I Am Radar

By Reif Larsen


672 pages. $29.95

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Reviewed by

Carolyn Kellogg

The big, beautiful, ambitious novel I Am Radar opens as Radar Radmanovic is born during a blackout in suburban New Jersey. Although his parents are white, the baby has charcoal-black skin; doctors can find no medical explanation.

His mother, Charlene, a librarian, is driven frantic. Kermin, an immigrant electronics repairman, wishes his wife could accept their boy as he is. But four years later, given a chance to change Radar's skin tone using an experimental therapy, she wins out. This takes the family to Norway, where they discover that the therapy is to be administered by a troupe of radical physicist puppeteers.

Radical physicist puppeteers? It takes narrative magic to pull off such a loopy combination, and luckily, Reif Larsen has it to spare. His prose is addictive and enchanting. Even the most familiar scenes sparkle: Kermin, rushing the expectant Charlene to the hospital, "had taken the old Buick up and over the curb onto a low, half-moon shrubbery, which had not weathered this trespass well at all."

The story stretches from New Jersey to Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These far-flung places are connected by the puppeteers, performance artists driven by their political aesthetic to create work in places of crisis. Their procedure makes young Radar's skin beige, to match his parents. But he is also alopecia'd, epileptic and, as we later learn, preternaturally gifted with electronics, able to read radio transmitters by merely laying on hands.

I Am Radar is packed full of diagrams and science - ideas from quantum physics, theories both fringe and mainstream. For the most part, the scientific ideas create an interesting and knotty thread throughout the book.

There is a mismatch at times between Larsen's lyrical style and the sometimes frightening stories he's trying to incorporate. The Cambodian section, which ends during Pol Pot's despotism, winds up casting the colonial era in an overly charmed light. And when the tale gets to Africa, its weakest passages observe crowds of dancing natives on a riverbank, swathed in gossamer language.

At its core, though, the book is striving for something stronger, and Larsen's lovely prose is matched by his many ambitions. He's created an odd ship of characters who will venture halfway across the globe for art and science, not for acclaim but to complete their complex, risky creations.