'Martyr!' - Kaveh Akbar's poetic meltdown saga

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Monday May 6, 2024
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Author Kaveh Akbar
Author Kaveh Akbar

Perhaps the only way one can find purpose in life and avoid meaninglessness is to author one's own story, or so asserts Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar in his wondrous, incandescent new novel "Martyr!"

What starts as the story of a sad, grieving wounded addict named Cyrus ("Maybe he had done the wrong drugs in the right order, or the right drugs in the wrong order.") evolves into a tentative song of hope. Desperate for a do-over, he slips into a tenuous sobriety as he grapples with an inheritance of violence and loss, trying to distill meaning in an often uncaring and cruel world.

Cyrus Sham (the name of the spiritual mentor and perhaps lover of the great Sufi poet/mystic, Rumi) born in Tehran, a few months after he's born, loses his mother, Roya. She was flying to Dubai to visit her brother Arash, who is unwell after serving in the Iranian Army against Iraq, when her plane was blown up by a missile accidently fired from a U.S. Navy warship.

This incident refers to Iran Air Flight 665 which was shot down by the U.S.S. Vincennes in 1988 after it was mistaken for an attacking fighter jet. 300 passengers were killed, including 66 children, which in "Martyr!" should have included Cyrus, but Roya left him home, because he was so young.

Out of grief and sorrow, Cyrus's father Ali emigrates to Indiana, where he finds work on an chicken factory farm, resulting in omnipresent talon scratches on his arms. Bitter and lonely, ridiculed as an immigrant, Ali drinks gin at home, becoming an alcoholic. He dies of a stroke when Cyrus attends college.

"My dad died anonymous after spending decades cleaning chicken shit," Cyrus informs his A.A. sponsor. "I want my life —my death— to matter more than that."

Author Kaveh Akbar (photo: Beowulf Sheehan)  

His remaining connection with Iran is through his Uncle Arash, a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who hovers between life and death near the Alborz Mountains. Arash, dressed like an angel with a flashlight under his face after the battles were fought, kept soldiers dying in agony on the field from committing suicide, a mortal sin.

Set in 2017, Cyrus has struggled with depression, insomnia, and addiction his whole life, "a steady procession of him passionately loving what other people merely liked, and struggling, mostly failing, to translate to anyone else how and why everything mattered so much."

At 29, he considers himself a bisexual (but mostly gay) poet ("a good one when he wrote, but he rarely actually wrote"), but to pay the bills, works a part-time acting job at a hospital, pretending to be a dying patient for the benefit of doctors-in-training to practice their bedside manner.

Barely in recovery, ("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...it can feel like nothing in every direction"), alienated from his AA sponsor (who tells him he's not straight-passing), he lives with Zee, his male roommate-turned sexual partner, who's in love with Cyrus.

He's writing a book with stories and elegies about historical martyrs, intrigued by those people who die for others, who gave their lives to something larger than themselves. Their deaths retroactively gave meaning to their lives, such as Joan of Arc, Irish Republican Army militant Bobby Sands, and the anonymous Chinese man standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square. Cyrus may or may not commit suicide when he finishes the project.

Cyrus feels "awash in the world and its checkboxes, neither Iranian or American, neither Muslim nor not Muslim, neither drunk nor in meaningful recovery, neither gay nor straight. Each camp thought he was too much the other thing. That there were camps at all made his head swim."

However, a conversation with Zee leads him to journey to New York City to meet and talk with Orkideh, an Iranian-American artist dying of breast cancer, ("I sacrificed my entire life; I sold it to the abyss. And the abyss gave me art."). She's spending her last days in a Brooklyn art museum talking to visitors about dying as part of a performance piece.

Through an unexpected closer connection with her, Cyrus will make some startling discoveries about his family and gain insights about himself. ("We spend our lives trying to figure out how to pay back the debt of being. And to whom we might pay it.").

Throughout the book, there are dream sequences, with Cyrus conversing with Lisa Simpson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rumi, and a Trump-like president, as well as excerpts from BOOKOF-MARTYRS.docx. There are chapters told from the perspectives of his parents, Arash, Zee, and Orkideh. A stunning surprise twist towards the end compels the reader to reevaluate everything they've read so far.

The book has several concerns: death, being an immigrant, addiction/recovery, heteronormativity (though one's sexuality is a given and not a struggle here), the role of art, depression, grief, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and the fluidity of identity. With all these themes it could have been a disjointed hodgepodge, but Akbar manages to integrate all these sundry voices and perspectives into a cohesive whole that is simultaneously both deadly serious and absurdly humorous, all in glorious poetic prose.

Cyrus is searching to find out how people give purpose to their lives. He believes, "we are all just a long emptiness," a space for meaning yet to be filled. For Cyrus, the only refuge is art and love, especially, creating meaning through his poetry and in his relationship with Zee which will center on vulnerability, honesty, and renewed intimacy. But it's his anger, channeled through grief, that will keep him alive and not commit suicide.

The novel is nonlinear, jumping around in time and space. The surreal sequences, mixing the imaginary and ordinary, though funny, really don't add much to the push and pull of the narrative.

Cyrus is motivated by creativity with language, despite "its finite set of shapes, able to produce almost anything."

Akbar, in this fearless, relentlessly compelling novel, assets that while language can never fully capture life, it can point us towards its truths and pleasures, notwithstanding all the pain and inevitability of death. We find grace in our choices, finding dignity in our brokenness, creating meaning over a haphazard existence. With its poetic intensity and testament to the healing power of art, "Martyr!" is likely the best LGBTQ novel, so far, of 2024.

'Martyr!' a novel by Kaveh Akbar. Alfred A. Knopf, $28.
www.penguinrandomhouse.com www.kavehakbar.com

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