Review: Reif Larsen’s ‘I Am Radar’

I Am Radar. Reif Larsen. Penguin. 656 pages. $29.95.
I Am Radar. Reif Larsen. Penguin. 656 pages. $29.95.

Reif Larsen’s ambitious new book spans continents and decades, ranging from a makeshift Norwegian village near the Arctic Circle to Yugoslavia, onward into Cambodia and the Congo — and back and forth to Elizabeth, New Jersey, with a side trip to the Meadowlands. It ruminates on weighty themes involving the intersection of science and art, identity and human nature, war and peace. It invokes quantum physics and Nikola Tesla (and to a lesser extent Bruce Springsteen). It even has avant-garde puppets. It is an exhausting, endless, splitting headache of a novel.

Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a delightful story about an eccentric boy from Montana who dreams of mapping the world and heads east on an adventure to the Smithsonian in Washington. Annotated with diagrams, artwork and other ephemera, the novel was sweet and funny and engaging, a story about family and finding your place in the world.

I Am Radar is about those things, too, but then I Am Radar stuffs all sorts of tangentially related concepts between its covers. That’s part of the problem with this massive, self-consciously literary work that never quite hangs together: There’s entirely too much of it. There are good stories here, but they’re buried in excess. Even the annotations — yes, Larsen pulls out that trick again — can’t add much charm or intrigue.

The book opens with the birth of Radar Radmanovic, a black infant born to white parents (this fact is a huge mystery that consumes the first section of the book, only to be explained away far too easily later). Lured by the promise of “fixing” him, his obsessed American mother and skeptical Bosnian father arrange to meet with a mysterious group of scientist-artists (or artist-scientists) in Norway, who believe they can reverse Radar’s condition by manipulating the melanin in his skin. There’s a point to be made here about culture and racism, perhaps, but Larsen is more interested in the idea that the treatment turns Radar into an electric boy, or at least a boy who has affinity for all things electric.

“The human body is really a wet-tissued machine,” the lead scientist tells the Radmanovics. “It runs on electricity.” This ideology forms the cornerstone of the belief system of the scientist-artists (or artist-scientists), who call themselves Kirkenesferda. They’re a band of performance artists who use their technology to create happenings (Larsen’s word, not mine) in chaotic corners of the world, with what can only be called mixed results. I Am Radar would have us believe their performances are vital, world-changing events, but as far as I can tell they’re entirely inconsequential, except to the performers. If there’s an argument to made for the importance of statement art, I Am Radar is not making it.

Nor do the scientific asides in the book offer much diversion. Good fiction can blend literature and science in memorable and eloquent ways, as seen in Marianne Wiggins’ stunning Evidence of Things Unseen, for example, or in anything by the great Andrea Barrett. But the science in I Am Radar feels dangerously overblown. For all the fuss that’s made over it, it adds up to little in the way of clarity or entertainment.

The story does eventually return to the adult Radar — his skin peels away, leaving him bald and prone to seizures and undeniably white — but first Larsen detours to Bosnia, where another family is torn apart by political conflict. Two brothers, Miroslav and Misa, once linked by blood and a bloody act, find themselves far from their tiny village, playing out very different destinies on very different battlefields.

The Bosnian chapters offer the novel’s most compelling pages; I wish Larsen had concentrated more on Miroslav and Misa, their tormented parents and the horrors of the Bosnian War. Other story threads are less satisfactory. A segment set in Cambodia to examine a Kirkenesferda performance gone bad is excruciatingly slow, piling on history we don’t need to know, while the section about a menacing electrical brownout in New York City feels abandoned too soon merely so Larsen can rush the narrative to the Congo, where we meet more characters of little consequence and the final act takes place.

A book this wide-ranging requires a certain focus, but too many narrative threads in I Am Radar trail off, like Radar’s mother’s acute sense of smell, which Larsen makes much of early on only to abandon it. The author roams so far afield and offers so little payoff that you begin to wonder if his primary desire was to tell a big story instead of a great one.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.