In a bold contemporary reworking of a classic Persian epic tale , this is the story of Zal, a boy raised among birds who meets Silber, a magician who wants to pull off the greatest trick in the history of the world. Zal also falls in not-quite-love love with Asiya an anorexic Cassandra-like photographer ( and her humungously large sister Willa). As you can tell from this schematic synopsis, you are in for a wild ride.
Set against the backdrop of the paranoia and anxiety of Y2K ( Remember that? Seems so laughably,innocently absurd to us now) in New York, Khakpour’s concoction is full of portent and ominous foreshadowing of a great looming disaster while tackling what it means to be an ‘outsider’ whether because of your body or your mind. Can Zal, with the aid of his father and his therapist, make the transition from freak to normal? His attempts are both comic and tenderly poignant, as he navigates the perils of what it means to be human.
Khakpour’s flamboyant storytelling has the enchantment of a fable laced with contemporary irony. It reminded me of Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure in its depiction of what it means to feel completely at odds with the world you land in, and Salman Rushdie in its seductive language and imagery.
The author apparently based Zal partly on the case of a 2008 feral discovered living in an aviary in rural Russia, while the character of Silber was inspired by mega illusionist David Copperfield. Using her own experience of coming of age alienation as a migrant from Iran to the US to capture Zal’s, Khakpour says she wanted to conjure up the apocalyptic angst at the end of the century as ‘ a time when the scope of neurotic magical thinking rivalled the enormity of actual impending disaster.’
The Last Illusion
by Porochista Khakpour
From the critically acclaimed author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects comes a bold, fabulist novel about a feral boy coming of age in New York, based on a legend from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings
In a rural Iranian village, Zal’s demented mother, horrified by the pallor of his skin and hair, becomes convinced she has given birth to a ‘White Demon’. She hides him in a birdcage and there he lives for the next decade. Unfamiliar with human society, Zal eats birdseed and communicates only in the squawks of the other pet birds around him.
Freed from his cage and adopted by a behavioural analyst, Zal awakens in New York to the possibility of a future. An emotionally stunted adolescent, he strives to become more ‘human’ as he stumbles toward adulthood, but his persistent dreams in ‘bird’ and his secret snacking on candied insects make assimilation impossible.
As New York survives one potential disaster, Y2K, and begins hurtling toward another, 9/11, Zal finds himself in a cast of fellow outsiders. A friendship with a famous illusionist who claims – to the Bird Boy’s delight – that he can fly, and a romantic relationship with a disturbed artist who believes she is clairvoyant, send Zal’s life spiralling into chaos. Like the rest of New York, he is on a collision course with devastation.