The big, beautiful, ambitious novel “I Am Radar” opens as Radar Radmanovic is born during a fantastic blackout in suburban New Jersey. Although his parents are white, the baby has charcoal-black skin; doctors can find no medical explanation.
His mother, Charlene, a librarian, is driven frantic by the degree to which Radar’s skin color signifies his difference from his parents. Kermin, an immigrant electronics repairman, wishes his wife could accept their boy as he is. But after four years, when they’re given a chance to change Radar’s skin tone using an experimental therapy, it’s her will that wins out.
This takes the family to Norway, where they discover that the therapy is to be administered by a troupe of radical physicist puppeteers. Despite the dubious qualifications, they proceed.
Radical physicist puppeteers? It takes narrative magic to pull off such a loopy combination, and luckily, Reif Larsen has it to spare. His prose is addictive and enchanting. In his hands, even the most familiar scenes sparkle: Kermin, rushing the expectant Charlene to the hospital, “had taken the old Buick up and over the curb onto a low, half-moon shrubbery, which had not weathered this trespass well at all.”
Larsen writes with wit and warmth. His debut novel, “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” (2009), was a bestseller about a precocious boy who traverses America.
In “I Am Radar,” his second novel, Larsen sets his sights on more distant horizons. The story stretches from New Jersey to Yugoslavia, Cambodia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These far-flung places are connected by the puppeteers, performance artists driven by their political aesthetic to create work in places of crisis.
“Many have called us the worst kind of self-satisfied, pretentious time wasters — creating our art while others die. Sometimes I harbor these same doubts myself,” one puppeteer admits. “But … we were circling around something essential, something far too beautiful to abandon — ‘an eternal object.’”
Eternal yet ephemeral: One of their performances is immolated in a nuclear test explosion. The troupe incorporates sophisticated robotics, remote controls and ideas of quantum entanglement, but still the humans wind up in harm’s way.
Their attempt to change young Radar’s skin color successfully makes him beige, to match his parents. But he is also alopecia’d, epileptic and, as we later learn, preternaturally gifted with electronics, able to read radio transmitters by merely laying on of hands.
While Radar is growing up in New Jersey — a decent but hopelessly uncool young man, still living at home, awkwardly flirting with a checkout girl, taking his recumbent bicycle to work at a radio station where he communes with the transmitters — Larsen introduces us to another family living on a Bosnian farm. In the decades before Yugoslavia’s dissolution, Danilo and his wife, Stoja, raise two sons, the elder an ill-tempered tinkerer, the younger brawny and dutiful. At the start of the 1990s, the brothers wind up on opposite sides of the war; its losses are explored intimately and powerfully.
It’s not clear how this connects to Radar, at least not at first. And there’s another multigenerational story yet to come, this one in Cambodia in the 1970s. These sagas stand on their own, linked by eventual contact with the puppeteers and a recurring theme of scientific investigation.
“I Am Radar” is packed full of diagrams and science — ideas from quantum physics, theories both fringe and mainstream. A bibliography includes books both real and invented, with titles such as “Non-Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Generators” and “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that Will be Able to Come Forward as Science.” For the most part, the scientific ideas create an interesting and knotty thread throughout the book.
The most deeply ingrained is one of doubling and duality. The title of the book’s fourth section is “The Principles of Uncertainty,” as in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: In certain situations when two complementary states exist, only one can be known. The common misperception is that the act of observation changes the outcome, but that’s not really this principle, and the book parses that during characters’ discussions.
“Life happened twice,” Larsen writes. “Once in real time and again in the book.” That’s in a passage set in Cambodia. Jean-Baptiste, a French-Cambodian rubber plantation scion, is brought a foundling from the jungle and records his adopted infant’s progress in a black notebook.
In the latter half of the book, its narrative form firmly established, Larsen opens up meta-questions about how books work and what role art has to play in understanding or countering violence.
It’s a worthy endeavor that Larsen, who could apply his gorgeous prose to more comfortable literary fictions, is engaging with distant and unfamiliar cultures. In one interview, he said he visited the foreign locales — Cambodia, Belgrade — to get a feel for the texture of their days. That comes through in the text.
And yet there is a mismatch at times between Larsen’s lyrical style and the sometimes frightening stories he’s trying to incorporate. The Cambodian section, which ends during Pol Pot’s despotism, winds up casting the colonial era in an overly charmed light. And when the tale gets to Africa, its weakest passages observe crowds of dancing natives on a riverbank, swathed in gossamer language.
At its core, though, the book is striving for something stronger, and Larsen’s ceaselessly lovely prose is matched by his many ambitions. He’s created an odd ship of characters who will venture halfway across the globe for art and science, not for acclaim but to complete their complex, risky creations.
I Am Radar
Penguin Press: 672 pp., $29.95