Iran to Cali

A first-time novelist gets her hands wordy

Porochista Khakpour's debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, begins with a page full of epigraphs: two sentences from Sadegh Hedayat, a lyric by Forugh Farrokhzad, and a snip- pet from a Larry King interview with I Dream of Jeannie's Barbara Eden. This mash-up of prose, poetry, and pop-cult quotation prefigures the energy, excess, and absolute overstuffedness of the nearly 400 following pages. Though a relatively simple tale of an Iranian immigrant family's division and repair, the novel is a study in circumlocution.

At times, Khakpour almost seems aware of her prolixity. For example, she describes the sleeplessness of the family's father, Darius Adam: "trusting that he was in his life's last quarter, that he had matriculated to the logical finale after his youth's dreamless era and then his middle age's nightmare-ridden nights: the abstinence from nocturnal so-called rest that was the conscious mind's only way of combating the toxic subconscious. He had cultivated a phobia of sleep." Khakpour then writes how Darius's son Xerxes, far away in New York City, suffers the same ailment: "simply, calling it what it was: fucking insomnia."

Logorrhea might make for a nifty set piece, but all the characters and even the authorial voice indulge it. Everyone speaks in run-on. Khakpour has cleverness to spare, but she desperately needs self-discipline (or a good editor) to pare away at her prose—the lists that many characters make suggest that she's not presenting us so much with a finished novel as with the notes and drafts and brainstorms that cry out for refining. Khakpour spends 150 pages clearing her throat, providing peeps at Xerxes's late-'80s Southern California childhood, before she can actually begin the novel, which concerns various familial crises from December 2000 to March 2002. The second half of the novel is better—funnier and more focused, though still digressive. But after slogging through the initial chapters, finishing the book seems more a duty than a pleasure. On the bright side, fucking insomnia it will not induce.

 
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