A conversation with Reif Larsen, author of I AM RADAR
Penguin Press | on sale February 24, 2015
What compelled you to write I AM RADAR?
In a word: puppets. I’d been poking around obscure puppet festivals across Europe and watching a bunch of Brothers Quay stop motion animation, which I highly recommend.
Awhile ago I’d gotten hooked on the sublime moment when the inanimate, the insentient suddenly becomes sentient — and in some ways even more sentient than a human (see von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theater or Masahiro Mori’s The Uncanny Valley). When you witness this as a spectator, you are forever changed. And I wanted to write about this moment, but I wasn’t sure how and I wasn’t sure what form it would take on. Also, I was very obsessed with the Meadowlands — which I saw as this brutally strange “flyover territory” within a stone’s throw of Manhattan.
It was this sprawling swamp of interchanges but also Warehouseland, USA, where all of the objects that made New York City possible were stored. Like a great backstage of props to the Theater of the City. I often set my stories in places most people pass through without a thought.
Who is Radar? What makes him special, and why is he central to the many threads of this story?
There is an aspect of Radar Radmanovic that is intensely personal and specific. He is his own man with all these strange little habits and proclivities (the Rule Book of Life! His recumbent bike Hot Lips Houlihan! His graffito trucker’s cap!) and you will never meet another person quite like him. Perhaps at its heart this book is just a simple bildungsroman, the story of Radar growing up and accepting who he is and accepting what he has inherited from his parents. But then there is another aspect to him where he stands in for you and me and everyone. And this is inherent in his name. He is the echo of us.
The scope of I AM RADAR is vast — it spans continents and generations and families. Did you intend for the book to be structured this way?
No. The book started as a very quiet family drama. I started essentially where part 3 begins — boy wakes up, struggles with love. But then the book told me I had to go back in time and we needed to start with Radar’s birth, which I at first resisted because it’s a maneuver that is very familiar and has been done before — in Middlesex, Midnight’s Children, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, to name a few. But this is what the book demanded, so I said “Okay book, I kind of hate you right now, but I will listen.” And then this character in Visegrad, Bosnia appeared and by this point I was in the habit of saying yes to almost everything, just to see where it would take me. I’m aware that pulling readers from one time and place into another can be annoying, that just when you are getting invested into one set of characters you are suddenly asked to care about a whole other scenario. But if you cede your control to the author and let the book take hold of you, such movement can be very liberating. When a book like this is working on all cylinders the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Not sure that quite happens here, but I thought I’d at least give it a try.
How did you approach research for writing the book? What was most surprising or interesting to you?
Once the novel told me it wanted to go off gallivanting in these crazy places, and once I had said “Okay, I believe you, let’s see where this takes us,” then I had to actually go to these places myself. This was great fun, particularly because I never quite knew what I was looking for. When writing fiction, the little details you want to include to give your story the veneer of truth are never obvious; you must train yourself to look for them. How was I to know there was a very special word in Serbian (a language I do not speak) — podmeče, that means “substituted child”? These are the kinds of things you stumble upon and you grab hold of. On the one hand, I was nervous about writing about these very complex places that had experienced very complex wars — I was nervous I would offend people or get things wrong or overlook some crucial subtlety. But once I figured out that I would most likely offend someone no matter what I did, I gave myself permission to bungle on ahead. My duty as a writer isn’t so much to be completely accurate to the real Cambodia or the real Belgrade but the Belgrade within the book. The shadow Belgrade. And being an outsider actually freed me up to make claims or write scenes that locals might be too smart or too affected to think up themselves. I am not the first outsider to discover this. For instance: the greatest song about the South was written by a Canadian.
I also did a bunch of research about particle physics and uncertainty. I went to CERN and asked all of these very brilliant physicists ridiculous questions like “What part of your research most reminds you of the mandated universal socialist conformity of the Khmer Rouge regime?” and as proper scientists they weren’t allowed to make such rash humanistic analogies from particles to sociology, but as a novelist I can do whatever I want.
Often through the Kirkenesferda, the book explores the power of art and science amidst the ravages of war. What is the Kirkenesferda and what do they mean to you?
I was going to ask you this same question. What is Kirkenesferda?
Time and time again, we meet parents and children who are mystified by, devoted to, and broken by each other. What does the parent-child relationship mean to you?
The eternal question of nature versus nurture is the essential engine to most fiction. Where did I come from? How much do I owe my beinginess to my parents and my forbearers and how much am my own person? It touches deep questions of inheritance, of biology, of free will, of fate, of behaviorism. And I think this question has captivated us so much because like most good questions there is no single answer: there is a duality of truth there. The cat is both alive and dead. We are both a product of our parents and completely our own. Having recently become a father myself, I look at my son and constantly wonder what he has taken from me and whether in the end I will play a significant role in shaping his core. Not just his manners, but his essential humanness. I don’t know. It’s a scary thought. He doesn’t really seem too bothered by it though (at least not yet).
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet features beautiful artwork throughout its pages, and the images that appear in I AM RADAR are delightful, strange, and utterly compelling. What made you decide to include illustrations and diagrams in the new book?
