“I am a boy, he told himself, and then, I am a man, he reminded himself”—Zal, the hero of Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, must remind himself again and again he is “not a bird not a bird not a bird.” Our protagonist’s conflict is a wonderfully specific one.
All the characters in the novel—out this month in paperback—have particular concerns. Zal Hendricks is a feral child raised in a birdcage in a veranda aviary in rural Iran, who, after rescue, years of therapy, and a painstaking education in humanity, struggles to pass as an ordinary young man in millennial New York. Asiya McDonald is a lost, anorexic Cassandra, failing under her visions of catastrophe as September 2001 approaches. Bran Silber is a David-Blaine-like celebrity magician, obsessed with a career-capping illusion to make the Twin Towers “disappear.”
This is a novel of grotesques, but a triumphantly earnest one. Khakpour’s deftness in making art out of her conference of broken birds is a stunning argument for the absurd, the wild, and the speculative in contemporary fiction.
Zal’s namesake is Prince Zal of the Shahnameh, the epic collection of Persian myths and histories. When King Saam’s child is born ash-white (as Zal Hendricks is, too), he abandons the child as a demon. The Simorgh, a benevolent, infinitely wise bird-goddess, rescues and raises the prince, who grows into a sort of ancient superhero. In Khakpour’s gloss, of course, there is no Simorgh, only an abusive, insane woman and her veranda of screaming, dead-eyed birds. Old myths often assume an ill-got gentility from being fantastic and distant; Khakpour strips this roughly away in her retellings, returning these stories to their true rawness and horror. This is especially true with Asiya’s obese, bedridden sister Willa, whose story reminds us the Scheherazade legend isn’t all wit and solo violins.
Superficially, Zal operates as a sort of bird-crazy Candide or Kimmy Schmidt, a loveable innocent whose puzzlement at other humans throws their foibles into satirical relief. To me, his closest kin is Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, another outsider trying his comical best to be human, or at least fake it. As a feral child, Zal cannot smile, feel sexual attraction, or love, and his toxic romance with Asiya sends up our own, ordinary neurotic relationships: what if love ‘just isn’t for me,’ what if I’m sending the ‘wrong signals,’ what if I can’t, er, perform? Here, Zal’s very specific story is at its most universal: in the end, aren’t we all just trying to fake it as best we can?
Honestly, Khakpour could have stopped here and delivered a tidy, gentle Manhattan satire, a Hannah and Her Unusually Large Sisters. That is not Khakpour’s project. The Last Illusion bottoms out into truly strange, post-humanist territory. Let’s return to Zal in his childhood birdcage:
… And there he was, his body just a mass of bones held together by broken filthy skin, squatting against walls of twisted wire that his limbs would fight against with each passing year, his bare feet only able to shuffle here and there on the mess of shredded newspaper and straw—always damp from urine and sweat and feces and blood—and the only nice thing in there, the one thing he could never have, feathers, that glorious evidence of wings from the many around him, from all around him, that somehow swirled through the dead air like the fresh flurries of an early New York winter.
This is not satire, but body horror, a rebuke to the goodly humanism of Zal’s adoptive father Hendricks. Dr. Hendricks, a child psychologist specializing in feral children, believes and hopes that Zal just needs a cocktail of therapy and paternal love to return to some core human nature. The reality seems otherwise: Zal’s nature is incoherence, splinters, malformed bones, carefully held together and ever in danger of falling apart again.
The novel’s meta-structure reflects this brokenness. The point of view is splintered into multiple close third-person voices. Sentences interrupt themselves with jagged, slangy asides and solecisms. The plot frustrates and reverses itself, like the wing-bones of a bird: Hendricks, the most “novelistic” of the lot—a sort of John Jarndyce-as-Oliver Sacks—seems baffled by his author’s choices. Zal, after a childhood of horrors, after a decade of therapies, surgeries, and triumphs, carrying a name with the most epic of epic mythic resonances, strikes out on his own to… see a Las Vegas magic show? “Really?” Hendricks asks. “You feel that your first trip alone could be to Las Vegas, of all places, and it’s fine?”
This is Khakpour’s palette: like Zal, The Last Illusion is frequently awkward, jutting, messy. The magician Silber, the man of flash, artifice, and spectacle, reminds us the alternative is show—a careful, dishonest performance. The “polished” prose of a John Updike or Marilynne Robinson novel (as if Khakpour’s sentences weren’t also masterfully calibrated!) is, under the lights, just stage makeup.
In Persian legend, the Simorgh is an enormous bird with burnished orange wings, her peacock tailfeathers long and twisting, her head like a dog’s. She is the wisest of all creatures, having seen the universe’s creation and destruction three times over.
Farid ud-Din Attar’s epic poem The Conference of the Birds (c. 1175) features a quest for the Simorgh as a Sufi allegory of the soul’s relationship to God. In Attar’s poem, the birds of the world gather and demand a king; the hoopoe tells them of the Simorgh and thousands set off in search of Him. (Alas, yes, Attar makes the Simorgh a ‘Him.’) Their numbers thin as they pass through a series of allegorical spaces and ordeals. In the end, only thirty birds remain to reach the Simorgh’s nest. There, the pilgrim birds are astonished to see their goal is, in fact, themselves reflected in the lakes of Mount Kaf: in an adroit twist of language, si morgh translates in Persian to “thirty birds.”
‘… And since you came as thirty birds, you see
These thirty birds when you discover Me,
The Simorgh, Truth’s last flawless jewel, the light
In which you will be lost to mortal sight,
Dispersed to nothingness until once more
You find in Me the selves you were before.’
Jorge Luis Borges admired Attar’s Simorgh tremendously, comparing it to Dante’s Eagle in Canto XVIII of the Paradiso—another composite bird, made up of just kings flying around Jupiter in aquiline formation. Borges preferred the Simurgh as the more cohesive, integrated figure; however, in Attar’s poem, the Simorgh’s integration is also the birds’ disintegration:
Then as they listened to the Simorgh’s words,
A trembling dissolution filled the birds--
The substance of their being was undone,
And they were lost like shade before the sun;
Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained.
The Simorgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned.
There is admirable economy in the birds’ quest, Borges noted—“the searchers are what they seek.” Yet also in this climax is the sense of consumption, mortality, illusion.
Zal and the Simorgh
Khakpour’s references to the Shahnameh are refreshingly explicit. But as I read, I couldn’t shake the idea that, at least at certain moments, The Last Illusion passes under the shadow of Attar’s Simorgh. There is the subtle but telling twist on the source myth, that the Simorgh who raises Zal Hendricks is a veranda of many birds, not one. There is Dr. Hendricks's shy suspicion that "a being could be wished into being if some other source or combination of sources willed it enough." Khakpour’s ambivalence about cohesive humanism connects powerfully to Attar’s moral: what makes Zal human is not inherent nature, but his grueling journey to piece together an identity out of disparate failures.
Zal's specific conflict is ultimately universal. We're all splintered, struggling toward coherence. Zal offers an alternative vision in his limited coherence, his sense of a mortality of identity. In the chaos of the novel's finale, Zal finds something like his lost human identity even as illusion and reality catastrophically blur: just so, identity is both an illusion, a "trick," a reflection in a lake, and powerfully real—real enough, in any case.
Porochista Khakpour, The Last Illusion. New York: Bloomsbury USA (2014).
Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds. Trans. Afkham Darbandi & Dick Davis. New York: Penguin (1984).
Jorge Luis Borges, "The Simurgh and the Eagle," in Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Esther Allen & Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Penguin (1999).