An audaciously ambitious novel that teeters along a tightrope but never falls off.
Following her well-received debut (Sons and Other Flammable Objects, 2007), this Iranian-American novelist returns with what on the surface is a coming-of-age story about a boy who was raised as a bird, based on a myth from the Persian Book of Kings (which finds its way into the story within this story) about an Icarus who becomes a great warrior and hero. The protagonist of this novel is neither. His name is Zal (it rhymes with “fall,” which is what happens to those who cannot fly), and he was born in Iran, very pale and blond in a country of darker skins, to a mother who considered him a mistake and a “White Demon.” His birth sparked his “mother’s disintegration into a crazy bird lady,” and she raised him in a menagerie, as a bird. The tone then shifts, or slides, from once-upon-a-time fable into something closer to American realism, as the setting shifts to New York City around the turn of the millennium. Zal has been adopted by a behavioral analyst who wants to help him develop the human side of his adolescent personality and guide him into adulthood. Zal learns to “keep the bird in him, any bird in him, so deep within himself that it resurfaced only rarely”—though he does retain an appetite for insects and develops a crush on a particularly comely canary (“tiny but still voluptuous, round in all the right places”). In a coincidence that strains credulity, he happens to meet an artist who works with dead birds, who becomes his first love and is something of a strange bird herself. She suffers from anorexia, panic attacks and premonitions, the last of which proves crucial and tragic. And he encounters an illusionist who sparks the novel’s title, planning to make New York disappear: “Not New York, exactly, but the New Yorkness of New York.”
Plot summary fails to convey the spirit of this creative flight of fancy; farce meets disaster in a novel that illuminates what it means to be human, normal and in love.