For a book so obsessed with death, Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! does a pretty good job of making you feel alive.
The book follows Cyrus, an Iranian-born recovering alcoholic who can't shake a persistent cloak of sadness. When he clocks out of his day job as a medical actor who pretends to be a dying patient for doctors in training, he gets to work on his true passion: writing a book about martyrs. Along with his best friend Zee, who he sometimes kisses, Cyrus travels from Indiana to New York for a weekend to meet Orkideh, a performance artist living out her last days in the Brooklyn Museum to see what she can teach him about death.
What makes Martyr! pulse with life is how it’s really about all the ways one death can devastate the lives of everyone nearby. Cyrus, for example, is a life-long orphan after his mother’s flight is shot down by the U.S. army, based on the real-life Iran Air 655 flight. He now has “doom organ,” Akbar writes, “throbbing all day every day.”
From Iraq-Iran War battlefields to a hookah bar in Indiana, Akbar’s novel is filled with original and magnetic prose that makes you feel like the wind has been knocked out of you. NYLON caught up with Akbar on his book tour ahead of the novel’s release to talk death, art, and the American Midwest.
Where did this book start for you?
I had this idea of an artist performing a [Marina] Abramovic-esque installation of her dying in a museum where people could come talk to her during the final weeks. The person sitting in front of her was a cipher, and there was no real narrative or propulsion. It was a way for me to demonstrate my feats of syntactic semantic agility. I had to go back and figure out a plot that would make that performance interesting. What I realized very quickly was that the person sitting on the other side of the seat had to be living a life as interesting as the artist’s, and so Cyrus came to be.
Did you always want to write about the Iran Air flight shot down by the U.S.S. Vincennes?
The imprecision of American justice is taken as a given. When you say the Vincennes incident, people of a certain age will furrow their brows. It'll sound vaguely familiar, but they won't remember 290 innocent lives shot out of the sky. I'm fascinated by that. In Iran, they put it on postage stamps. They propagandize it. I'm fascinated by that, too.
What the book sets out to do is to give texture to the magnitude of one of those lives. There's one life who dies on that plane: Cyrus's mother, and because of that one life, Cyrus's life is irrevocably changed. All these lives are utterly changed by this one. You take the granular experience of individual loss and seeing that with clarity and lucidity allows you to extrapolate that to the whole of a collective grief. That's what art does.
What was it like for you to spend so much time with a character so obsessed with death? Did it make you think about death differently?
The musician Charlie Parker said, “If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn,” which is the case for me. I have always been obsessed with death. Our life is infinitely small compared to the infinities on either side of our finite lives. How is anyone not thinking about that all the time? The fact that, even if I live to be 70, it’s not even a blip in the eye of the eternity, that I will be something else or won't be something else. How is that not what everyone is thinking about all the time?
Can you talk about developing the relationship between Cyrus and Zee?
It resembles the kind of casual, non-relationship that I think a lot of young people find themselves in that aren't often depicted in fiction or narrative in general. It’s not a friends-with-benefits thing, it's not a relationship, but they're in something-ship. Cyrus is so obsessed with himself, it's hard for him to look beyond himself and his endless reprocessing of his past. That's very frustrating for Zee, who Cyrus in some ways treats like a sidekick. I can relate to both sides of that. I've been both of them at different points in my life.
Can you talk about how the American Midwest is a character?
I’ve moved around constantly in my life, but I've spent the majority of my life and my moving around in the American Midwest. I think a lot of people forget that there's a ton of farms and industrial work in the Midwest. My dad worked on poultry farms, and we moved around from duck farm to duck farm constantly, and there were a lot of immigrants on those farms.
The textures of the Midwest as an immigrant are so uncanny because there's this kind of politeness that is pervasive, almost pathological, and that makes the actual institutional and psychological malice that exists everywhere so much more insidious when you notice it. But also I love being in the Midwest. I love the monolithic skies and driving an hour and a half drive being a quick drive to get to whatever else that you want to. There's something about that expansiveness that feels really soothing to me.
Do you have any favorite martyrs or martyrs who aren't in this book?
There's a reason I didn't call it The Martyr. There's a reason that I'm not like, “Cyrus is the martyr.” I think that Cyrus is after a pretty expansive definition of martyrdom that can accommodate not just those who die in the Roman Empire or in the battle of Karbala — but maybe not even people who died at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.