Samuel Thrope on Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion
I was in New York on September 11th. The sound of sirens jolted me out of bed, as ambulances and fire trucks raced downtown after the first tower was hit. My roommate, also in his pajamas, turned on the TV. We watched the billowing smoke, and then the second plane bank, hit, and explode.
The morning after, though, is what I remember best. Compelled by an instinct I couldn’t then quite explain, I woke early and got on the subway. Surprisingly, the cars were full. Not packed as they should have been during rush hour on a Wednesday, but every seat was taken by a well dressed commuter — going where, I’m not sure, as most offices were closed. It was as quiet as a church. Every single one was reading the newspaper, silently and with great intensity, their faces hidden behind the looming headlines of the Times or the Post.
But there was no news that morning, at least nothing that hadn’t already already been reported and repeated, in a seemingly infinite loop, on ABC and CNN. I wonder whether it wasn’t something else that got them, and me, out that morning: the dread of the still unknown and unforeseen, the hope that a mundane act — taking the subway, reading the paper — might contain some magic that could lessen the shock and uncertainty.
The most impressive feat in Porochista Khakpour’s magnificent new novel, The Last Illusion, is that it manages to peel back the calcified layers of myth and memorialization, all that 9/11 has come to mean since, and to capture the dread that I and others felt that first morning: before we knew who had attacked us, or why; before we knew what war was coming; before the USA PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, secret prisons, and Freedom Fries. As Khakpour unfurls her tale, that old sense of foreboding, buried but not forgotten, mounts until it becomes almost unbearable. And at the novel’s end, just as on that day, we are left with no answers, no explanations, and no idea of what comes next; just the vision of frightened New Yorkers fleeing uptown amidst clouds of dust and ash.
The Last Illusion is not overwhelmed by terror and destruction. Khakpour’s captivating plot focuses on the coming of age story of a young man, Zal, an Iranian-American immigrant like Khakpour herself. Zal, as she informs the reader in a prefatory note, is modeled after the similarly named character from the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, which was composed by Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi around the turn of the first millenium. It is only slowly, through hints and premonitions, that we realize that Zal’s story intersects with September 11th at all.
The novel opens in a far flung Iranian village on the eve of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. An albino child is born to a woman known only as Khanoom, Persian for “lady.” Her husband having died during the pregnancy, Khanoom is left to deal with the shock of the odd-looking baby alone. Her unhinged response is to treat the infant just like her other “children,” the two dozen canaries, doves, and parrots she raises in cages on her veranda. She builds another wire cage for her white demon, as she calls him — a further Shahnameh reference — and the boy spends his first feral ten years with the birds, in whose image he sees himself, as his only companions.
His rescue comes in the form of an older sister, Zari. After a neighbor informs on Khanoom, Zari whisks the boy, to whom she gives the name Zal, into the hands of a legion of specialists in Tehran. This sister quickly disappears, overcome by her sudden notoriety after the media gets wind of the gruesome details. But Zal’s real savior, the New York psychologist Anthony Hendricks, soon arrives. Hendricks, an expert on feral children and the widower of an Iranian poet, adopts Zal, brings him to New York, and raises him as his own. Khakpour depicts her hero as growing up under the shadow of his own famous story, his every achievement — learning to walk, learning to talk, learning to eat food other than birdseed — qualified by his condition. Zal does quite well, considering.
By the time he reaches early adulthood, Zal has managed to achieve a kind of normalcy, marred only by his inability, like all feral children, to smile. To his analyst’s delight, Zal appears to have suppressed the bird within him. But his secret obsession with eating insects tells a different story. The novel’s clever descriptions of Zal’s shameful pleasure at candied ants, chocolate crickets, and dressed up dinners for one at New York City’s finer bug-serving restaurants are delightfully perverse.
The real action of the novel begins when Zal is twenty and making his first, tentative moves away from his father’s protective embrace. He meets the narcissistic celebrity magician Bran Silber, who captivates Zal with the illusion of flight — enough to bring him across the country to watch Silber swoop and sail above the crowd at a show in Las Vegas — and who is captivated in turn by Zal’s freakish tale of avian horror.
On the eve of Y2K, as Zal is on his way to Silber’s New Year’s party, he meets Asiya (formerly Daisy) Mcdonald, a young artist and lapsed convert to Islam who becomes his first girlfriend, seeming to upend thereby the conventional wisdom that feral children are asexual. Their relationship is far from stable. Asiya becomes needy, clingy, prone to panic attacks, and as dangerously anorexic as her sister Willa is cripplingly obese. Zal unhelpfully falls in love with them both. Asiya’s descent propels Zal further into the adult world and its possibilities of self-realization and self-destruction: to lying, to drink, to infidelity, and to work, first in a pet store and then, disastrously, in a fried chicken restaurant.
