Darius Adam, his wife Lala, and their son Xerxes live in Los Angeles after fleeing Iran during the Iranian Revolution. Darius pines for Iran, Lala hopes to lose herself in the ways of the Western world by “getting a life,” and Xerxes hopes to shed his Iranian identity to distance himself from his father. A classic struggle is set up—a situation in which both father and son fail to see each other’s point of view and struggle daily against it. Once Xerxes leaves Los Angeles for New York, Darius makes one fateful visit to see his son—a visit that results in both men refusing to speak to one another for many years. In the weeks and months after 9/11, their Iranian identity as well as their need to re-connect is called into question.
These are the broad strokes of Khakpour’s debut novel that chronicles the Adam family (pronounced odd-damn, much to the chagrin of Xerxes as he must repeatedly correct teachers and students) and their attempts to make sense out of their new life in America. It is a meditation on family and on what it means to be Iranian-American—both pre- and post-9/11. It’s also about the role memory plays in keeping our dreams and fears alive:
One of the first lessons of adulthood for Xerxes Adam was the function of memory, and how the key to happiness was learning to detach yourself from its machinations. It was the reason humans were more ghost than mammal. They couldn’t come to terms with memory’s devastating systems: how all things were connected, how one thing was important only in that it would remind you of another, how when things would happen it was not the thing happening that one realized but what the thing reminded one of.
There are ample reasons for why Xerxes has come to loathe his father: Darius Adam’s overbearing discipline, his attempts to re-instill an Iranian influence in his Americanized son, and his violent flare-ups in which he hits his wife and beats his son. Yet in Khakpour’s deft hands, we see a father who desperately wants to connect with his son at every turn but always fumbles his chance. Some of these moments are poignant and painful; others are laugh-out-loud funny. Khakpour’s biting humor, delightfully knowing asides, and careful digging into the interior worlds of two equally stubborn men give the novel an intelligence and a crisp charm that is welcome and quite unexpected in such weighty matters.
Perhaps in an attempt to mirror the fractured state of their lives—a bit in Iran, a bit in the past, a bit in the present, a bit in their dreamed-up future—Khakpour jump-cuts from past to present to memories to dreams. Although innovative, this non-linear format only works for a while. When Khakpour, for instance, cuts away from present action to take readers deep into the dreamy subconscious of Darius and Xerxes (sequences that do little to shed light on their present circumstances) it is frustrating at best. Were it not for Khakpour’s strong characterizations and humor, her book would feel overly fractured. Fortunately, toward the end the pacing picks up and everything comes together.
Another refreshing surprise: Khakpour captures the haze and persistent fear that plagued New Yorkers—indeed all Americans—in those difficult weeks and months after 9/11 in a way that few have captured to date. Her details are spot-on, the uncomfortable “what do we do now” moments pitch-perfect:
In spite of it all, New York was given concrete consolations that came like firm orders: Go About Your Normal Lives. Be alert but also be normal, be very very normal so as not to cause unnecessary suspicion because there would be tax dollars and new laws and more hatred if you pressed those buttons. In a time when people were calling 911 on their junk mail, when an entire subway line could be frozen for hours because of a child’s unattended backpack, when every plane looked too low and every man looked as if he knew something, normalcy was the new sanity even if it was hard to remember what normal had ever really meant.
Despite a few brief lapses in an otherwise brilliant, witty, knowing tale, Khakpour’s depiction of the Adam family and the many difficulties they face is exceptional. Although Khakpour is perhaps not in full command of her many talents, Sons and Other Flammable Objects is a strong debut. Readers should eagerly await her next work.
Callie Miller is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the books editor for LAist and runs the litblog Counterbalance.
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