In 'Martyr!,' an endless quest for purpose in a world that can be cruel and uncaring
Kaveh Akbar's poetry has been published in places like The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Paris Review — and his work has received a lot of critical acclaim as well as several prestigious awards.
So I had high expectation for Martyr!, his first novel. Three chapters into it, my considerable expectations were a speck in the rearview mirror. After finishing the novel, I couldn't even remember what those expectations had been because I was too busy processing everything Akbar had accomplished in his outstanding debut.
Martyr! follows Cyrus Shams, a young man born in Persia who was brought to the United States by his father when he was a baby. Cyrus, who lost his mother soon after birth when the plane she was on was accidentally shot down over the Persian Gulf on its way to Dubai, has struggled with depression, insomnia, and addiction his whole life. He has also been haunted by the death of his mother and forced to cope with his father's death, too, as well as racism — and feelings of grief, uselessness, and alienation.
Cyrus is a poet, and his obsession with death and martyrs forces him to delve deep into what it means to die, his family's history, the lives of several historical figures, and the ghosts of his mother and uncle. His uncle, who once rode through Iranian battlefields with a flashlight under his face and dressed as the angel of death in order to comfort those taking their last breaths, suffered from severe PTSD. During this process, Cyrus travels from Indiana to New York City to speak with Orkideh, an artist dying from cancer who's spending her last days in a museum in Brooklyn talking to visitors as part of a performance. While there, Cyrus makes a discovery that makes him think his mother was someone much different than he knew her to be.
Martyr! is gripping and multilayered. Akbar focuses on Cyrus for most of the narrative — his past, his relationships, his battles with drugs and alcohol even after getting clean and going to AA meetings, the demons of his depression, his constant thoughts about death — but there are also chapters told from the perspective of his mother, his father, one of his friends, and his uncle. Also, when he was younger, Cyrus developed a trick to help him try to sleep, or at least to keep him entertained during the long nights before he discovered alcohol and drugs: He would make two characters have conversations with each other. Some of these conversations are also in the book; Lisa Simpson talks to Cyrus's mother, for example, and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a conversation with Beethoven Shams, the younger brother Cyrus liked to imagine he had. The mixture of voices, ideas, and characters shouldn't work because it's too much — but Akbar makes it work beautifully and the novel has a wonderful sense of cohesion that makes each separate element as enjoyable as the whole.
As a poet, Akbar is a master of economy of language, and that mastery remains untouched in this 350-page novel. The writing in Martyr! dances on the page, effortlessly going from funny and witty to deep and philosophical to dialogue that showcases the power of language as well as its inability to discuss certain things. Regardless of what he's writing about, Akbar's writing shines. This line about sobriety is a perfect example: "Beautiful terrible, how sobriety disabuses you of the sense of your having been a gloriously misunderstood scumbag prince shuffling between this or that narcotic crown."
The breadth and scope of the topics Akbar tackles in Martyr! would be enough to make this a must-read, but he also makes every character three-dimensional and allows their differences to further enrich the narrative. Cyrus, for example, is not only someone who deals with a plethora of demons; he is also a bisexual man living between cultures who hates himself for the way he's been forced to follow a "pathological politeness" that exists in the "intersection of Iranian-ness and Midwestern-ness" and forces him to put up with awful racist comments and to constantly perform "an elaborate and almost entirely unspoken choreography of etiquette" that Iranians call taarof.
Engaging and wildly entertaining, Martyr! will undoubtedly be considered one of the best debut novels of the year because it focuses on very specific stories while discussing universal feelings. It celebrates language while delving deep into human darkness. It entertains while jumping around in time and space and between the real and the surreal like a fever dream. It brilliantly explores addiction, grief, guilt, sexuality, racism, martyrdom, biculturalism, the compulsion to create something that matters, and our endless quest for purpose in a world that can often be cruel and uncaring. Akbar was already known as a great poet, but now he must also be called a great, fearless novelist.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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