Book Review: The Last Illusion
The Read: The Last Illusion
Author: Porochista Khakpour
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Unravelling: An ancient Iranian myth brought to the present, The Last Illusion, is the tale of feral child Zal brought up by his mother as a bird and the developments in his life post rescue. Zal’s features are unlike any of his siblings forcing his mother to christen him ‘White Demon’. Brought up as a bird (cage et al) a trapped life of seeds, squawking and fluttering is the only one he knows, till he is rescued and his foster father, Hendricks, takes him in. For a while, you’re misled into thinking this will be an it-can-only-go-uphill story. As Zal acquires more and more human characteristics, he increasingly gets entwined between inappropriate jobs, inappropriate love interests and inappropriate desires. It’s funny how he appears more human as his life gets more warped. He is attracted to all that might provide instant gratification but prove fatal in the long run, be it his girlfriend or Silber, the illusionist. It all ends in a fittingly dramatic climax as New York is hit by a tragedy it appears to be recovering from even today.
The singular protagonist: It’s Zal’s story from the word go. No other character comes close to the mystery and intrigue he possesses, though all of them are well etched-out. Whether it is his constantly evolving self, his secret desire and understanding of his bird-ness, human understanding of his deviancy and his good sense to sugar-coat the truth for the sake of Hendricks; everything culminates to build a protagonist who is unique, vulnerable, mature, adaptive and restrictive all at the same time. You’re rooting for Zal from the start.
What we loved: The basic idea. A feral child copes with the modern world. We were forced to read up more about such children and were surprised that many cases were Indian. It was all a little too much until we realised Mowgli was essentially the same and how fact really does seem stranger than fiction. We also loved the graph of the story — and it keeps you hooked.
Maybe not: We wouldn’t have minded a clichéd happy ending for once, but then again, that’s subjective.
Read it because: A very different story has been told, with unique characters that have possibly negative traits.
Q&A with author Porochista Khakpour
1. From where did the idea for The Last Illusion emerge?
The original story came from a single tale within the Persian Book of Kings or Shahnameh: that of the feral child Zal who is raised by the giant bird Simorgh in the wilderness. I always knew I wanted to write about that. In my head I also had an idea about a magician whose final illusion is like David Copperfield’s 1983 Statue of Liberty disappearing act—but this time with the WTC. Somehow these two stories got intertwined and became a sort of fabulist portrait of Y2K-9/11 era NYC.
2. How much (and what kind of) research went into writing Zal’s character?
Less than I thought at first. Initially I contacted a behavioral analyst, one of the only experts on feral children, to do actual research—specifically around the case of a rather similar Russian bird boy who’d emerged in the late 2000s. But I stopped myself from corresponding with her. I realised it would be more enjoyable and in some way more faithful to my vision to write it as I had it in my head. I wasn’t writing narrative nonfiction or even straight realism, so why not? I followed the dream I had in my head.
3. Are any of the characters inspired by real life?
I think many of them are just different versions of me amplified and distorted.
4. Which character’s story stayed with you after the book?
Zal is my true love, but his true love Willa is also one of my favorite characters of all time. She is an obese bedridden young woman, but the most beautiful woman I have ever written and certainly the main source of hope and beauty in this book.
5. Both Iran and the 9/11 tragedy have been an essential part of your books. Do you feel closer to your birthplace or the country where you grew up and worked in?
Iran and 9/11 of course have nothing to do with each other, but are simply parts of my own personal history. Their main link for me came in the post-9/11 era and largely out of the ignorance of others: that pan- Middle Eastern identity that came out of racism and xenophobia.
I feel very Iranian because of my household growing up, which was actually quite removed from the Iranian diaspora of Los Angeles. I don’t feel a kinship with Los Angeles, but I do very much with New York. I feel much more of a New Yorker than I do an American actually. But I never forget–and New York is a great reminder of this–that America is a land of immigrants and my story is basically THE story of this country. We are all from somewhere else here, other than Native Americans; this is a detail we can’t afford to forget especially these days.
6. Which are some contemporary authors you enjoy reading?
This year I really enjoyed the work of Helen Oyeyemi, Rivka Galchen, Can Xue, and Dorthe Nors. Also, I love the work of my friends Kate Zambreno and Deb Olin Unferth.
7. Currently you are…
All work and all play (intensely sleep-deprived).