Zal knew he had to make all the moves. He stepped up to her and pressed his body against hers. He thought of the porn scenes; he thought of Willa.
They kissed with a wildness he hadn't experienced since...since nothing. He let her go wherever she wanted with her hands, and he did the same. He eventually, like one porn guy, threw her on the bed. He tried to say the things the guy had said to the woman he was having sex with, but the words were getting scrambled in his head, threatening to distract him, and he could not, would not, no way in hell, let himself lose it, lose this. He focused, he breathed, he thought of her, that other her, and he moved in and in and in. She moaned in the way the girl in the porn scenes did, and he thought that was good. He moaned, too, like the man had, and he thought maybe it helped, those sounds.
The funny thing was that they did not sound human at all, even less so than the humans in pornography. (p. 133, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Iranian-American writer Porochista Khakpour's latest novel, The Last Illusion, takes as its inspiration the medieval Persian epic, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. In that tale, there is an albino boy, Zal, who is abandoned at birth and raised by a mythical bird, the Simorgh, before he later returns to live with humans. This legendary Zal, who goes on to become one of Persia's greatest heroes, is the namesake for another bird-raised boy who has spent the first ten years of his life stuffed in a bird cage, eating as the birds do, because his mother could not bear the shame of admitting that she had given birth to such a white-skinned monster. In The Last Illusion, Khakpour traces young Zal's life from his adoption by an American to his growing up in 1990s New York, all the while trying to understand what it means and feels to be human instead of an approximation of a bird.
The Last Illusion is full of unique characters. Leaving aside Zal's own struggles (the quote above, dealing with his first sexual experience with a woman), the story also devotes time (albeit seen through the prism of Zal's somewhat questionable evaluations of people around him) to his adopted father, his therapist, an illusionist, Bran Silber, and a woman, Asiya McDonald, who may or may not be a clairvoyant/mentally disturbed. In his interactions with them, Zal ends up making discoveries about himself that a more "normal" and less "feral" man-child may have glossed over. Take for instance the quote above. Not only do we read of an outsider's bare understanding of what sex entails, but it also can act as a commentary on how many youth have come to equate the act of sex, emotions and lust and all, with the mechanistic action of pornography. Although there is some humor in this scene and in others like it (such as the detailing of a beating endured), there is also sharp commentary on social ills that afflict people today.
The action of the novel unfolds in a gradual yet steady pace. As Zal matures and discovers how to love, how to rebel, how to question in ways that humans do, he also discovers those moments in which his bird-raising has made him an outsider, someone who does not fully grasp what is occurring. Whether it is his attempts to become attached to Asiya or his fragile bonds with his father and Silber, or his frustrations with the obtuseness of his therapist, Zal is constantly left feeling as though he has to go through the motions of acting, of pretending to be something that he has not yet become, if he ever will, fully human.
In stories such as this, if the characters are not developed to become complex, dynamic personalities, the entire story can fall flat. The Last Illusion, however, avoids this, as Zal and the people in his life are drawn with a wryness that adds contrast to their actions and words. When Zal talks with his father, the conversation may at first seem rote, yet there are enough subtle twists to it that makes their conversations feel realistic. The same goes with most of the other characters, minus a minor character, Zachary, whose anger and bullying make him less complex and therefore less interesting than others that Zal encounters. Outside of this, the characterization in The Last Illusion is very well-done and adds greatly to the unfolding story.
Zal's story arc appears to follow that of his legendary namesake in the sense of becoming integrated into a world utterly alien to them. Yet this fictional Zal also represents an innocence of sorts, an innocence that is lost on the final day of the story, a day in which the "last illusion" set to occur at 8:30 AM in New York becomes all too real. Although the setting and the timing of events leads readers to realize that there is an inexorable march to this calamity that awaits them all. As Zal and his father have one final conversation related to the Shahnameh, it foretells so eerily the event to come:
"I didn't remember a magician," Zal said.
"Funny, neither did I," Hendricks said. "We rarely got this far into it. It's nearly done."
"What happens to the magician?"
Hendricks paused, skimming ahead with his eyes. "He's killed. Beheaded right then and there. Those were his final words."
Zal nodded. Somehow it made sense, context out of context, and yet how startling it was. That must be the key. There was magic, there was miracle, there was madness, all untethered, and all one. It was this moment, this moment before. (p. 257)
And as that calamity unfolds, there is a sense, not of closure, of but a chapter ending and a new one beginning, that comes over Zal. No, not just Zal, but also the reader. It is a powerful emotion, one that makes the previous scenes all key steps to the end. The result of this is a poignant, moving tale that combines sharp writing with a keen insight into our emotions to create a novel worth reading and re-reading for years to come.