It’s early afternoon, but it’s dark where Reif Larsen lives. “It’s light for just a couple of hours a day here,” the novelist tells Kirkus Reviews. “But it’s good for writing, and I’m developing a taste for good whiskey. I have to say, though, that being here makes the things that are happening in the United States look all that much stranger when viewed from afar.”
“Here” is a spot across the bay from Edinburgh, Scotland, where Larsen is writer-in-residence at the storied St. Andrews University. The darkness hasn’t unduly amplified the postpartum depression, or at least postpartum wistfulness, that has come in delivering to his sprawling second novel, I Am Radar. Even so, Larsen is looking forward to getting on the road to promote the book back stateside, where his publisher is planning a big publicity push.
“I like doing the tour,” says Larsen. “Especially going to bookstores. When I did my last one it was 2009, the height of the recession, when everyone was shouting doom and gloom. But then I’d go to these terrific independents, and they were and are thriving, staffed by amazing people who, as my editor says, are doing the Lord’s work. A good bookstore is a cathedral of meaning, especially in smaller communities, and not just a place of commerce. Going to them instills faith in me that books will stick around, and I’m very excited to do so.”
I Am Radar, with its resounding declaration for a title, is the story of, yes, a young man by just that name—“You know, radar. Like bats. And aeroplanes,” says his father by way of explanation—who comes into the world a notably darker shade than his parents, who are pale and bewildered. Seeking an explanation apart from the obvious one takes his parents, and then the boy they name Radar, into a strange world of doctors and scientists. But then, even stranger, it leads the boy into a group of supposed doctors who are really something on the order of performance artists.
As many who have experienced performance art will knowingly nod to, when a telegram reading, “They have no idea what they are doing” arrives, things get odder still, as Larsen’s tale wanders into Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Bosnia of the early 1990s, and the New Jersey of today, even as it adds on knowing disquisitions on melanin levels in the substantia nigra, the scientific career of Nikola Tesla, the whereabouts and fate of Schrödinger’s cat, and the biophysical origins of epilepsy, all told in a sequence of loosely connected tales that eventually wind up right back at home.
Like the eponymous hero of Larsen’s debut novel of 2009, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Radar is a gifted young man who's a bit at sea in the world and not quite prepared to be a moral center when events thrust him there. “I wouldn’t want to get all psychoanalytical about it,” says Larsen, “but I think of something that John Gardner once said about all fiction beginning with a wound. That wound doesn’t always have to be a wrong done, but instead can be a critical imbalance of some sort in the character.
“Writers are preoccupied with such things,” he continues, “and certainly the thought that someone can be tremendously gifted in one way but very lacking in another makes great fodder for fiction, I think, because on one hand you’re allowed all these extraordinary insights while, on the other, being left to deal with all these dysfunctional people.”
Though mired in a world where dysfunction is a commonplace—to say nothing of New Jersey—Radar has moments of epiphany, of self-discovery, and of dawning self-knowledge as he eventually comes to understand that there’s nothing wrong with him that medicine needs to bother itself with (“There was no such thing as Radar’s syndrome. There had never been a syndrome. There was only him”). There’s a charm at work in the moments when Larsen puts us face to face with his likable hero, but also some moments of despair as he, and we, see what kind of murderous, unforgiving world we inhabit. Larsen spins his tales out artfully, though, as with the fabled seal spinning plates, it’s a guess right up to the end whether they’ll all come crashing down.
They don’t. They connect more or less neatly at the very end, though Larsen himself wasn’t quite sure they would. “I didn’t have a plan so that I could say something like, on page 400 we’ll do a pivot maneuver. Originally, the story began in what’s now part three. But then I started layering things on. Perhaps influenced by David Mitchell, who’s a hero of mine, and Colum McCann, whose Let the Great World Spin is just a great book, I started thinking about the audacity of filling a reader’s senses with one story and then shifting suddenly to an entirely different story that, in time, connects with all the stories around it. That can be really dangerous, but when it’s done right the reader might think, ‘I don’t exactly know what’s going on, but I trust the writer to get me out of it.’ Anyway, when I finished the book I thought, either that worked, or I’ve created the most annoying story possible with this series of left-hand turns.”
Those left-hand turns yield a tale that can be thought of as, well, pre-postapocalyptic, with the threat always hanging overhead that things could go dark at any minute, but with the sense, too, that while chaos always roils on the edges, there may be hope for us yet. Larsen keeps us guessing until the end of a long, manically involved book that took him several years to shape and write.
“As a writer,” he says, “you’re in a long hallway, opening all these doors. You can take your readers through them, of course, but sometimes I think it’s more interesting to open a door and look inside, but not go in, leaving possibilities unexplored. What’s behind there? Sometimes we want to keep on guessing. The art of storytelling is the art of gesturing, sometimes, without ever revealing, of allowing that some possibilities might never be completed.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.