Miami Herald (Sunday)

‘Martyr!’ is wonderfull­y strange and delightful


In 1988, the crew of the USS Vincennes mistook Iran Air Flight 655 for an attacking fighter jet and shot it down, killing almost 300 passengers. In acclaimed poet Kaveh Akbar’s first novel, these casualties include the mother of Cyrus Shams, who subsequent­ly grows up in America ruminating on his identity and selfrepres­entation in a hostile culture.

At the novel’s opening, Cyrus – a late-20s orphan, threadbare addict in recovery and Midwestern poet – works a part-time acting job at a hospital. He feels it is “his calling,” pretending to be a dying patient for the benefit of doctors-in-training. But after a prickly encounter with a medical student whose “Yankee patrician veneer” he “reflexivel­y hated,” and a subsequent argument with his AA sponsor, Cyrus confronts what has always lurked behind his addictive selfsabota­ge: “The big pathologic­al sad. Whether I’m actually thinking about it or not. It’s like a giant bowling ball on the bed, everything kind of rolls into it.” He is writing a book about martyrs, a project that might persuade him to kill himself at the end; he isn’t sure yet. Into it, he carries the burdens of grace and rage: grace at having been too young to travel with his mother on the downed plane, rage at the meaningles­s mistake that killed her and pressed his father into a lifetime of alcoholism and low-paying work at an Indiana chicken farm.

Shameridde­n Shams is the sun around which “Martyr!” moves. The writing evokes shades of Denis Johnson – in the gutted, elegiac quality of “Train Dreams” but also flashes of the hapless antihero of “Emergency.” It is sumptuous with metaphors, at their best when animating Cyrus’ childhood: “The Shams men began their lives in America awake, unnaturall­y alert, like two windows with the blinds torn off.” With a kaleidosco­pe of perspectiv­es that illuminate almost 40 years of history, the battlefiel­ds of the Iran-Iraq War and dreamlike scenes outside of time, the novel is obsessed with how “meaningles­s” individual suffering can become legible “at the level of empire,” asking what turns a death into a martyrdom. With its scope, intense interest in the limits of language and self-aware narrative strategy, “Martyr!” has both focus and heft. Yet it is also unpretenti­ously veined with the language of sacred and poetic texts, and studded with new poetry from Akbar writing as Cyrus.

At times, “Martyr!” embraces coincidenc­e with both arms. To give his project – and the plot – its principal direction, Cyrus travels from Indiana to New York to meet Orkideh, a terminally ill Iranian artist who has a closer connection to him than he realizes at first. Her last show aims to make her death meaningful by her inhabiting a museum, speaking with visitors about dying. Cyrus loses nothing by undertakin­g this journey (he is “the definition of available,” says his friend and lover Zee), and Orkideh quickly warms to the engagement. But the reader may forgive the convenienc­e of this plotting for two reasons. First, the artist’s dry wit counterbal­ances Cyrus’ obsession with death, mystics and poetry; “all the Persian checkboxes,” she quips.

Second, Cyrus’ backstory and journey purposely fall into the long shadow of archetype: He’s an orphan; he has emerged from the underworld of addiction with unhealing psychic and physical wounds; he treats Zee like a sidekick; and he is on an existentia­l quest that leads him to three meetings with the oracle-like Orkideh. These lines give “Martyr!” the suggestion of a novelistic shape as it follows its more meandering questions about personal and civilizati­onal death. In the hands of a lesser writer with an agenda, this material could be esoteric and tedious, but Akbar’s narrative maintains a glorious sense of whimsy: In one chapter, the ghost of Cyrus’ mother speaks with Lisa Simpson; later, a Trumpian buffoon attempts to complete a gory transactio­n for the Mona Lisa in a mall.

Reading “Martyr!” is a delight. In his sensual, oneiric and wonderfull­y strange book, Akbar intuits the mind’s talent for distilling meaning from the surreal. His fiction taps his expertise in conjuring an experienti­al purity – through metaphor and with humor that lands. He invites the reader to embrace the kind of queer sense-making that finds no answers yet rests, as Cyrus says, with: “All I know is I’m fascinated.”

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