Both of my parents are artists, so I always grew up surrounded by images and also the messy process of making images. I was very comfortable with the notion of a studio, where you had permission to create and screw up and try again. My mother in particular used a lot of diagrams from science in her art work but she repurposed these images and gave them new meaning. She wasn’t afraid to muck about. Over the years I’ve become fascinated with the collision point between text & image and how in collaboration these two modalities can tell stories. Spivet used images as a kind of shortcut to a mind — we saw this young boy in his most vulnerable state when we were looking at his extraordinary drawings. I set out to write Radar without any images, but very quickly they found their way into the text. You can’t hide from what you are, I suppose. But unlike in Spivet, where I did not start adding images until I had completely a full draft, in Radar the images were there from almost the beginning, though they function very differently. In Radar they begin to form a language of authority; a conspiracy of truth; they give rise to a sense of a greater hand at work. They play tricks on the reader through their fraught and reckless manner of cross-referencing. They also highlight how much is not shown. This is the danger of showing one thing: you now inherently raise the issue of omission.
What are your thoughts about the role race plays in RADAR?
I don’t think the book is about race per say, though this is certainly an important component of the book. For me the book is much more an exploration of identity, as awful and pretentious as that sounds. How do we relate to one another and how do we differentiate ourselves from others? What are our (shifting) criteria for sameness and otherness? Because this is quite an arbitrary thing. Growing up in the U.S., you’re trained to think that race means one thing. That the dynamic between African-Americans and Caucasians in the US is duplicated everywhere else in the world. But if you travel to places like Southern Africa or West Africa or Southeast Asia or around Europe, you see that the racial dynamic in the U.S. is a very specific thing. It’s the result of years and years of an accumulated history (and the elusive influences of culture and class and all the rest). It sometimes feels like the current dynamic is how it must be and how it will be forever, particularly now, in times where deeply ingrained injustice flashes up into the national conversation. But I wanted the lens to be wider than just the situation in the U.S. I think novels are one of the few mediums where you can do that and get away with it. (or not!)
I AM RADAR toes the line between fact and fiction. It’s a novel, yet you provide many cases of documentation and include a bibliography at the end. What effect do you think this has on the reader?
I’m interested in the expectations a reader brings to the table. We expect certain protocols from certain genres of storytelling. A novel is this, and it achieves it using this kind of language. A history textbook is this and it achieves it using this kind of discourse — with footnotes and references, and a bibliography. When our expectations are subverted, it knocks us off kilter; we lose our bearings a bit and suddenly we are susceptible to all kinds of new truths. I don’t want to completely disorient the reader but I think gently placing them in state where they aren’t fully sure what is true and what isn’t true can be helpful for the greater impact of the story. And hopefully the reader will begin to examine his/her urge to want to parcel out the truth. Why do we have such a strong impulse to delineate where the fiction begins and ends? Is this innate? Or learned?
What was different about writing I AM RADAR from writing your debut, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet? What do you feel you learned from the process of writing and publishing Spivet?
It was a very different process. I wrote Spivet while I was getting my MFA — it was my master’s thesis, and so essentially I had no idea what I was doing or even if the project would ever become a book or not. So there was very little expectation or pressure. The second time around, you’ve seen what the end product looks like and a deep part of you wonders if you are capable of ever writing a cohesive book again or whether this was just a one-off. And I knew more the second time around. And I also knew more of all the things I couldn’t do. My limitations as a writer. The second book is notoriously hard to write, for a number of reasons, but now there are all kinds of expectations from people out there. A lot of people on the road asked me “So are you writing a sequel to Spivet?” What’s with sequels? Why are we so sequel-crazy as a culture? Why can’t we just leave something be? But fairly early on in the process of writing Radar I kind of embraced the fact that I would disappoint people and that the book would be a big mess. And embracing this kind of took off the pressure and so I said to myself, “Well if I get a free mess of a book, I might as well really just have fun and go for it.”
Your parents were both artists. Did they inspire you to pursue the arts?
My parents warned me away from the arts at a very early age. They said there was no money in the arts and that you would never be satisfied with your work. I asked them why they were artists and they said they couldn’t do anything else. Of course they could do other things — my father’s a great woodworker and he would’ve made a fine carpenter and my mother would’ve made a swell prison warden, just like her mother. But I get their point, which is that you’ve got this story to tell or this question you want to explore and you can try to repress it and repress it but eventually it will find a way to come out. Since I was very young I had always written little crazy stories about aliens coming down and destroying various department stores in the greater Boston metropolitan area and loved writing but it took me awhile to actually embrace the profession of being a writer. I didn’t trust it at first as a viable way to live your life. I was a teacher for awhile before I finally decided to give it a shot.
What do you hope readers will take away from I AM RADAR?
I just hope they finish it because the last two parts are my favorite.
I suppose I also hope the book might inspire them to work on their own crazy projects, because for several years that’s all this was — a crazy project that languished and flipped and flapped around in the pan with only a slim hope of ever becoming a real, bona fide book you could hold in your hands and gnaw on with your gnashers. When you’re deep in the midst of a big, unwieldy project like this there are days when you despair that you’ve created a monster that can’t possibly be contained, that you’ve really bitten off more than you can chew. But then one day comes and you’re finished and after much revision and hemming and hawing you say, “I think it’s done.” And someone says, “It’s a book!” And you say “Is it a book?” And they say, “Yes, it’s a book!” And to prove it they print it out, all fancy-like, and bind it up and hand it to you and say, “See, I told you: it’s a book.” And you have to agree that despite your doubts it does very much resemble a book. SO: I hope RADAR might push people to forge ahead on their own crazy endeavors even if what they currently have might not resemble a book at all, because we need more crazy projects in this world….