In one remarkable moment in The Last Illusion, a new novel by Porochista Khakpour, a shy and vulnerable young man who was raised as a bird in a cage meets an impetuous young woman who seems to understand him. He then meets her sister, who is so enormously fat that she lives her life in bed, occasionally dressing up in a tiara and gown and high-heeled shoes under her blanket.
We expect Zal, the young man, to become infatuated with Asiya, the passionate and intelligent young woman, and in fact Zal does like and respect Asiya very much. But it’s Willa, the gigantic sister who lives in bed that Zal falls instantly and completely in love with.
He knew by now that it was not polite to stare — people had done it to him all his life, until recently, it seemed, when he appeared closer to normal — but he couldn’t help it. He had never seen a person like this, all flesh, rolls and rolls of flesh, with some amber-colored curls clinging to a huge head with two tiny eyes that were almost hidden and a tiny pair of rose lips tucked into all that slightly ruddy face … She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
Zal is loosely based on a birdish hero of the great Persian epic The Shahnameh, and Khakpour’s novel hints that Willa might be based on a character in this epic too. After she tells him about the disturbing childhood events that compelled her to retreat to bed and become huge, he notes that something about the story “felt ancestral, ancient, but very much a part of him, like when Hendricks read him those bedtime stories of the great bird and its human son, the young albino, the story that had given him his name.”
This inspired me to begin Googling for clues about an enormous female character or a character named Willa in The Shahnameh, but I wasn’t surprised or disappointed when this search turned up no results. The Last Illusion is a maximalist novel, a glorious mound of everything-ness, and it reminds me more of John Irving, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut more than of any ancient heroic epic poem. It’s also a very modern American novel fully rooted in its vivacious young author’s New York City hipster milieu, and it carries cultural references from Criss Angel Mindfreak to DJ Screw. With this wide a background, how can I even begin to guess what “ancestral, ancient” notes Willa is meant to evoke? For all I know, she may symbolize Gaia the Earth Mother, even though Gaia comes from ancient Greece instead of ancient Iran, or, who knows, she may represent the spirit of Willa Cather. This novel is big enough to contain all of these possiblities, which is one reason it’s so much fun to read.
Last Illusion may not appear at first glance to be fun to read: it opens with a vision of a tragically abused child in Iran, and mostly takes place in the years and months leading up to the morning of September 11, 2001. The fact that it is fun to read is due to the very original sensibility of its author, who has ignored conventions and expectations and delivered a tour de force that defies categorization. All Persian epic associations aside, I read The Last Illusion with strong sense memories of the three writers I named above — John Irving, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. I detected this influence not only in the comic-manic fast-shifting plotlines but also in the warmth, generosity and openness of its main characters, Zal and Asiya and Willa.
The Last Illusion ends up being a novel about a few people who feel like freaks until they find and help each other. It takes place during the moment of the millennium, and it contains a millennial sense of dread and anticipation. Zal is a brave young loner who needs a friend, and Asiya turns out to be his guide even into the mysteries of sex, which they both self-consciously half-enjoy. More often their supportive relationship feels more like Harry Potter and Hermione Granger’s than like a romantic affair, while Zal’s obsession with Asiya’s sister feels more like a sexualized embrace of the world as a whole.
The love between all of them turns out be based on badly-needed trust, and within his newfound crazy adopted family (which includes, just to keep it interesting, a pot-smoking brother who keeps trying to beat Zal up for invading his space) the birdlike hero finds just enough traction to ground him on his feet for the next shift in the Earth’s axis, which they all watch with horror as a loony famous magician prepares to make New York City’s two tallest buildings disappear on a September morning. All the phony illusions in this unusual book turn out to be unexpectedly and accidentally real, including friendship and love.