This review was first featured in the Boston Globe.
Chameleonic, ambitious, epic, fantastical, whimsical, thought-provoking, arcane, philosophical, exhaustive, and completely bonkers — these are just some of the words that could be used to describe “I Am Radar,’’ novelist Reif Larsen’s sophomore effort after the international success of his inventive debut, “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.’’
In 1975, Radar Radmanovic (later described by an “overeager’’ reporter as “blacker than the blackest black’’) is born to white parents in the suburbs of New Jersey. Doctors eventually diagnose the boy’s unusual condition in a journal article as “Non-Addison’s Hypoadrenal Uniform Hyperpigmentation.’’ A mysterious letter a few years later prompts the family to set off for Norway, where a group of physicists and artists are rumored to have found a treatment for their son’s malady with the aid of “electro-enveloping,’’ or in other words, a bit of an electric shock.
It’s a situation ripe for discussing race and its place within the wider world, especially given the continent-hopping and World War II backdropping that goes on later in the novel, but the ever-whimsical Larsen doesn’t go there. Instead, the novel treads into headier, though still provocative, terrain: The physicists and artists, who call themselves Kirkenesferda, described by one of the characters as “a metaphysical army of Arctic puppeteers,’’ turn out to be essentially a group of performance artists whose mission is to stage experimental works in war zones around the world. The group’s accidental discovery of how to change skin color through the excitation of melanin molecules came when they sought to develop a kind of electromagnetic generator to control puppets for performance; as events unfold, the science begins to take on more radical experimentation, and the art, eventually including Radar and his father, Kermin, takes on riskier forms as the group’s larger purpose becomes clearer.
It’s an estimable, and completely insane idea that has all the hallmarks of a film by Michel Gondry or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who incidentally also directed the equally dazzling movie adaptation of “T.S. Spivet.’’ As in Larsen’s debut, “I Am Radar’’ is also annotated in great detail, this time by footnotes and detailed diagrams of the group’s work by its fictional biographers, Pers Røed-Larsen and Brusa Tofte-Jebsen. Their pedantic chronicle also provides historical clues about the Kirkenesferda, which finds its roots in a group of imprisoned Norwegian schoolteachers during World War II. Those appreciative of Larsen’s kaleidoscopic storytelling will delight in the book’s wide-ranging jumps through history, scientific theory, and geography.
When Larsen attempts to pull all the tales and ideas together, however — including discussions of scientific and technological concepts as argued by Kleist, Tesla, and Einstein — the results become an encyclopedic jumble. While the peripatetic nature of the novel allows Larsen to barrel through narratives set in the war-torn villages of Bosnia, the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia, and eventually, the Democratic Republic of Congo — places and history rarely written about in contemporary literature, let alone included in the same sentence — its insistence on seeding fictional events in key moments of real history also makes many of the novel’s fanciful theories, so painstakingly explained, difficult to swallow.
When Larsen locks down and focuses on a single thread or place, his writing can be highly affecting, particularly in the Bosnia chapters. But in the end the parts don’t add up. The reader spends so much time trying to place herself in the world, as well as keep up with twists in logic, that the narratives remain as set pieces rather than as parts of a greater whole.
Larsen’s major questions about the importance of art in the face of war also gets buried beneath all the pyrotechnics. But for all of the novel’s flaws, you can’t fault Larsen for not having vision. When his first novel came out, a bidding war erupted among 10 publishers, with Vanity Fair suggesting that Larsen was paid just under $1 million as an advance. Larsen’s fare is unquestionably one of the more adventurous entries into the literary landscape, and his skill and flair for quirky, innovative works that cross over into the historical and the literary will always have an admiring, if exhausted, audience.
It’s a performance, that’s for sure, and Larsen is a keen player. Despite a shaky second act, he’s definitely here to stay.