A young woman struggles to make sense of the tragedy of exile, embarking on a series of pilgrimages that may destroy her chance for happiness.
Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini, the thorny, tragicomic heroine of Van der Vliet Oloomi’s (Fra Keeler, 2012, etc.) darkly funny novel, is a narrator who deliberately resists categorization. Raised in Iran during the height of the Iraq War, Bibi fled with her parents, the last survivors of a proud tribe of “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists.” Their journey was filled with horrors—death, fatigue, and hunger—and it haunts her into a fractured adulthood in New York City. Now, more than a decade after fleeing Iran, with her parents both dead, Bibi seeks a new mentor, vocation, and identity. The Zebra, she muses, is "an animal striped black-and-white like a prisoner of war; an animal that rejects all binaries, that represents ink on paper"; it's a name fit for an outsider, and she takes it on. In order to honor her ancestors, Zebra decides to make a "Grand Tour of Exile" through the Old World. She returns to Barcelona, her family's last stop before arriving in the U.S., to confront the intellectual, spiritual, and moral residues of colonialism and capitalism. There she meets Ludo Bembo, an Italian philologist who both repels and intrigues her. Their love affair is tempestuous, ultimately forcing Zebra to confront the way she uses literature to both separate and connect herself to the world and to others. “I am unafraid to admit that the world we live in is violent, obtuse; that a gulf, once opened, is not easily sealed; that one does not drink from the water of death and go on living disaffected, untouched,” she thinks near the end of her journey. In knotty prose, Van der Vliet Oloomi both satirizes and embraces a young intellectual’s self-absorbed love for her philosophical forbears. The novel is a bombastic homage to the metacriticism of Borges, the Romantic absurdity of Cervantes, and the punk-rock autofictions of Kathy Acker—all figures who loom large in Zebra's mind. As such, it’s not easy to pin down the narrative itself, which is less interested in plot than in how Zebra’s interior landscape might be projected onto the world. (At times of great sadness and confusion, the storm clouds quite literally roll in.) Perhaps most astonishing is that we get to revel in the intellectual formation—and emotional awakening—of a frustrating, complicated, hilarious, and, at times, deliberately annoying heroine whose very capriciousness would prevent her from surfacing in any other novel or under any other writer’s care.
This is a brilliant, demented, and bizarro book that demands and rewards all the attention a reader might dare to give it.