The Last Illusion begins with a Persian epic written a thousand years ago and ends with the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. Zal, our protagonist, was raised as a bird. Literally. His mother placed him in a cage and treated him as she does the rest of her pets. He is rescued at ten years old and moved, first to Tehran by his sister and a troupe of scientists and then to New York by Tony Hendricks, an expert in ‘feral children’ who adopts Zal and raises him as his own. In America, Zal befriends a magician and finds a love of sorts with an artist who is seemingly clairvoyant. It is a novel about reality and myth, about magic and illusion, about outsiders and what it means to be human and, more than anything else, a story about stories. It is a beautifully crafted novel, full of beautifully crafted sentences, and yet…
I don’t trust it.
Allow me to explain.
A good magic trick is as much about set-up as execution. An illusion is a story, a narrative, the trick itself is really only the end, or the twist. So, the magician will tell you that the cloth he is putting over the hat was passed down through generations of wizards and illusionists, he will tell you the hat was worn by Houdini, he will lie to you and manipulate you until you are willing the trick to work. Then he will distract you. Then he will pull the rabbit from the hat. Then you will applaud.
Each element of the The Last Illusion is a separate, similar, ruse. It feels like a set up. Beautifully written, yes, but…
When Zal is discovered the scientists say he will never talk, never walk, never be a normal man. But within a chapter he is talking, he is walking, he is interacting with other people. The problems he encounters (struggling to fit in, confusion about his sexuality) are pretty much what every young person experiences. The bird thing, the feral bit, is it just window dressing? Glamour? More importantly, we know so early in the novel that the magician Zal befriends will try to make the twin towers ‘disappear’ in the very moments that they actually do (though the novel fudges the seventeen minutes between the North and South Towers being hit ) that anything else we learn about him seems unnecessary, just showmanship.
I was left feeling that the last illusion of The Last Illusion is not something within the book but the book itself. The reader is lulled into thinking Porochista Khakpour is telling us that all stories are equally true when the reality is that she is telling us all stories are lies. All stories are tricks. Not to be trusted.
And how can I trust that?
So what is this paradox of a novel? Magic realism for cynics? Perhaps. However, I was, and am still, so befuddled and rattled by its construction, so uncomfortable with the way it uses 9/11 to play games with fiction, that I am reluctant to call it anything short of important. It nags at you, and, infuriatingly, at least part of that nagging is the thought that I am reading the novel completely wrong – that this is just a celebration of stories and that I am the cynic, not the Khakpour. Am I part of the audience or part of the trick? Is the reader the stooge or the mark? I don’t know. But the fact that I don’t warms me to the book greatly.
Any Cop?: I think so. I think this novel is doing things it pretends it isn’t. But I could be wrong. I don’t know. I don’t know who or what to trust. I don’t know what is an illusion and what is real and I think I like that.