Strange things happen when Radar Radmanovic is around. For that matter, in Larsen’s (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, 2009) peripatetic sophomore novel, strange things bring Radar around in the first place—and thereon hangs a tale.
Radar—“You know, radar. Like bats. And aeroplanes,” says his father by way of explanation—is notably dark-skinned, though his parents are pale and even pasty. Says the attending doctor, “This will correct itself.” It does not, and Radar, the author of many quests, is left to puzzle out a cure, if a cure is in fact wanted, as certainly his mother believes is the case. The search for an answer, until one finally dawns on mom, leads him into the company of a strange congeries of supposed doctors who are really something on the order of performance artists; warns a well-meaning but ineffectual telegram, “They have no idea what they are doing.” What they’re doing is traveling around performing oddball theatrical pieces in war zones such as Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Bosnia of the early 1990s, but there’s a deeper purpose to their wanderings, and in that respect, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what they’re up to after all, even if it might not make immediate sense to the reader. Larsen’s tale enters into arcane realms indeed, all talk of rolling blackouts, melanin in the substantia nigra, Nikola Tesla, sunspots, probability, Schrödinger’s cat, and the etiology of epilepsy told in a sequence of loopily connected tales that all somehow wind up back in the marshes of New Jersey. Radar has moments of epiphany (“There was no such thing as Radar’s syndrome. There had never been a syndrome. There was only him”). The connections are not always obvious, and some are more successfully forged than others; indeed, some parts are nearly self-contained and are stronger than the whole. And if the ending strains credulity—and a tale about memory that stars a certain Dr. Funes strains patience as well—then it succeeds in bringing those stories under a single roof.
If Larsen’s story makes demands of its readers, it also offers plenty of rewards. Imaginative, original, nicely surreal—and hyperpigmentarily so.