Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Wednesday, January 7, 2015: Maximum Shelf: I Am Radar

Penguin Press: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

Penguin Press: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

Penguin Press: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

Penguin Press: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

I Am Radar

by Reif Larsen

In his second novel, author Reif Larsen (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet) has woven heavy-hitting philosophical and emotional exploration into an international, intergenerational story of Homeric proportions. I Am Radar is a book about electricity. It's a book about families, and colonialism, and languages and war. It holds the epic, intricate delight of the best children's fantasy blended with an impressive intertextuality geared toward a well-read adult audience. Much of the novel's delight lies in the sprawling nature of its plot, which spans continents and generations over the course of its 600-plus pages. From New Jersey to Cambodia and throughout the 20th century, Larsen recounts the life stories of a series of people connected by a secret Norwegian organization formed during World War II and known as Kirkenesferda. It's a wild ride with an unconventional structure balanced by an enormous cast of compelling and unforgettable characters.

Part 1 of the novel begins, as do many great stories, with a birth. In this case, a white couple living in New Jersey gives birth to a black son. Not just a boy darker than his parents, but a child with skin and hair black as night, from head to toe. This miraculous baby is Radar--so christened by his father, Kermin, an electrical engineer and immigrant from war-torn Bosnia. Despite the doctors' repeated assurances that her son is fine, Radar's condition sends his mother, Charlene, spiraling into obsession. While she's busy in her single-minded search for a diagnosis, Larsen takes us back through her eventful life, which involves heroin, Anna Karenina, arson, the Dewey decimal system and the excellent phrase "astrological strip Ouija." When Larsen returns to the present day of Radar's birth, the effect is one of sudden depth: the dull, neurotic mother is revealed as an ex-addict and '70s wild child searching for order in a painfully chaotic world.

As Charlene searches feverishly for answers, Kermin becomes more and more convinced that nothing is wrong with their son. Taciturn and stoic, Kermin is as loving as he is eccentric. It comes as no surprise, then, that when a mysterious letter arrives from Norway offering a possible "cure" for Radar's condition, Kermin flatly refuses to consider it. Charlene insists on responding, and soon the family finds themselves on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Arctic Circle, where the members of Kirkenesferda await them. There, in a land north of everything, an odd man spins them a tale of art and philosophy. Kirkenesferda is interested in using electricity to blur the line between performer and puppet in large-scale metaphysical stagecraft. Despite Kermin's hesitance, the mad scientists charm both parents and they allow Radar to undergo a procedure intended to change his skin color.

Part 2 of the novel takes place far from 21st-century New Jersey, in 1975 Bosnia. There, we are introduced to a three-year-old named Miroslav who has just swallowed a key. That young boy and his brother grow up to play very different roles in the civil war that tears their country to pieces. One is destined to become an infamous Chechen fighter, while the other becomes a guerrilla puppeteer and cult artistic figure in Sarajevo. Engrossing in and of itself, their tale offers bits and pieces of background that explain the origins of Kirkenesferda and the organization's connection to Radar's family.

Later, Larsen takes the reader south to Cambodia in 1953, where another miraculous birth is about to take place. On a rubber plantation owned by an French scientist, a tiny baby found floating in a river becomes the subject of an experiment in scientific child-rearing. His story involves sign language, the history of x-rays, the Khmer Rouge and, eventually, a tragic involvement with Kirkenesferda's ill-fated final performance.

These historical digressions alternate with the continuing saga of Radar's life. A decade or so after undergoing the experimental procedure in Norway, Radar is pale, prematurely balding and epileptic. He spends his days writing down his own "rules for life" in a notebook, working as a radio engineer and nursing a crush on the cute girl at the convenience store. All that changes one day when his father disappears during a freak blackout that destroys every electrical device in New Jersey. Radar finds himself on a high-stakes trans-Atlantic scavenger hunt that eventually leads him to discover the truth about his past and take his place in the final Kirkenesferda production.

Larsen's prose is straightforward and bold, full of sparkling phrases that wink out from the constantly evolving action; the diagrams and illustrations that appear throughout add to the sense of intricate world-building. Each character and subplot is treated with the same joyful, meticulous focus, making it easy to get lost in Charlene's, Kermin's or Miroslav's lives and forget the larger arc of the story. This makes the novel a joy to re-visit, as hidden treasures and connections appear with each re-reading. Wise yet unpretentious, both broad and deep, I Am Radar will slake the most unquenchable thirst for storytelling and open the reader's eyes to new possibilities in fiction. --Emma Page

Penguin Press, $29.95, hardcover, 9781594206160, February 24, 2015

Penguin Press: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

Reif Larsen: Trust the Story

Reif Larsen's first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, was a New York Times bestseller and is published in 29 countries. The novel was a 2010 Montana Honor book, a Border's Original Voices Finalist, an IndieBound Award Finalist and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was also adapted for the screen in 2013 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie). Larsen's essays and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Tin House, one story, the Millions and the Believer. His new novel, I Am Radar, will be published February 24, 2015, by Penguin Press and is the subject of a documentary film about translation. Larsen is currently the writer-in-residence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

This book comes from all sorts of directions: performance art, the Cold War, electrical engineering, New Jersey and, of course, literary references to everything from Jorge Luis Borges to Joseph Conrad. It feels sometimes like about five different books all woven together. Where did it come from?

