Sons and Other Flammable Objects
By Porochista Khakpour
GROVE PRESS; 398 PAGES; $24
Porochista Khakpour's first novel seems to announce its project on the first page. It's going to be a story about "misunderstandings in [a] shared history." In this case, the shared history is presumably both the history of a family and of a heritage: Darius Adam is the father, Xerxes is the son and the lost country from which they are both differently expatriated is Iran. Darius, the father, pronounces his name "Dari-oosh" and their last name "Odd-damn," much to the embarrassment of Xerxes, a smart, sensitive and stubborn boy who both tries and fails to fit in 1980s Los Angeles. Father and son are caught in a culture clash: While the older Adam carries the memory of the lost country with reverence, the younger Adam feels burdened by that culture and wishes he could escape. (With a name like Xerxes, of course, he cannot.) Xerxes resents his father for being so Iranian, and Darius resents Xerxes for not being Iranian enough.
Those are the broad strokes of "Sons and Other Flammable Objects." What makes Khakpour's novel so interesting is the way she portrays these misunderstandings as being unclear, subtle and barely comprehensible when retold. She captures the interior worlds of two proud men with a knowing wink, depicting how their perspectives of the same object (or indeed, of one another) either conflict or fail to converge.
Sometimes, the webs of misperception are indeed gnarled: The father-son relationship at first seems to fall apart over two incidents involving birds, one in which Darius shows kindness toward them, the other his cruelty. But the birds are, in some sense, only red herrings. In reality, the relationship stalls over a great deal more. And it will take a great deal more to put it together again.
Both men have deeply imaginary worlds: Darius carries with him not only a lost country but also a fantasy daughter, Shireen, to whom Xerxes is always compared. (Shireen almost always casts Xerxes in a negative light. Darius knows, for instance, that Shireen would never be as difficult as his quasi-impossible son, who has spurned him by doing things like moving to New York, eating Fruity Pebbles and not keeping tea in his apartment.)
For his part, Xerxes' attempts at cultural amnesia have a fantastic element, too. He has a nearly impossible ideal of life, one in which he might separate himself from his parents and shed entirely any trace of his Iranian identity. The force with which he tries to accomplish this becomes a counterweight that follows him across the continent, eventually haunting him. Early on in the novel, some of the misunderstandings are both poignant and amusing: Xerxes wants not to be an "Odd-damn" but an "Adam," and he wants to call his father not "baba," but "daddy." As a boy he asks, "Dad, does it interest you at all that Adam was the first man in Western civilization, and our last name Odd-damn also means 'man' or 'human'?" Darius sighs back: "You're still young apparently. One day you will grow up to see the world for what it is: disconnected and chaotic. Not everything is linked."
The quote alludes to the chaos of the Iranian revolution, which both Xerxes and Darius have already seen. It also foreshadows the way the book will march toward its end, when the seemingly disconnected chaos of 9/11 emerges as father and son remain ensconced in their seemingly unbreakable cold war. But it also holds one of the novel's central questions: To what extent are things linked, and what links them?
The novel isn't quite sure as to the answer, playing out its indecision as the story leaps across the two men's lives. Darius is partly correct to insist on disconnection and chaos (just as his son insists that some amnesias are necessary to move forward). And just as Xerxes can't wholly escape his past, Darius is wrong, too: Again and again, Khakpour shows ways that odd pieces of the past govern our present lives more than we would like them to.