Historian of an Invented World: A Q&A with Reif Larsen

Article by keaton

By Keaton Patterson

First, a confession: I put off reading the tome that is Reif Larsen’s second novel I AM RADAR. It had already generated an alarming amount of buzz by the time I heard about it last July, and my interest was piqued by what I knew of the story and its central character, “Radar,” a black boy born to white parents. But, I thought, it’s nearly 700 pages! It’s filled with illustrations, graphs, footnotes, even a selected bibliography--isn’t this supposed to be a novel? When does anyone have time to read a novel like this, let alone write one?

But I only had to pick up this book to know why my apprehension was unwarranted. I AM RADAR is a world unto itself, spanning decades and continents, and including everything from particle physics to ethnic cleansing. Larsen so completely realizes each of the numerous characters that they pop off the page with the eerie lifelike quality of a masterful puppet show. I finished it in a weekend.

After turning the final page, I found myself pacing around my house at midnight, wondering what the hell I had experienced. The story itself was clear, but the meaning felt like some essential truth far beyond my comprehension. “Profound” is probably the best word to describe this book. I can see it being debated for years to come. It raises more questions than answers. So, I decided to put forth a few of my own.


Brazos Bookstore: I AM RADAR is such an ambitious, sprawling novel. What was the kernel that started it all? Did you begin with a certain character? An idea? A vision?

Reif Larsen: I began with a couple of key ingredients, though at the time, I did not have any idea how I would combine them or if the soup would actually work. I started with the character of Radar as this love-struck radio operator in the Meadowlands, what is now essentially part three. I began writing and then realized I had to go back in time and that there were other characters who were going to be involved in the story. So the map began to grow and grow, and though I worried about the scope at times, I also had this morbid fascination whether the book could hold itself together.

I was also very interested in puppets. I had seen this amazing little puppet show down some staircase in Prague. A tiny old man, sitting in a room, reading. That’s all it was. I think it lasted about five minutes and the show was only for one audience member at a time, but something happened during that very singular experience, where this little man who was not alive was more alive than anyone I had ever met. So I wanted to capture this experience on the page, but I soon realized you cannot write about the experience of the sublime like this—you have to write the world around the sublime and let the reader make the last little jump herself.

I had also read about Susan Sontag putting on this controversial production of WAITING FOR GODOT in Sarajevo during the war. And some people said this was a beautiful thing to do, and some people thought this was the most pompous act in the world. So these were the key ingredients. And there were many more of course. I’ve long been interested in humans as essentially wet batteries, and I wanted to explore this notion of radio waves as slow light as well. But most of my stories require me to start writing and make discoveries on the page and then follow these discoveries. I don’t set out with a clear plan.

BB: The narrative structure is so unique. The inclusion of graphs, photos, footnotes, and even a bibliography of actual and invented texts makes I AM RADAR quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was especially taken with the enigmatic Spesielle Partikler book that features so prominently, providing a kind of hidden history and running commentary on the entire novel. You effectively had to write two separate books that are then grafted together seamlessly. Did this pose any particular compositional difficulties? How did you overcome them?

RL: As with my first novel, the inclusion of graphs and images arose organically from the story. In RADAR, these media act as a kind of language of authenticity, in that through the discourse of their documentation they force us to wonder what is true and what is not true. But as you’ve picked up on, to include all of these documents from a parallel world requires you to know that parallel world quite intimately. I probably should have stopped in the middle of RADAR and simply written my own history book about Kirkenesferda. I did create several cheat sheets about them, just to keep my story straight, but I found myself adding to the legend piece by piece, document by document. I’d written other short stories and essays about Kirkenesferda and so found myself constantly cross-referencing who was who and what happened in what performance. So in a way, I did become a historian of an invented world. And if you spend enough time documenting an invented world, you actually begin to believe in it, which is either scary or wonderful, depending on how you see it.

BB: The elaborate theatrical productions put on by the Kirkenesferda puppeteers center around military conflicts and the human suffering they cause--World War II; the Cambodian, Bosnian, and Congolese civil wars--ultimately becoming political as much as aesthetic creations. Do you believe art is always a political act?

RL: I don’t think I have a good answer to that, which is probably why I wrote this long book. But I do struggle with the perceived purpose of art. Why are we continuously drawn to it? Why do we rearrange our whole lives so that we can make it? Why we will go to great ends to see it? It is not necessary but it is essential, yes? And this is thrown into stark relief during wartime when our most basic needs become threatened. What happens to culture when you are just trying to survive? Some would say it gets thrown out the window, but from my research, I’ve found these beautiful acts of expression in the rubbles of war. Art laid bare. And this haunts me because it somehow raises the bar for those of us making art during peacetime.

BB: I found allusions to works by a number of authors throughout I AM RADAR--Borges, HG Wells, and Pynchon among others. Were these writers and their respective works simply inspirations that you wanted to acknowledge? Or do you see I AM RADAR more as a continuation of the themes they took on?

RL: When you write a novel, you are joining a conversation, a long conversation—whether you like it or not. The novel is a specific kind of vessel with a specific kind of history—it did not come out of thin air. So I think you have to acknowledge this somehow, maybe not explicitly, but in your head, you’ve got to know many people have held the baton before you. And readers enter you into their own conversation: “This book reminds me a bit of…Oh! I loved that book, I read it when I was in the darkness and it saved me...” And because reading is such an intimate act, our experience with a book is a very personal thing, and we cannot help but link it to a particular time in our lives. Stories always have spaces in which we store them. So I wanted to explore this through the character of Charlene, who has had such a tumultuous relationship with books. Books became her cipher through which she viewed everything else. But books have also been my cipher. Borges saved my life. And I like talking back to these people. Acknowledging them yes, but jumping into the game of literature—like a long line of telephone, where the message becomes wonderfully warped and twisted and inflected with bits of us.

BB: You have no idea who we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

RL: What book brought you back from the darkness?

BB: Speaking of which, Thomas Pierce wants to know: What do you hope happens after we die?

RL: I would love to be reincarnated— but reincarnated as something very non-human, like a lily pad. Can’t really think of anything better than that.

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