Zoo Stories

April 16, 2017 § Leave a comment


Last Friday night, in Amherst, I attended a reading by Porochista Khakpour, author of the novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion.

Born in Tehran, Khakpour immigrated with her family to the United States as a young child. It was interesting to hear her stories of growing up in a bilingual household and discovering her love for literature by way of the western-canonical writers she thought she was supposed to like (Shakespeare) before discovering the ones that spoke to her (Faulkner).

She told about growing up in a country that, in the eighties, went out of its way to telegraph its hatred for her people, a country where FUCK IRAN buttons were sold in grocery stories.

Khakpour read an essay originally published in Guernica titled “Camel Ride, Los Angeles, 1986,” about a childhood trip to the Los Angeles Zoo and her father’s stubborn insistence that his children enjoy a ride on a camel, notably his refusal to see the implications of a Middle Eastern family riding a camel for the amusement of westerners.

Out loud he said, “Are you ready? Come on, everyone! This is what you’ve been waiting for!”

What we’d been waiting for was more likely a place where we could be like everyone else, rid of a certain yellow and maroon script, rid of rides on the backs of things or just the idea of us riding on the backs of things, especially that thing. We were somewhere else altogether.

The Last Illusion adapts a tale from the Persian Shahnameh and projects it onto a backdrop of post-Y2K and pre-9/11 New York City. The main character, Zal, is a “bird boy” who was raised in a cage by his mother. He is rescued by a psychologist named Hendricks, who specializes in the study of feral children. In the original poem from the Shanameh, Zal is an albino child, whose paleness causes his parents to abandon him on a mountain.

At the same time, an illusionist named Silber seeks to perform one final stunt—to make the World Trade Center disappear. Intrigued by Zal’s freakish tendencies, he ropes the boy in as an assistant. Zal has odd birdish habits—such as eating insects covered in yogurt—and a desire to fly, a talent that Silber had demonstrated in his earlier spectacles. Zal’s girlfriend, Asiya, has odd eating habits as well–she’s an anorexic–and she experiences premonitions of disaster that cast a surreal pall. The reader, of course, knows exactly the disaster of which she speaks. So we get a novel that interweaves themes of flight and escape, showmanship, and the establishment and rebirth of identity against forces both resistant and inevitable. For that reason it reminded me of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Khakpour has a memoir coming out next year, titled Sick, about her battle with late-stage Lyme disease.


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