -- the lives of just about everyone around them, animals included.
Khakpour's writing makes the leadenness of Darius and Xerxes' lives that heavy and, as she skillfully invites the reader to feel, that real. 'Here, have some', she says. 'See what it's like to be born into fear, to belong to a family who fled a country for which they still feel nostalgic for a new one in which they feel distant'. Only then, when you are there, when you get a true feeling for what troubles Darius and Xerxes, can the reader's own reconciliation with the subject matter begin.
Xerxes has a childhood memory that he is not sure is reality remembered or a very vivid nightmare he once had. All he knows is that after the nightmare, real or imagined, of a plane exploding in the sky over Tehran, he is plagued by the desire for nothing to happen. Nothing at all. Khakpour writes:
...when life said Ha, you find me boring, do you, then take this, O bored ones, I'll show you what boredom looks like with its entrails pulled out of its anus with a neon stick, take that, you want boredom, I'll smear you in the toxic shit of adventure, you want that, I'll give you a supersonic nuclear urine flushed swirlie down to the scatophiled-dream-depths of thrillsville, O too-content human - after that night, should the night have truly transpired, he was destined to long for the comfortable vacuum of anti-event for the rest of his life.
My faith in Khakpour's storytelling kept bringing me back to the main characters' fate, kept me clinging to it with just barely enough hope that their highly flammable lives would not incinerate completely. This faith was, I believe, rooted in my appreciation of her artfulness, in the sheer beauty of the writing. That always carried me through. She threw me things I could cling to. Of Xerxes' nightmare, she writes:
He had imagined it because it could happen, because it was inevitable even, because why not? Probability dusts the glitter off coincidence's shoulders.
Sons and Other Flammable Objects floats on the artfulness of Khakpour's writing and the saving, though elusive, nature of hope. Just as you begin to get swamped by the unforgiving obstinacy of it all, the author tosses out a lifeline, something that you can latch onto as it floats past, that will carry you a little way before you get sucked back into the Scylla-Charybdis relationship of father and son.
The story's strong and memorable female characters give it much of its buoyancy. Lala, Darius's wife and Xerxes mother, stitches together a life for herself that is independent of her husband's, a life held together by the flimsiest of friendships and notions, and by her surprising discovery that in America, silence constitutes agreement. If she just keeps quiet, she believes worlds may not collide.
When Xerxes is 14, he makes friends with a girl, a skateboarding outcast named Sam, who shares his interest in retro television shows:
They'd argue for hours about whether Samantha's nose twitch or Jeanie's nod was more potent (both coming to Jeanie in the end of course), which Brady would be most likely to succeed (Sam: Jan; Xerxes: Bobby) ... which I Love Lucy episode was the last one in black-and-white, and how the theme song from Get Smart went. They were stealing their parents' past, they argued. This of course left Xerxes a bit uneasy -- he never got into it with Sam that it may have been Sam's parents' past, and his parents' era's past, somewhere, but it had nothing to do with his parents' past. Theirs was something beyond them, beyond TV, beyond any American imagination ...
The scene in the Manhattan bar, with Xerxes in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, behaving exactly as he should not, redeemed itself for me, kept me hoping, with a fleeting glimpse through a window that involves his New York girlfriend, Suzanne. It wasn't much of a glimpse. The window was dirty. The scene quickly went back to sucking to be Xerxes (and sucking as the reader to be there in that dive bar with him), but it was enough encouragement to get me through. That was Xerxes' experience, too. That glimpse of Suzanne through a dirty window had just enough buoyancy to carry him and me through. And even as it happened, the opening, the murky glimpse of hope and light, began to seal itself back up with the darkness of doubt and shadows of the past.
Nothing terrifies Xerxes' parents more than the possibility that their son may be gay. He keeps his girlfriends, Sam and, later, in Manhattan, Suzanne, secret from them, doing nothing to stem his parents' fears. Keeping the American imagination from colliding head-on with his family's Iranian history is his ever-present dilemma.
Because the reader takes the hard road with Xerxes and Darius, the arrival, the view from the climb, when they have each had their say, is transcendent. It is the American Story, transmitted through people whose dreams are not necessarily or even very often happy ones. The thoughts that bind and torture the young Iranian-American at the center of Khakpour's saga go like this:
It was always in you, you taking your family out on a weekend drive, taking your family out on a weekend drive to a protest for your child to see a man burning out of nationalistic passion, a passion that I was supposed to understand, you wanted to tell me, a darkness that I was supposed to own, you were trying to instill in me. You didn't want me to belong to this country, but yet you wouldn't let me have the ease and clear conscience to belong to you, and so what happened? I ran away and, fine, the irony, even here the instability and turmoil got me; 2001! The worlds mix again, the horrible foreignness I fought to escape, crashing right into the phony Americanness I failed to pull off, the fear bringing me back full circle to my first fear, the nightmare born in a baby watching supposed enemy plans in the Tehran sky, fine, I got through it, but now I'm trying to break the circle, cut the connections, vaporize the voodoo...I'm trying to find myself, an identity outside yours, outside nationality, outside ethnicity, outside family, outside history....foreign to them and to you and to everything, wholly my own lone person.
In the end, Khakpour lifts -- floats! -- the entire weight of the father and son's hurtful relationship and the crushing burdens of their conflicting and conflicted histories, on the fingertip of a single brave word. It is a thing of beauty, a moment not to be taken for granted, a work of art. Porochista Khakpour's gift as a writer is one of presence. Her writing is not description. It is being. It is life.
Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. His website is www.gamechangers.com