It was 2009 when Reif Larsen’s debut novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, first appeared. The novel follows the accomplishments and journey of a young, intelligent, and brave mapmaker named T.S. Spivet. Besides the glorious words, T.S. Spivetuses a variety of sketches and charts to tell its story. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is the kind of novel that signals the arrival of a unique talent—the kind of writer you can’t wait to read more from. It took six years, but, finally, Reif Larsen is back with his follow-up.
Go ahead and breathe because Larsen’s latest novel, I Am Radar, is rather good. It’s not as fun or, arguably, as enjoyable as his debut, but I Am Radar sets out to conquer more territory. This is the kind of novel that spans decades and moves across the world. The pure ambition of the project has to be admired, even if I can’t necessarily love it.
Our protagonist is Radar Radmanovic. Radar’s first appearance into the world comes with a jolt—literally. Just as Radar’s mother, Charlene, is about to deliver her son, the hospital’s power shuts off. Panic sets in, and people rush to get the lights back on. Before they can, though, Radar arrives. As light finally strikes the young boy, the white parents realize that their son doesn’t look like them—Radar has black skin.
Appearance is a major focus in I Am Radar. Charlene struggles to accept her son because he doesn’t look like her. She admits, “I need to know what I did to him.” Because he’s different looking, she can’t let go of the notion that something has to be wrong with him. Doctors insist that the boy is healthy. One doctor, Dr. Fitzgerald, even goes so far as to tell Radar that he is “the most special person” he’s met.
All of the assurance does nothing to comfort Charlene. She travels to Norway in search of a solution. What she does while there is inconceivably horrible. Why she does it is even worse. Is appearance what we value the most? If so, how much are we willing to give up to attain the ideal look?
As Radar ages, his color goes through stages. It gets to a point where Radar can’t even remember his past self. Charlene has to tell him, “You were black. I mean, when you were born, you were black.” His reply is two words: “wait” and “what.” It’s as if Radar is unaware of his own past. He is reminded of his difference, and it shakes him. Even if he now looks like his parents, he still has the separation. Larsen writes, “He was still Radar. Just because he knew the truth of his origin didn’t discount all of his defects. He was still broken.” As a result, Larsen shows that sometimes things can’t be changed, even if we, like Charlene, devote our life to the cause.
Radar develops an interest (or obsession) in electricity, which seems appropriate when considering some of his experiences that he can’t remember. His fascination becomes his career and his hobby. His life seems appropriate for a man who has suffered like he has, but it doesn’t seem like he’s settling or doing something that he doesn’t want to do. It seems genuine, and it works to hold the novel’s core firmly in place.
Charlene shows some progression, too. She opens up to her son, and in those moments, she gains her release from guilt. Radar’s father has his own success with radios and electric currents. The Radmanovics live their lives, and watching them is actually kind of heartwarming.
If this were the end of I Am Radar, I’d be willing to call it a masterpiece and move on. I’d probably even consider it an early front-runner for the best book of 2015. The sections with Radar and his family explore identity so expertly that there really doesn’t have to be anything else said. But…
There are a number of minor characters that fit into the overall narrative, and they do bog down the novel just a bit. Radar’s father has a connection to a group of secret performers. We also meet two brothers who struggle to understand where they fit into a war-torn world. We travel from New Jersey to Norway. Then, we step inside the worlds of Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and the Congo. Larsen moves from a novel about finding one’s self to one about the value of art and the atrocities of war.
Through it all, Larsen remains a trusted storyteller. His prose is remarkably clean, and the way he paces his mammoth novel is rather impressive. He even includes maps and diagrams. In a lesser-talented writer’s hands, such inclusions might come off as pretentious gimmicks, but here they seem like necessary additions.
Reif Larsen’s I Am Radar is an ambitious novel that, even for a couple of near missteps, hits most of its marks.