And That's When I Snapped

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, September 28, 2007

SONS AND OTHER FLAMMABLE OBJECTS

By Porochista Khakpour

Grove. 398 pp. $24

Dear Ms. Khakpour:

I'm writing this review in the form of a letter to you because, in part, I've been reading your witty postings on the Internet, as well as a pre-review of this first novel that describes it as "luminous." I also have been very impressed with your blurb from the furiously talented Jonathan Ames, who describes this work as "hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, gorgeous, and mad." I know Mr. Ames is chary with his praise, so I suspect I'm going to be in the minority when I say I had trouble with this novel, had actual trouble reading it, and I thought it best to address you directly.

"Sons and Other Flammable Objects" is a novel of immigration, as well as a study of the ancient conflict between fathers and sons. (This part is for the benefit of our mutual readers.) It recalls the escape of an Iranian family during the revolution and their difficult journey to the United States. The U.S. immigration people, as so often happens, muddle the family's surname so that it ends up spelled "Adam," although variant pronunciations make it "Odd-damn," or "Aaa-dumb."

The mother in the family is Lahleh, but when they end up in Pasadena, in an apartment complex ironically called Eden Gardens, she changes her name to Lala, which refers either to a cheery tune or to L.A., pronounced twice, because Lala is happy in L.A., when she isn't refereeing the constant fights between her husband, Darius, and her son, Xerxes. "How heavy can a carry-on be again?" and the answer, "Heavier than you think," is an exchange fraught with meaning that passes between father and son, and marks their (perhaps permanent) estrangement. They're talking about luggage, supposedly, but really about . . . history. The original Darius was a heroic Persian king, and his son Xerxes, "while interesting, ruined everything." This raises a question: In that case, why name your son after him? But in this novel, symbolism always trumps character. I had trouble with that.

Father and son detest each other. But Xerxes' parents are made to seem detestable from the start: "During their courtship nothing meant more to [Darius] than their mutual misanthropy. . . . He would point out that she had the typical bumpy too-big Persian nose. . . . She would point out that his bony furry back repulsed her. He warned her after proposing that he could see already that their marriage would be plagued with misery. . . . They married." This slant on things is a function of generation, I think. Until we reach the age of maybe 35, we're ashamed of our parents on principle: How could people so ultra-awful have given birth to sensitive us? Later in the novel, Xerxes finds a girlfriend, Suzanne, whose parents uncomplainingly support her in an East Village apartment. She can barely sit in a room with them without having dry heaves; they literally make her sick. Later, her mother talks like a badly calibrated robot: "Well, I'll tell you what, missy . . ." So all four parents sound and act like cartoons. Again, when we're in our teens and 20s, we all feel that to some degree, but shouldn't a serious novelist be able to endow her characters with some actual human dimensions? I had trouble with that.

The main plot thrust here is that Xerxes has been utterly traumatized in his childhood by his awful dad. It is true that when Darius was a kid in Tehran, he and some other little boys tortured birds, coating them with kerosene and watching them fly away, aflame. (The adult Darius is fool enough to tell his son about this.) But later in life he attempts to atone for these deeds by "belling" the cats in their Pasadena apartment, in a quixotic attempt to save the lives of other birds. It's also true that Darius once beats his son for accidentally breaking a family picture of a Disneyland excursion. And -- at least once -- he has raised his hand to his wife. (But later on, when Xerxes slaps the face of his girlfriend, Suzanne, that's just seen as a symptom of a tortured soul, so, what's the standard here?) It's also true that Darius once hauled the family out to an Iranian protest where a zealot set himself on fire, but how was that specifically the fault of Darius? And what little boy hasn't tortured a small animal if he could get his hands on it? And why is Darius's use of physical violence ghastly and Xerxes' endearing? I tried to get it, but I couldn't.

Two other things, and I'm pretty sure they'll be good enough reason for you to wave this review around to your friends as proof positive that your novel is as pearls before swine: How could anyone be so pedestrian as to question how often you use the word "snapped" instead of "said?" I didn't start counting until after Page 246, when I just couldn't take it anymore, but 17 times that verb pops up -- remember that's after Page 246 -- and three times on one page. It's not just Darius; they all snap like turtles, seemingly incapable of a pleasant sentence.

Finally, there's the matter of passports (not to mention visas). A trip to Iran is in the offing. But Darius hasn't left America in more than 20 years; his son has never left the country. And yet there they are, post-9/11, up in the air in transatlantic planes that they've taken virtually on the spur of the moment. Where did they get their passports? Where was your editor? (I thought about calling the Iranian consulate to find out their policy about issuing visas to citizens who fled during the revolution, now that the "war on terrorism" is going on, but then I thought, it isn't my job. It was your job.) There were so many things you could have done here -- take a look at old-world male rage, or what makes Xerxes' girlfriend respond to his slap with a series of loving, servile Post-its. Or, most of all, explain why Xerxes gets to hate his father so much for so little reason and still remain sympathetic, at least in the eyes of the author. But you didn't.

Ms. Khakpour, I could be wrong about this. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. Maybe your novel really is "hypnotic" and so on. But I'm sorry. I don't think I'm wrong. I think I'm right.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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