“Martyr!” is a deliberately provocative title that suits its protagonist, an Iranian-American poet who is painfully conflicted, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and frequently impossible.
Cyrus, pushing 30 and shakily sober in 2017, is in furious search of something to believe in. Not the bigoted Islamic fundamentalism that led his father to flee to America with him as an infant. Definitely not the swaggering jingoism that prompted the vice-president of the United States to say, after a US missile cruiser mistakenly shot down an Iran Air commercial flight in 1988 and killed 290 people, “I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.” (That is an actual incident and a real quote.) Cyrus’s mother was on that flight, and his father died suddenly after years of grunt labor on an industrial chicken farm in Indiana. Cyrus sees his parents’ deaths as senseless and longs for any kind of faith that would give his own life meaning. Without it, he tells his AA sponsor Gabe, “Everything is in this textureless middle.”
Poet Kaveh Akbar’s first novel is stuffed with ideas, gorgeous images, and a surprising amount of humor. Calling out Cyrus’s assertion of his Persian roots in his poetry as “a shtick,” Gabe comments, “You’ve probably spent more time looking at your phone today, just today, than you’ve spent cutting open pomegranates in your entire life. Right? But how many [expletive] pomegranates are in your poems?” Cyrus is furious with his sponsor: “For being racist. For being a little right.”
Cyrus is ruefully aware of his tendency toward self-dramatization and excessive behavior. But he’s deadly serious in his need to find out how people give purpose to their lives — and deaths. He’s decided to write a book about martyrdom, he tells his long-suffering roommate Zee; he wants to study “people who at least tried to make their deaths mean something.” When a friend shows them a flier about Orkideh, a mortally ill visual artist (“I think she’s even Iranian”) who is spending her final days at the Brooklyn Museum talking to visitors, Zee persuades Cyrus to go see her.
Cyrus’s conversations with Orkideh form the philosophical and emotional heart of the novel, but interspersed with them are excerpts from his electronic draft BOOKOFMARTYRS.docx and flashbacks that illuminate the impetus for his quest.
We learn about Uncle Arash, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who has never recovered from his bizarre job impersonating an angel in the aftermath of battles, to keep soldiers dying in agony on the field from committing the “mortal sin” of suicide. We see Cyrus’s mother Roya as a girl and young wife, determined to claim a life of “open space, freedom and passion” beyond the restricted domesticity decreed for her. We see his stoic, hardworking father Ali, bemused by his son’s wide-ranging enthusiasms (“I never knew what to say. Usually something like, ‘Well, you’d better clean the kitchen first.’”).
Most of all, we see Cyrus, buffeted by a longing for certainty always at war with an innate skepticism that leads him to distrust all sweeping statements, even as he’s drawn to the confidence that enables people to make them.
He’s a poet who finds language inadequate: “I write these sentences where I try to lineate grief, or doubt or joy or sex or whatever till it sounds as urgent as it feels,” he tells Orkideh. “But I know the words will never feel like the thing … My writing can never make any of these deaths matter the way they’re supposed to. It’ll never arrest fascism in its tracks or save the planet.” He admires her, he says, because “your dying actually means something”; she has turned it into art.
“Another death-obsessed Iranian man,” Orkideh responds. “Oh my God, so you’re a poet too! All the Persian checkboxes.” Although she fiercely believes in art, she is older than Cyrus, chastened by experience and accepting of the fact that chance plays an enormous role in human lives. She has made her own meaning, and she prods Cyrus to do the same.
Akbar’s status as a first-time novelist shows occasionally in his efforts to make sure “Martyr!” includes absolutely everything on his mind, whether or not it’s pertinent to the central story. Dream sequences involving everyone from Lisa Simpson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Cyrus’s imaginary younger brother don’t add much, and while the excerpts from BOOKOFMARTYRS.docx provide important glimpses into his preoccupations, there could be fewer of them.
On the other hand, Akbar deftly prepares for the climactic plot twist with artfully planted clues, and he unfolds the subsidiary tale of Zee’s and Cyrus’s complicated relationship with nice millennial nuance. The two men have been sleeping together occasionally for years, but Cyrus considers himself bisexual, Zee is “happily gay,” and both have had multiple partners. Cyrus believes he’s content with “the kind of intimacy they shared,” but Zee has known for a long time that he “might love him.” Part of the journey Orkideh sends Cyrus on is the recognition of how carelessly he has treated Zee, and how much his roommate means to him.
“Martyr!” is the serious fiction lover’s favorite kind of book, offering plenty to think about and discuss, all of it couched in brilliantly rendered prose that’s a pleasure to read. Let’s hope that Kaveh Akbar’s impressive debut is the first of many novels to come.
By Kaveh Akbar
Knopf, 352 pp., $28
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”