Reif Larsen’s ‘I Am Radar’: Art and Race in 2015’s First Big, Messy Novel

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I Am Radar begins in darkness: the title character, Radar Radmanovic, is born to his mother Charlene during a hospital blackout. Charlene’s husband, Kermin Radmanovic, is tinkering with a transceiver radio in the delivery room, waiting to “announce his child’s arrival to the world.” But when the lights come on the doctor is holding on to her newborn child, a baby “so dark it shimmered purple in the beam of light, like an eggplant.”

It’s clear that, with I Am Radar, Reif Larson sought to write a “big novel,” what Henry James called a “loose, baggy monster.” The book comes in at just under 650 pages, and it is divided into six parts that follow several characters through decades over several unique plot arcs. Larsen takes us through the trials of raising a black baby inexplicably born to white parents in an ethnically Serbian Orthodox neighborhood to Bosnia in the ’70s and Cambodia in the ’50s. And fitting with his novel’s title and theme, his characters fire like signals from a radio; every action pings and echoes back; no movement or thing is separable from its source.

Large, robust, even intimidating: I Am Radar is never a laborious read. Sentence to sentence, the reader will find small gems (“How intimate, to trace a person’s geography”) and beautiful descriptions of typically ugly places — like the Meadowlands:

The mosquito-laden swamps were a sprawling back stage for the city, the many container ports and truck depots and train yards housing the props that fueled Manhattan’s insatiable appetite for citrus delicacies and all manner of combustible fineries.

Larsen’s eloquence never caves into didacticism; and so I Am Radar‘s scientific and philosophical longueurs challenge and surprise but never sour. And the black-and-white images that offset the novel’s massive blocks of prose gently jar the mind, prompting the reader to remember that he is reading a novel, a creation, a fact that is likewise conjured by bits of metafictional prose:

It is a proposal of an alternate existence that abuts our own-lurking, never very far away from the room in which we now breathe-and as such, it is also a window, giving us our reflection even as we look through it into an invented world just beyond our reach.

And it’s within these little meta-bits that the novel reveals its core thrust: it’s an illustration and perhaps an argument for the importance of individual creation. The plot circles around an avant-garde art group called Kirkenesferda whose performances, or bevelgese, comment on nuclear power, genocide, and social injustice. Larson examines both sides of the tired “Is Art Useful?” argument: while one of the performances of Kirkenesferda is never seen by anyone outside the group, another is shown to Pol Pot in Cambodia — a demonstration that resolves itself in tragic violence because of the criticism it aims at his reign.

And within, more or less, the same thematic: the second section of the novel focuses on Miroslav Danilović — a character only loosely tied to Radar — and his transformation into an “asshole” on the road to finding his own style of artistic expression. Nevertheless, Danilović’s art provides a catharsis for the citizens of war-torn Bosnia, who actually form lines to view the pieces he creates in order to escape from the horrors tearing their country apart.

In the novel’s final portion, Radar travels to Africa in order to follow in his father’s footsteps and to discover himself through a final bevegelse. It all becomes a refreshing take on the paradoxes of creating art: it can be hubristic and self-important, yes, but it also has the power to unsettle regimes and comfort people in pain. For Larson, art redistributes not only our own narratives, but it also has the power to alter the lives of others.

Still, after 400 pages Radar begins to drag under it’s own weight. There is, obviously, a race problem. Larson’s particular method for handling this racial quandary surfaces early on, when Charlene, believing she has somehow damaged Radar and is the reason for his skin condition, heads to Norway after receiving an offer from Kirkenesferda to “cure” her two-year-old son of his blackness. This cure, unfortunately, involves electrocuting him. There’s no pretty way to frame this decision; it seems clear that Larson want us to feel sympathy for Charlene, who succumbs to the social pressure of raising an inexplicably black baby, as well as the mental anguish over truly believing she has harmed her son. Nevertheless, it’s hard to view Charlene as anything but abhorrent, especially while watching her beg for her husband’s approval as she courts a horrifying and dangerous procedure just so that her son can be white.

This isn’t to moralize. Nor is Charlene’s decision to go through with the procedure surprising after reading about her hysterical search for a “cure.” My problem with this particular plot device is that it’s just too neat and clean. Although aspects of the racial thematic are resolved later in the novel, it’s still true that, for the most part, Larsen sacrifices the moral and political complexities of race for his later exploration of art and the individual. In the novel’s worst moments, Radar’s “blackness” is used for minor forms of quotidian farce or cheap sentimentality, episodes that made me roll my eyes in embarrassment.

It’s clear that Larson has attempted to create his own bevegelse in I Am Radar, a sprawling, sometimes beautiful anatomy of individuality and free will. It’s an intelligent and engaging book, albeit one with a few blind spots.