Zain Khalid's novel "Brother Alive" is bracing magical realism

  • by Timothy Pfaff
  • Tuesday July 12, 2022
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author Zain Khalid
author Zain Khalid

"Uncategorizable" is the flavor of the month in gay literary fiction. Even in as genre-free a landscape as that, Zain Khalid's much-anticipated first novel, "Brother Alive" (Grove Press), stakes out new territory. It's brilliantly, breathlessly, but disappointingly baffling.

Several layers deep in it is a letter from a Mohammed Ali (not the boxer). Deep within that is a line that could stand as a motto for the book: "We lied about what we knew and told them the truth about what we didn't."

The reference is to a sinister Saudi Arabian enterprise that spawns and then re-assembles the book's main characters, a trio of adoptees. But it locates the story in that marginal zone between utopian dream and what the book's human characters might identify as grim, everyday reality.

In terms of earthly real estate, the two poles are the Occident Street Mosque in Staten Island, New York, and the futuristic, "linear" city of HADITH (its name appears only in capitals) in Saudi. Khalid, 32, was born and raised in Staten Island, which surely accounts for the vividness and believability of that setting.

The Saudi past and present —the old city of Markab, essentially paved over for the creation of HADITH— are more spectral, fitting for the gruesome human experiments begun in Markab and continued and elaborated in HADITH. The first group of people experimented upon are called the "Unsettled," suggesting in a stroke of Orwellian nomenclature that they were the homeless among the infidels.

Plot galore

A legitimate charge brought against much present-day literary fiction is its tendency to be theme-driven at the expense of plot. There's no particular reason to think that Khalid is weighing in on the matter with his rococo elaborations of plot, but it warrants saying that, in "Brother Alive," plot is nearly everything.

The writing is monstrously accomplished. It's magical realism at an advanced level. Khalid's capacity to spin a yarn is so great, his imagination so fecund, that most of the time it feels like each sentence in the novel carries the plot forward significantly.

There's no particular reason for this to stand in the way of characterization, but it does. The harried reader is kept so busy keeping up with plot dilations and twists, and changes in point of view across the book's four sections despite the fact that the narration is always in the first person, that it often feels like keeping track of the characters is as important as engaging with their respective interiorities.

The picaresque nature of the story, compounded by the density of its details, becomes numbing. It turns out that 340 pages is a long time to hang on with only hints, constant and numerous as they are, at what's going on. It's a hard climb for little payoff.

The cast

The reader is dealt a manageable cast of characters, but all of them first have to overcome a certain implausibility. Chief contender for main character is the Staten Island mosque's eccentric imam, Salim. When we meet him he is the adoptive father of three boys of different national backgrounds, Nigerian Dayo, Korean Iseul, and the generically Semitic (as he would have it) Youssef. The sections Youssef narrates are addressed to a particular "you," who turns out to be Ruhi, Iseul's daughter, for reasons that are less than clear.

Youssef's circumstances most directly correlate to Khalid's, yielding in him the most complex character cluster. Predominantly, there's the Brother of the novel's title, who is a shape-shifting, species-changing character double who alternately supports and undercuts Youssef but whose essentially magical if not simply hallucinatory, qualities that undercut his potential humanity. He's undeniably lively, but we wait in vain to learn what makes him "alive."

Gay secrets

The mysteries of Salim's Staten Island life coalesce around the fact that he regularly sees another man, Adam, for alfresco sex after dark. Youssef, too, is gay, although his character is less constellated around that fact.

Still, the gay characters ring true in a way their counterparts do not, or do not reliably. It seems likely that if Khalid, who is bisexual, had done more with these gay characters than outline their outsider status in their Muslim communities and make patent the risks they take in acting on their homosexual desires, the resulting story might be richer yet.

All the characters of consequence are Muslim. For Khalid this is such a matter of fact that everything from foodstuffs to religious rites are given their Arabic names without further elaboration.

The problem with writing as hallucinatory as "Brother Alive" at its most characteristic is that, after time, even hallucinations become tedious. Similarly, its polemical deconstruction of evil capitalism and its discontents seems formulaic and hollow.

As dazzling as this writing is, it creates a hunger for something more stick-to-the-ribs. What Khalid has demonstrated beyond question is that there is more, perhaps even much more, where this came from.

'Brother Alive' by Zain Khalid; Grove Press, 338 pages, $26

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