Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar review – riotous tale of a grieving son | Fiction

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar review – riotous tale of a grieving son | Fiction

Cyrus Shams really doesn’t have much going for him. He is a barely recovering alcoholic and unpublished Iranian-American poet who scratches a living in Indiana by role-playing terminal patients for trainee doctors. His mother was blown out of the sky by the US navy – and even his name sounds like a criticism. Hardly surprising, then, that he would channel his search for meaning into a much-planned but largely unwritten book on martyrdom.

His mother was one of the 290 on board Iran Air flight 655 when the USS Vincennes fired at what they believed to be a jet fighter, and Cyrus needs her death to “matter”, to be more than a number. He wants her to have been a martyr and also craves that state for himself – a chance to still the “doom organ… throbbing in his throat”.

So when his supportive friends stumble on an advert for DEATH-SPEAK, the Brooklyn Museum’s latest installation, they think “if anything has ever seemed like a sign, this seems like a sign”. Orkideh, an Iranian-American artist diagnosed with terminal cancer, will spend her last days living in the gallery and speaking to anyone and everyone who joins the queue. If that isn’t a quest to find meaning in death, what is? It doesn’t take much to convince Cyrus to spend the last of his savings on the air fare.

Until now he has idolised Bobby Sands, Joan of Arc and the Tiananmen Square Tank Man, but the woman he encounters in that Brooklyn gallery immediately upends this worldview. Returning each day, eager to see her again, he finds the feeling to be mutual. But as he compiles a list of ever-bigger questions for his new mentor, Cyrus is forgetting that her cancer is terminal.

Alongside all of this, Akbar paints an almost promiscuously kaleidoscopic picture of everything that has brought our wannabe martyr to this point. We see his mother, Roya, unhappily married but finding something more with the wife of her husband’s best friend; his father, infuriated and destabilised by his wife’s senseless death (“Ali’s anger felt ravenous, almost supernatural, like a dead dog hungry for its own bones”), emigrating with his baby son to Indiana; and the uncle who, drafted into the Iran-Iraq war with “zero education, zero special skills, zero responsibilities outside of my country”, is tasked with riding a horse round the night-time killing fields, dressed as an angel in a black cloak, offering final succour to his comrades who will be left to slowly die. He can offer them only religious certainty, he is forbidden to give them the water they truly crave. Roya was flying to visit him in a Dubai PTSD ward when her plane was incinerated.

Meanwhile, tortured by insomnia, Cyrus jimmies up hypnagogic duologues between real and fictional individuals. In these dreamlike scenarios, Roya chats with Lisa Simpson, and Trump chats with Orkideh (while she shops for the original of Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus).

It might be clear by now that this is a novel that comes at you from every conceivable direction, some playful, some whimsical, others grimly intense. As a highly-regarded poet, the author of three prize-winning collections and once hailed in the US as “poetry’s biggest cheerleader”, it is hardly surprising that, alongside everything else, Akbar includes poems. But there are also monologues from Cyrus’s lover and Orkideh’s gallerist, and there’s even a brief history of Iranian epic poet Ferdowsi. And while this disjointed, mosaic technique creates a kind of riotous energy, it comes at a price. Because, somewhat inevitably, Cyrus himself, dwelling insistently on what he calls “the big pathological sad”, begins to emerge as the least interesting, least energetic aspect of the whole confection. Even his best friend tells him: “You just mope around not writing, feeling sorry for yourself.” When the final revelation – a genuine and well-worked surprise – lands on him, it lacks the visceral punch it deserves. It’s not that we don’t understand Cyrus’s anger and hurt, just that Akbar makes it hard for us to truly care.

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