Asiya has premonitions of destruction, beginning with that first New Year’s Eve. That night, when half of America was stocked up on canned goods to survive the digital apocalypse, her fear is almost endearing. As the novel progresses, her visions become more frequent, more crippling, and more precise. At the same time, Silber — Zal’s sometime mentor, sometime manipulator — becomes paralyzed by the challenge of concocting a final performance, an act of destruction as low as his flight took him high. Eventually, it becomes clear to Asiya that Silber’s show is the event she so dreads. Her attempt to avert calamity by threatening to blow up the magician’s workshop lands her in prison; it also shocks Silber out of his creative slump, enabling him to finish his preparations by the show’s September deadline. But on the morning of, as Zal watches, and in a manner that is never explained, Silber’s illusion — The Fall of the Towers — becomes all too real.
In the Shahnameh, Zal is the son of a great warrior who is born with a shock of strange white hair. His father, fearing the shame that such a devilish looking child will bring him, orders the baby to be abandoned in the mountains. However, the mythical Simorgh bird finds the child, and raises him as her own. Having grown to a powerful youth, Zal is reunited with his father, and becomes one of Iran’s greatest heroes. The novel’s Zal shares a great deal with his epic namesake — the fair hair, the birds, and Iran, of course — and references to the tale are scattered throughout the novel. But this is not the book’s only connection with Ferdowsi.
The Last Illusion is an American epic in Ferdowsi’s mold, deeply in dialogue with the Shahnameh, and a meditation on its central themes: the fraught relationships between fathers and sons, the perils of love and fate, and the power and danger of magic. Khakpour is concerned with these archetypal conflicts, which make the Shahnameh still so true and compelling, and how they continue to drive us as battles in and over our souls and psyches, rather than between leonine heroes fighting with sword and mace. The Last Illusion is the perfect vehicle to bring the Shahnameh and its tales, now available in English in Dick Davis’s masterful prose translation, into the canon of American literature.
Khakpour not only engages with the epic’s themes but also mirrors its narrative arc, especially at the end. The Shahnameh tells the story of Iranian history from the creation of the world to the Islamic conquests of the mid-seventh century, which destroyed the ruling Sasanian dynasty and extinguished Iranian sovereignty for centuries. As the generations roll on inexorably towards this tragic conclusion, each king more decadent than the last, the reader experiences the same creeping foreboding that suffuses The Last Illusion. Everyone knows that Iran loses in the end, but when the ax does fall, as swift, brutal, and unaccountable as the crumbling towers, it shocks nonetheless. The last Sasanian king, Yazdegird III, is killed not on the battlefield, as the poem itself tells us befits a monarch, but, shamefully, by a lowly miller in a far-flung village.
Above all else, Khakpour shares and reflects on Ferdowsi’s concern with fate. It is true that the moral choices the heroes of the Shahnameh make certainly have consequences, and their sins do come home to roost. The mythical king Jamshid loses his throne because of hubris, and Rostam — Zal’s son, Iran’s greatest warrior, and the epic’s principal character — eventually loses his life for mistakenly killing his own son Sohrab.
But even more powerful than morality is fate. Over and over again Ferdowsi declares that fate rules all, and that the stars decree at a baby’s birth if it will be wicked or do good. In this sense, the final Arab conquest of Iran is not moral retribution, like God’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the Bible, but a turning of the spheres. In the words of the Iranian general, also called Rostam, who is defeated and killed in the decisive battle with the Arab army at Al-Qadisiya:
The sun looks down from its exalted sphere
And sees the day of our defeat draw near:
Both Mars and Venus now oppose our cause
And no man can evade the heaven’s laws.
The Last Illusion makes Rostam’s declaration its central question. On the individual level, Zal struggles to escape his destiny, to transcend the qualified life that his traumas have allotted him. In a quintessentially American way, Zal is fighting to overcome his own story, pick himself up by his bootstraps, and take his life by the reins. However, Khakpour’s description of this struggle is deftly ambiguous. It is never quite clear if Zal’s progress is real or simply an illusion — or, even, how one could tell the difference.
More stunning is that Khakpour’s September 11th is itself an act of fate. And this more than anything else transports us back to the feeling of dread. There are no attackers and no terrorists here. At the worst, the magician Silber is guilty of a terrible mistake, but not of premeditated murder. He is as shocked as the spectators are when the buildings come down. The Last Illusion leaves no purchase for the kind of moralizing us-versus-them narratives that followed so swiftly on the heels of the 9/11 attacks. These narratives provided orientation and explanation. But they also laid the groundwork for a global war of revenge; we get a bitter reminder of that kind of response after Asiya’s arrest in a policeman’s poison-tipped question about her “Muslim name.” Like an earthquake, and like the ending of the Shahnameh, Khakpour leaves us with something more terrible, more immediate, and more dreadful: only inexplicable destruction.