Go on, be a ‘martyr!’ A brilliant debut novel rides the slippery slope of self-sacrifice

Book review


By Kaveh Akbar
Knopf: 352 pages, $28

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If you are a person in recovery or in some other crisis, you are often encouraged to tell your story. Talk about yourself because that’s the way to healing. Cyrus, the narrator of Kaveh Akbar’s brilliant debut novel, “Martyr!”, is the speaker, almost to blame.

Cyrus is a 20-year-old man shaking off years of drinking and drugs by spitting out words. He is talking to his sponsor. It is driven by on-the-job training of doctors and paramedics to improve their bedside manner. He writes poetry about martyrs in an attempt to control the higher power of Alcoholics Anonymous. And he’s not sure any of it works. Is all this talk recovery or narcissism?

When his sponsor asks if he wants to be a martyr himself, Cyrus doesn’t deny it. “Can you imagine having that kind of faith? … To be sure of something you have never seen? I’m not sure of anything. I’m not so sure gravitation.” His tone exemplifies the balance that Akbar strikes well throughout the novel—soaked in humor and absurdity, but also deadly serious. (That exaggerated exclamation point in the novel’s title gets to that, too.)

This martyr business is busy territory for Cyrus on many fronts. This is a man born in Iran who lives in the Midwest, where such talk can raise suspicions of terrorism. That too kicks off an unpleasant family rumor about his mother’s death in a private plane shot down by an American missile, as well as his father’s slow decline into alcoholism after years of bleak work on a chicken farm.

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Cyrus’s crisis is a deep well of riches for Akbar, who considers the psychological issues of recovery from many angles. She writes beautifully about the grip of addiction, the way it fosters false confidence: “Before addiction felt bad, it felt really, really good. Of course yes. Magic. Like you’re close enough to God to bat an eyelash.» (Sobriety, meanwhile, can feel like «nothing. Nothing in every way.») There are also the necessary stories about benders that start with a hunt for drugs and end with an ax in someone’s leg. Akbar makes such stories funny, poignant and pathetic at the same time.

"Martyr!," by Kaveh Akbar

But «Martyr!» it works on several levels beyond that. Akbar, Himself a Poet — His 2017 Book»Calling a wolf a wolf” is highly acclaimed – he uses Cyrus’s poems, whose subjects include Joan of Arc, Bobby Sands, Qu Yuan and his own mother, to explore slippery, abstract searches for identity. Excerpts from this forthcoming collection obsess over how such figures are inflated or deflated. («Is it vanity? If so, I stand by it,» he writes in an ode to Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh.) In bed, Cyrus interviews a variety of famous figures, from Sufi mystic Rumi to Lisa Simpson to The Donald. Trump. It attempts to triangulate a meaningful identity by bouncing like a pinball around a series of others.

Interspersed with these artist conversations is a more straightforward plot: At the urging of a friend, Cyrus heads to Brooklyn to see Orkideh, an Iranian-American artist who is dying and spending her last days as a living museum installation, inviting visitors to sit across from her, à la a conceptual artist Marina Abramovic and chat. Who better to discuss martyrdom with than someone who literally turned her death into a performance?

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A well-hidden plot twist reveals how perfect Cyrus’ partner really is for him. But before that, it’s that cold splash of water in his face, the one that finally undermines his desire for martyrdom with a healthy dose of humility. «You want to die. And you want that death to be glorious. Like all Iranian men,» he says with a sigh. But he also evokes a universal narcissism: «It seems very American to me to expect grief to change something,» she tells him. «Like a token , which you collect.»

Yet Cyrus believes that without a higher purpose, life could be meaningless. (His last name: Shams.) But if martyrdom were so satisfying, running through all its variants would be more certain. He remembers an uncle who, during the fighting in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, was tasked with driving through fields of the mortally wounded and lighting up his face to give dying soldiers a glimpse of an angel. It’s a gesture that Akbar milks with all his poetic might—»If it helps them see a ball of light riding the wind, then it’ll be me»—but in the end, the gesture is grimly futile. Is that all martyrdom?

Every good novel balances the unruly disorder of human behavior with the seeming order that fiction provides. The power of «Martyr!» is that Akbar arranges his various messes well and doesn’t try too hard to reconcile them. At the end, Cyrus is still recovering, still unsure and still wondering what a good death might be. “It feels like a waste to die for no reason. To waste my one good death,’ he thinks, inverting Mary Oliver’s famous line about committing our one wild precious life.

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What he does have, however, is a sense that the messiness of life should warn us not to try too hard to order it. Martyrdom is ultimately a story someone tells about us; it’s better to have one that you can claim for yourself.

Athakis is a Phoenix writer and author of «The New Midwest.»

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