Cyrus Shams, Kaveh Akbar’s unlikely protagonist, struggles with addiction, but as a companion piece to his debut collection of poetry, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Akbar’s new novel Martyr! is about so much more than questions of substance abuse. Although the novel does start with depictions of Cyrus’s struggle with alcohol, it quickly takes a turn into the metaphysical, and this is where Akbar’s true inventiveness as a fiction writer shines.
Martyr! follows recovering alcoholic Cyrus Shams as he wrestles with difficult questions of how to be an artist, an Iranian man, and how to give your life (and death) meaning. Cyrus is obsessed with creating meaning through his life and death, and now that he has given up alcohol, he has turned to poetry as a way to explore this. Saying, “He wanted to live perfectly enough to die without creating a ripple of pain behind him, like an Olympic diver knifing splashlessly into a pool,” it’s clear from early in the novel that he is a passionate, curious person—but also extremely troubled. Akbar introduces many different angles by which to attack Cyrus’s obsession. From insomniac conversations with Lisa Simpson and Cyrus’s deceased mother, to a spur-of-the-moment trip from Indiana to Brooklyn to visit a dying Iranian artist doing a performance art piece about her own death, the novel sometimes feels over-the-top, and while Akbar incorporates references to history and art in order to ground the novel in philosophy in a way which sometimes helps to center the book, Akbar does not always succeed in making it feel believable.
But is believability what Akbar is going for? Martyr! is funny, savvy, and feels deeply rooted in culture and tradition, sharply critiquing Iranian and Iranian-American customs while still praising the beauty and breadth of an ancient culture, but at times, Cyrus feels over eager for meaning. Meaning is Akbar’s currency—Cyrus is on a quest for precisely that, trying to create meaning out of a senselessly tragic and muddling life, but the novel dips in and out of possibility, embracing hybrid forms and bringing in elements of poetry and magical realism in a way that feels contemporary, modern, and electric. This is one of the joys of the novel—Akbar’s ability to weave together multiple voices, forms, and pieces of found text—creating a world which feels full-rendered, if not necessarily 100% the world that we live in every day. Akbar’s world is somewhere perhaps a little more magical; not necessarily better or worse, but maybe, just a little more ripe with possibility.
As a representation of queer relationships, this novel is excellent—it depicts multiple generations of queer couplings without flinching. Avoiding the tragic queer narrative which feels so familiar in mainstream media, Akbar portrays queer relationships as just as complicated, tender, and full of ups and downs as any other relationship. No character in this novel is shown as struggling with their sexuality, a welcome change from persistent media “coming out” stories and other exhausted queer media representations. In Martyr!, queer people are simply living their lives and loving each other, and this is refreshing to see as well as masterfully depicted.
Although there are some small missteps—the beginning of the novel spends a lot of time establishing backstory in a way that slows down the pace of the narrative, and we spend a fair amount of time with Cyrus’s sober, punk community in his home state of Indiana in a way that feels inefficient considering where the novel actually ends up heading, Akbar’s first foray into the world of fiction is certainly a successful one. This novel goes to surprisingly, brilliant, and inventive places, and Akbar’s background as a poet allows for stunning moments in the prose.
At its core, this novel is about being an artist. Although there are many competing themes, the one that stuck with this reader is this quote from late in the novel: “An alphabet, like a life, is a finite set of shapes. With it, one can produce almost anything.” Creativity, and its unlimited possibilities, are what shapes Cyrus, what drives him, and what motivates many of the other characters in this novel. When he relates to another character, it is because of the meaning that art has created for them. Akbar has written a novel which is not only politically rigorous, but also guides the reader through the life of a creative young man, in pain, one whom many young writers will recognize.
Martyr! is energetic from start to finish, and for fans of Akbar’s poetry, this novel will not disappoint. He has proven that not only is an accomplished poet, but also an exceptional fiction writer. The innovations in form, hybridity of the text, and many elements that have gone into this novel are nothing short of impeccable. Although the novel feels too self-aware at times, almost poking fun at the communities it references, it’s a sincere and open book with much to share with the world in terms of its observations, conclusion, and offerings, and Akbar is certainly a writer to follow closely in the years to come.
Publication date: January 23, 2024
Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo