There is a lot of quantum physics in Reif Larsen’s sprawling, epic I Am Radar, an invitingly large book that promises but only partially delivers a grand story. Many pieces merge to form the whole, and like an optical illusion, readers must do the mental trick of shifting perspective to see a vase where an instant before there were two faces. Mental agility is required to appreciate I Am Radar, and Larsen doesn’t seem interested in making it easy. It can be a frustrating struggle to understand how pieces fit together but so delightful and satisfying when they snap into place. But read without processing, focusing straight on, and that direct observation gets in the way of the story being told.
The story ostensibly focuses on Radar, opening on his birth and closing on his great performance, but for hundreds of pages he is a distant connective node in a wide web of characters, wars, and struggles both personal and cosmic. In one of the spookiest scenes of the book, Radar’s mother, Charlene, a woman with an unsettled past, and his father, Kermin, a Serbian obsessed with electronics, are in the hospital when the lights go out. Every piece of electronic equipment fails, and Radar is born by aid of Kermin’s flashlight. When the lights come back on, the baby is revealed to be “as black as the darkness from which he had just emerged. The umbilical cord and its apparatus dangled white and translucent against tiny, pumping legs the color of charcoal. Such monochromatic contrast appeared manufactured; the child looked like a puppet come to life.”
Charlene becomes consumed with fixing the problem of her son’s improbable skin color, leading her and Kermin to the puppet-obsessed Kirkenesferda, a real-life group that Larsen expands to fit his story. With the Kirkenesferda’s help and some electric shocks, Radar will shed his black skin, keeping the pale skin found underneath for the rest of his life, and pay for it with seizures and a host of other maladies unique to him. As Radar’s parents confront the enormity of their decision to alter their son, the line about a puppet coming to life serves as the jumping-off point to the rest of the novel, which leaves Radar for hundreds of pages to tell other stories—some directly, some obliquely—of other people involved in puppetry, physics, and electronic experiments. Larsen makes great use of the Kirkenesferda, taking an almost-unknown historical reference and expanding it into fiction. He does that a lot, and the pages of I Am Radar are filled with footnotes, diagrams and charts, and references to things both real and imaginary, all packaged to read like a non-fiction, thoroughly researched text on a group of connected people spread out over time and distance.
The result is engrossing but falls just short of the cohesive, magnificent story it very nearly is. After the focus shifts away from Radar, each story is compelling and lush enough to stand on its own. But Larsen’s clear love of research and scene-setting gets in the way of many of these stories, and the book alternates between gripping forward momentum and plodding inertia. When we finally catch up to Radar, much page time is dedicated to a long journey he takes by sea, and the narrative stutters to a laborious crawl as slow as the old boat carrying Radar. And as enjoyable as it can be to understand the story through a lens of quantum entanglement, there are times when it turns the book to an exercise that was probably more fun for the author to explore than it is for the reader to piece together.
Still, though, it makes for one hell of a way to understand the stories contained in I Am Radar. Like a physicist unable to look directly at an experiment without that observation altering the results, or like the book’s puppeteers attempting to set into effect Brownian motion through fantastic robot-like puppets, if you don’t look directly at I Am Radar but rather observe it peripherally, focusing not on a single piece but the way they all work together, the result is impressive and a little bit wondrous. In a way, the reader becomes part of the story, becoming aware of the observer’s affect on the observed. An optical illusion only works if you take your own eyes and brain and mind into the equation, and sometimes you can create sense out of many pieces, bringing order where before there was chaos. It’s an astonishing conceit, but it comes at the expense of the story’s thick, beating heart. But then again, a book focusing on that beating heart would be telling a completely different story.