June 2004

Damien Weaver

fiction

I Dream of Microwaves by Ibrahim Rahman

The debut collection of short fiction from Imad Rahman, I Dream of Microwaves, kicks off with really terrific story. Everything about the title piece is first-rate, and it sends us forward on a cloud. Depending on the momentum of an individual reader's good will the rush may be enough to carry past the third or even fourth dud before crash-landing in the book's central creative wasteland and beginning the long, hard slog through to the back cover.

I Dream of Microwaves contains episodes from the lifeless times of one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, no relation. Kareem, our star and narrator, is a struggling Pakistani-American actor of less than middle age whose signature trait is an oft-declared fondness for liquor. His narrative voice is stiff, deliberately mawkish. This sense that the protagonist is speaking uncomfortably down to us doesn't make for a better read, but it contributes to the book's overriding existential alienation, one more translucent layer in a thick, pungent onion of angst. Here and there the prose is spiced with goofy quips: Kareem calls his agent to assure her he isn't drinking any more... and not drinking any less, either. A straight W.C. Fields lift, audacious and corny, still funny enough to earn a grin. Most of the book's humor is bleaker, bearing the angry, nihilistic stamp of absurdity. Like Bukowksi's deliberately stupid satire Pulp, or the more coherent novels of Brautigan, anarchic silliness is recorded with dry diffidence. This is the voice of the po-faced Monty Python bureaucrat who is likely wearing garters and hose, and will likely leap his desk and show them to you any minute. The fun's in the uneasy anticipation. Just how crazy will this get?

When thousands of dying and dead Bosnians roll into the narrative stream early on, it's clear there's no referee. Genocide humor is a sticky wicket, and it's to Rahman's credit that he carries it off. His chilly disregard makes the reader cringe, and laugh, and cringe again for having laughed. Such discomfort is what makes absurdity a vein worth tapping: when that rubber chicken the clown's bopping you with begins to leave welts, we get a glimpse of the Bacchic wildness behind the greasepaint, the savage inhumanity at the heart of the absurd. What distinguishes the first story from those that follow is its emotional grounding. Instead of the generic and largely unarticulated desperation that farts Kareem along for most of the book, he's given a convincing motivation. He wants to please Eileen, his sweetheart, and we believe him. The story is about how low we'll go for love, giving the minstrel show Kareem has to put on a purpose. The degradation stings because there's something at stake.

It's a fantastic read. Alas, it ends, and the book continues. The short story form, as used here, is a dodge. The pieces, too
disconnected to work as a novel, are furthermore too disconnected to work as linked short stories. There's no development, no timeline worth tracking. Wives disappear in the lacunae between chapters, explained away with a sentence so Rahman can plunge Kareem into the next artificial imbroglio. It's creaky, like watching the crew laboriously change sets between scenes of a play. Kareem becomes less human to us as the book progresses, less worth our interest. There's much to be said for the eternal fool, careening between episodic misadventures: Hasek's soldier Svejk and Chonkin's Private Denisovich certainly never learned anything. The difference is that they were surrounded by recognizable caricatures and personalities we could enjoy laughing at, exposing the ridiculous underpinnings of a deadly serious game. Kareem has no such grounding. He is alone in a grey tidal bore of bottomless inauthenticity: instead of a soldier in war, he is an actor in showbiz. His duty is not to kill others but to impersonate them. When an actor is always seeking to better subsume himself into the identities of others, what becomes of the actor's own identity? If that question keeps you awake nights, you may enjoy this book, since whatever core lies beneath all the cotton is likely pertinent.

The stories are strewn with gratuitous pop-culture divagations, arbitrarily recombined memes suggesting, to this innocent reviewer, the sort of bubbles that rise from fairly deep in a blunt session. Yoko. John. Yoko. John. Belushi. Holy shit! Ha ha! What if... and sure enough, the readers are offered, in passing, the idea of a stageplay in which Yoko Ono screws John Belushi.
Pre-chewed scraps of broadcast-television detritus, whatever dubious import they once bore leached out long ago, these drifting strands of Gen-X ephemera never knot into anything; they're just distracting tinsel. One wants to believe there's more to it all than postmodern pastiche, more reason for roping together these mild disparities than the low-amp frisson their proximity generates, but the further into the book one trudges the further such optimism erodes. Even if we care that a doorman in a building knows Kareem's friend because they both auditioned for a TV pilot that was "Reservoir Dogs meets Stand By Me," we certainly don't need a long paragraph on this never-produced show's storyline.

It's enough -- plenty, actually -- to know a low-budget dinner theater's doing a vaudeville Apocalypse Now; we don't need the lyrics to the musical numbers. Later a different wacky, argumentative drama troupe wackily misperforms Hamlet in Karachi, Pakistan, one more nominal location Rahman renders nondescript. The streets, the people, the traffic, the marketplaces... barely there, just light, lazy brushstrokes the same color as the canvas. In one of the better set-pieces, Kareem lands a gig as a Zima mascot and gets into a bar brawl with a Red Bull promoter. It's funny stuff, but cutting through George Saunders' conceptual backyard only makes for unflattering contrast: Saunders gives a shit about the humans sweating inside such outfits, going so far as to give them personalities. It's not clear whether the substantively undifferentiated animatronic nature of Mr. Rahman's characters is a deliberate critique of human nature or merely a symptom of solipsism. Regardless, it's wearing. One of Kareem's paramours speaks exclusively in film quotations, and whole conversations take place in cliché. Kareem himself never gels. He remains a weak thimble-full of assigned characteristics, a silly name trickling through jerry-rigged dioramas in which nothing lives or grows. The papier-maché hammer swings on its hinge, striking the mannequin's thumb all day every day. The styrofoam anvil falls and is hauled up on its pulley to fall again.

We brighten when, out of gas in Savannah, GA, Kareem goes on the 'bo and hops a boxcar. We groan when the two train-hopping companions he meets turn out to be self-important office workers seeking "real life" under the nicknames Papa Hemingway and Howling Wolf. So obvious, so easy. Is it bad to hope for a passel of mean, drunk old-school rail bums to ambush, rob, rape and beat the living shit out of all involved? It's just a craving for something raw and harsh, something wet, vivid, and firsthand, an occurrence outside the numb sitcom cocoon. Even that, though, would inevitably be reduced to sterile studio-pitch analogy: Deliverance meets Under Siege 2. The Hills Have Eyes, on a train. Pulp Fiction meets Goodfellas meets Taxi Driver meets Scarface meets A Clockwork Orange meets every other film callow undergraduate boys adorn their dorm rooms with posters of.

The air is flat and stale, the lights bright. Like a coin-op prize crane in a supermarket's airlock, the gripper descends, the fingers
brush across this and that, but there's no real grasp, no digging in, and sure as hell nothing in the prize slot when you've spent your two bits.

I Dream of Microwaves by Imad Rahman
Farrar Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0374174016
256 pages