Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Porochista Khakpour's "Sons and Other Flammable Objects"

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1978. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University writing seminars MA program. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Village Voice,, Paper, Nylon, Gear, Alef, Bidoun, and, among other publications.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects, and reported the following:
Page 99 raises my own eyebrows just for the fact that three characters are involved. Although there are many relationships in my novel, I give pretty one-on-one treatments of each, whether between an immigrant husband (Darius Adam) and wife (Lala), a very Iranian father (Darius again) and his reluctantly Iranian-American son (Xerxes), a struggling New York transplant 20-something-of-color (Xerxes again) and his half-white trust-fund-armored girlfriend (Suzanne). In my mind, much of the novel carries on intimately with characters immersed in moments of watching the second hand in bad hours in dark bedrooms, the tense rides home with a burnt-out father, the silent dinners where the TV would do the talking for a young boy and his mother, the strange and sweet solitude of the many hours of being nowhere but 30,000 feet up in the heavens, the desperate conjuring of memory after memory when you haven’t heard a human voice — including your own — in days....

Rather, Page 99 is set in a loud parking lot, featuring Lala at the onset of her “getting a life” phase (what she regards as her period of eager assimilation to American and even Angeleno life), with Sons-supporting characters: Gigi, the Mexican housekeeper and local busybody of the Southern California apartment complex (Eden Gardens) where the Adam family lives, and Marvin, her affable African-American gay friend. They form a sort of odd trinity with Lala in being her first friends in America and they take her out to pizza parlors, Hawaiian-themed bars, blockbuster movies marathons, etc. She’s pretty hesitant at first, but because she is having trouble breaking out of housewifedom, she slowly begins to look forward to their “nothing nights” out:

“It was a nothing night, nothing much but eating and drinking and talking, and, of course, laughing — she laughed at jokes or sentiments she didn’t understand, or fake laughed at things she did get but couldn’t really get a real laugh out of, or when she felt the urge to put something into the group dynamic where she couldn’t fit words — Oh, never mind, she thought again and again; she was grateful for this life she had gotten.

It happened that one evening when she strutted out of the house
in her jeans, into the parking lot, Gigi’s busted Honda was not there to meet her. Rather, there was an SUV, pulsing with a low bass, presumably from a sound track, hinting of a night out. Inside, a man — dark, obscured by tinted windows, just a silhouette of a large man in his large car — waved at her. She stood frozen, terrified, tried to ignore the driver who had undoubtedly mistaken her. The car honked. She closed her eyes, hoping it would go away. She heard the buzz of rolled-down automatic windows, and the familiar call, “Hell, Lala, it’s me, girl!”

It was Marvin. She was relieved, and yet ... not relieved at
all. He had never picked her up. She had never seen his car. In fact, he knew nothing of her pact with Gigi and their secret outing agreement — hence the blasting of music and honk and holler.

She waved back hesitantly, and he laughed and honked again, motioning her in. She walked reluctantly over, worried that Darius might somehow psychically or just plain physically discover her secret in an incarnation she never anticipated....

Inside, Marvin was laughing to himself and shaking his head at
nothing at all. “Hello, Marvin,” she shouted...”

This first time Lala encounters Marvin solo results in a long outing to Marvin’s favorite “2-for-1 Sushi Nite,” where she tries sushi for the first time. This chapter (“Heavens”) explores race and culture quite a bit and so the episode ends in some unlikely bonding after getting through that rather cringey tale that Lala — a bit drunk — suddenly launches into: the first time she encountered a black person, several years back.

The whole chapter toys with racially-bewildering icons, from the Iranian’s scarlet-suited merry Nourooz mascot — the black-faced tambourine-playing herald Haji Firooz who ushers in Persian New Year — to the book’s celebrity muse fixture, bubbly “I Dream of Jeannie” ingenue Barbara Eden. In fact, I have to confess my interest in this chapter’s, say, Southern California “local color turned Technicolor” at one point made me actually contemplate calling the book Black Santa, Blonde Genie! I suppose other priorities to the plot prevented me from going there, but there is something to it.
Read an excerpt from Sons and Other Flammable Objects at the official book website, and visit Porochista Khakpour's website.

--Marshal Zeringue