It is a bit of a mess, yes? I'd like to think of it as a finely tuned mess, but perhaps this is giving myself too much credit. I think the lovely thing about novels is that there's some cushion room there--we seek out books that are big baggy monsters and so as I was revising (and I did a lot of revising), I was conscious of tightening the rigging and trimming and organizing and connecting but not TOO MUCH. I resisted the urge to tie everything up neat neat neat as I think this book always asks more questions than it answers. And it should be as such. But I started the book with a very personal, singular story, which was Radar as a young man in New Jersey, helplessly in love. And fairly quickly the novel told me it wanted to expand from there and I did my best to listen while simultaneously trying not to freak out at the behemoth that I was creating. You've got to trust the story.

What are your thoughts about the role race plays in Radar?

I don't think the book is about race per se, though this is certainly an important component of the book. For me the book is much more an exploration of identity, how we relate to one another and how we differentiate ourselves from others. What are our (shifting) criteria for sameness and otherness? Because this is quite an arbitrary thing. Growing up in the U.S., you're trained to think that race means one thing--that the dynamic between African-Americans and Caucasians is duplicated everywhere else in the world. But if you travel to places like Southern Africa or West Africa or Southeast Asia or around Europe, you see that the racial dynamic in the U.S. is a very specific thing. It's the result of years and years of an accumulated history (and the elusive influences of culture and class and all the rest). It sometimes feels like the current dynamic is how it must be and how it will be forever, particularly now, in times where deeply ingrained injustice flashes up into the national conversation. But I wanted the lens to be wider than just the situation in the U.S. I think novels are one of the few mediums where you can do that and get away with it.

The book ends in a way that echoes parts of Heart of Darkness. In what ways were you conscious of that book's legacy while writing I Am Radar?

Heart of Darkness, despite (or perhaps because of) its inherent problematics, remains my favorite novel. I reread it once a year. I admire much about it, but perhaps most of all its demand to be told and retold in various iterations. Our desire to retell a story is one the things I love about humans.

The Kirkenesferda puppet troupe is a captivating idea. Is it a complete invention of yours?

I suppose nothing is a complete invention. But I love our capacity for belief, particularly if something is presented with great authority, with references and images and secondary sources. Reading about something presented in this way, we find ourselves being lulled into a sense of belief because these are the modes of discourse we've been taught to trust. And then we catch ourselves, and say, "Wait a minute... what's true here?" And that's a very revealing impulse of ours. We want to be able to sort through fact and fiction, and I like to locate my work right on that borderland of truth because strange things happen in that territory. On the one hand, we want to be tricked into believing, but then we never want to be fully tricked... we still want to know where the stage set ends. So if I take those familiar boundaries away, what happens?

One of my favorite things about this book was the way that you evoked visual art within the text. How did performance art and puppetry end up in the novel?

For a time, I became very obsessed with puppetry. I had seen this amazing tiny puppet show in Prague in 2004 in which this little being, which was not alive, was suddenly alive, and it took my breath away. And I became addicted trying to chase down that same transcendent moment of the uncanny, where the non-sentient becomes almost more sentient than any human could possibly be. I attended many puppet festivals, I sat through so much bad puppetry, I can't even tell you. Because if great puppetry is a metaphysical experience, then bad puppetry is very bad indeed. But the challenge then became how do you write about such divine artistic moments on the page? You're using a totally different medium--words--to try to re-create a very performance-based experience that almost by definition requires one to witness it. So I kind of discovered that writing around the moment--creating the world and the stage and the puppeteers and the audience and the war and the ethos and the physics and everything but that inexplicable moment--actually does something similar. Maybe I allow the reader to fill in the last little bit of life themselves.

Did you do have to look in any particularly interesting or unusual places while researching this book?

Yes, the book sent me to far-flung places, which I suppose is one of the good things about writing about far-flung places: you actually get to go there. So I went to Cambodia and arctic Norway and the Congo and Bosnia and such. What was particularly interesting was writing about a place I'd never been, then going there. Sometimes my imaginary Belgrade was more interesting than the real Belgrade and I found myself leaving in things that weren't necessarily true but were true in the world I'd created.

You chose to include many illustrations and diagrams. How do they factor into your writing process?

After my first book, I was often asked if my next book would also include illustrations and I would reply, "Hell no." Mostly because I didn't want to be that guy who always wrote illustrated books. But clearly there is something there that fascinates and torments me. So as I was writing this one, illustrations began to slowly creep in, though they function in Radar much differently than my first novel. Here, they are all taken from secondary sources that are referenced and cited. They offer a very different language of the visual than say, private little drawings by a 12-year-old mapmaker. But in both books the illustrations arose from the demands of the story, and I think that's important. The story must dictate the form, not the other way around. I also had many more illustrations in Radar than ended up in the final draft. It was a process of cutting back, of letting something that is not shown do as much work as that which is shown. --Emma Page

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