I have to admit, I was pretty pumped to get my hands on Reif Larsen's forthcoming novel, I Am Radar. I loved, loved, loved Larsen's first book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet - a groundbreaking, genre-busting piece of awesomeness. Radar is very different in most ways and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I get the whole thing after reading 600+ pages.
The lead copy reads: In this kaleidoscopic novel, a love-struck radio operator discovers a secret society offering mind-bending performance art in war zones around the world.
And: In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.
Okay, I'm game. And I was with it almost all the way through, until I could see the pages running thin in my right hand and the plot not pulling its narrative tendrils together in any way I was hoping for. There are four main sections - and when I think about it, maybe this is the central problem, the structure. Each section feels amazing in its own right, but when they get stitched together... some bit of connective tissue seems to be missing. There are hints of something magical happening, just at the fringes of everything, but it turns out... well, nothing gets resolved or even revealed on that front - at least to this reader's satisfaction.
Here’s the thing: there's a whole performance art/puppeteering/quantum entanglement thing happening at the center of this and I could never fully get my head around it. Everything swirls around this group of performance artists who have been staging pieces around the world in wartorn areas. Radar meets them as a child when his parents bring him to arctic Norway to have his skin turned white. (A very strong section, for the most part. Radar's mother struggles mightily with her son's appearance and her regret and guilt is super powerful. Then there's the Norwegian performance artists...) More threads are laid out in Yugoslavia where a man makes magical black box dioramas that enchant the populace. And in the 1970's, tragedy befalls the group when they try to stage a performance for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. All of this leads to Radar joining the gang in the final act and traveling to Congo for one final art piece... that I cannot understand the significance of in the slightest.
Nothin' sez #bookstoreday like pulling a fish outta your pants. @scotchwichmann just rocked @ucsdbookstore. pic.twitter.com/XuLvy5ihbSMaybe I just don't "get" performance art? (I thought I sort of did after Scotch Wichmann pulled a fish out of his pants in my store last May...) And since this art form seems to be the centerpiece to understanding I Am Radar... I'm sort of left not getting it.
— The Book Catapult (@thebookcatapult) May 3, 2014
I kept hoping for if not blatant answers to Radar’s bizarre origins, at least a trail of breadcrumbs that lead somewhere other than into more performance pieces. The hints at a bigger, more mysterious picture are everywhere, yet nothing ever seemed to pull it all together. Why was there a big, strange blackout that happened at the exact moment of Radar’s birth? (You're seriously going to let that thread hang there when Radar is born pitch black and with crazy radio-tuning abilities?) What is the significance of the islands - from different parts of the world, in different story arcs - that all look the same in the artist’s rendering? What's up with the eye iconography? Where did Kermin go? How the hell wasn’t Radar responsible for the second blackout in the final section?? Jesus, I mean, of course he did – didn’t he? Isn’t there something more magical and strange about Radar?? ISN’T THERE???
I’ve written before about the importance of having critical voices out there in this new glad-handing internet world we live in, but I’m having trouble throwing Reif completely under the bus here. My main complaint about Radar is that I just didn’t get it - as a whole piece. Reading – and writing, too – is an intensely personal prospect. Just because I can’t see the bigger picture come into view, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there. I loved much of the free-standing, individual pieces that form Radar - any one of which could stand alone as an outstanding novella. There seem to be little subtle threads connecting each of the four major parts, yet… they are so thin to me that I could never figure out why or what their significance was. Despite all that, I think I need to reserve final judgment on Radar until I talk to someone else who has also read it. I know, this sounds and feels like a deflective cop-out to me too, but I desperately want to see what other people think about it and as of this writing, I haven't found anyone. Maybe it's me. But then again... maybe it's not.
Further readings these past weeks:
The Emerald Light in the Air: stories by Donald Antrim. See this old post from 2013 for more on Antrim's novel, The Hundred Brothers - he's the underappreciated mad god of contemporary fiction. You should really read this dude - in fact, the title story from this collection is right here on the New Yorker website for your enjoyment. These stories are all almost all about protagonists with severe depressive pasts or psychiatric issues that they're working through - although there's so much Antrim weirdness in them that they don't feel so weighty as all that. Just as I was starting on this collection, I read a really wonderful piece on Antrim written by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a great writer in his own right, by the way) for the New York Times Magazine: "Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety". Read that, then read try and not read Antrim.
I've also started reading Marlon James' new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which centers around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Each chapter is from a different narrator - often speaking in a dense Jamaican patois - and it seems to be arching toward a modern day history of Jamaica, in all her violence and messiness of the past 4 decades. I'm having a bit of a tough go at it right now and may push it to hiatus.
And Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside. For obvious reasons. I thought I would just dip into this meditation on the oceans of the world and humanity's relationship to these waters, but I've spent 2 days and 100 pages on it so far, so I'm probably in it for the duration. (Remember, Hoare wrote The Whale - a Catapult Notable book in 2011.) I like it, but it's hardly just about the sea - and I'm having a hard time figuring out how it all ties together thematically. For example, I just read a very interesting chapter on ravens... ravens don't swim in the ocean, FYI.