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The Last Illusion: A Novel Hardcover – May 13, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (May 13, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620403048
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620403044
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #49,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Téa Obreht and Porochista Khakpour, author of The Last Illusion

Porochista Khakpour

Porochista Khakpour, photo by Marion Ettlinger

Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Téa Obreht:: Reading The Last Illusion, I was particularly struck by your cast of characters—their intensity, complexity, unpredictability. I wanted to ask you about Zal: how did he find his way into your imagination?

Porochista Khakpour: My Zal is based on the Zal of Persian legend—a character in the Persian national epic, the Shahnameh, the Book of the Kings. It’s our Canterbury Tales, you might say, with the scope and reach of the Old Testament or The Odyssey—50,000 verses by Ferdowsi, written over a thousand years ago. The story I felt most connected to was the tale of Zal. It’s an outsider’s success story—an albino boy, cast off into the woods by a royal family, becomes a major Persian hero. As an immigrant child transplanted to the United States, I always felt like a misfit. I tried to carry his promise in me. My Zal, a contemporary Zal—a literalized version, raised as a bird—was also partially inspired by a feral child case in Russia. A boy who was raised among birds and could only speak in chirps had been discovered. My brain immediately filled the many holes in that story with the Shahnameh’s Zal. I wanted to tell the coming-of-age story of an anti-heroic bird boy, who, for all his oddness, becomes heroic for his normalcy. The other characters resolved out as composites of my own struggles. They all grew up in some way detached from what should have defined them—parents or nationality or history or health—and so I wanted to draw a portrait of a society without a past, individuals defined by their concept of a future. Y2K presented an ideal precipice to toe them all against, pushing them over into the unpredictably bottomless moment of 9/11. The chasms of those two events, one imagined and one horrifically real, motivated the characters with violent and irresistible gravity.

TO: As Zal’s story moves from the harrowing circumstances of his upbringing and into a perplexing new life in America, the most intense challenge he faces is the question of becoming human. The vulnerability and sincerity of his struggle is a huge emotional touchstone throughout the entire book. What was it like navigating this transformation?

PK: A good friend joked to me recently that this book is actually my memoir. I’m an outsider in every culture I’ve ever been in—Iranian, American, academic, literary, etc. All my identifiers feel a bit alien to me. It’s probably the PTSD of a childhood edited with abrupt jump-cuts and no soft dissolves. Born into war-torn, revolution-crazy Iran. Abruptly dropped into American political asylum. Unpredictably shifted from class to class. I’ve never fallen into a natural state of being—like Zal. But very few of us feel like “insiders. ” I wonder whether we entirely believe an “inside” exists. That’s the pact of real individualism, the singularity of the consciousness—we are forever on an outside of true solitariness because of the uniquely defined histories within us.

TO: In many ways, the use of magic in this story is very difficult to categorize—to call it magical realism seems too confining here, because the characters repeatedly test, and even upend, the parameters of our world in very concrete ways. Could you talk about the line between reality and supernatural, mysticism and modernity in The Last Illusion?

PK: One of my first literary loves was the magical realist Latin American literature of the twentieth century; I also deeply enjoyed European surrealists and American experimental writers. When I began imagining The Last Illusion I thought often of Toni Morrison’s advice: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. ” In the end, a lot of my literary influences surfaced to inform an identifiable world tempered by fantastic flourishes. At the core of this baroque, fabulist mash-up would be a simple, universal anchor: a coming-of-age love story. That element grounds the reader in something familiar. Something we accept as real. The supernatural is then freed up to become more super while remaining believably natural. Those are my favorite stories.

TO: Tell me about New York: what it means to you as a canvas, a cherished place of residence, a place both full and to be filled with stories.

PK: New York City is one of the greatest loves of my life. I grew up pinning its image to my wall. The minute I had the chance—college—I got here. And I stayed. But nothing cemented my New Yorker status more than 9/11—being in lower Manhattan, watching the events, live, outside my window, just sealed the deal. There’s a reason I write about it a lot. I love this city with the sort of love reserved for blood. I never forget what a privilege it is to share the city with some of the most incredible people in the world, New Yorkers.

TO: I’m deeply intrigued by the way you chose to address 9/11, its approach and influence on the souls that people your work. Can you discuss your process of crafting a new and intimate world around this shared piece of our history?

PK: As a child I was obsessed with a 1983 David Copperfield illusion where he made the Statue of Liberty disappear. It devastated me. I watched it just as I began obsessing over New York and of course as an immigrant, American symbols fascinated me. I remember identifying that trivial, telecast spectacle as somehow more than just magic; it was my first encounter with symbolism. Almost twenty years after witnessing that illusion, 9/11 came. It was a watermark in my life in so many ways. I was twenty-three, unemployed, confused, and suddenly thrust into real life. And the world had literally fallen down around me.

Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist.

From Booklist

Lauded Iranian American critic and novelist Khakpour writes another gripping tale that mixes myth and history. Based on Persian folklore, The Last Illusion is the story of a feral albino boy raised in Iran until age 10 by a deranged mother who keeps him in a cage and treats him like a bird. The boy, Zal, is discovered by his grown sister and passed off to a famous American child analyst, who adopts him, takes him to New York City, and sets out to help him integrate into society. Zal takes on the streets of New York, with its myriad characters, the same way a bird might cock its head at the strangeness of human behavior, but as he grows, he longs to be normal and must fight against his instincts to be bird. Khakpour’s writing walks a line between mythical and realistic, somehow melding the two seamlessly and keeping reality in sharp focus; the reader aches for Zal, who fumbles through life as neither completely bird nor completely human. --Heather Paulson

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Customer Reviews

Overall, this book is a stunning work of literature.
Wilhelmina Zeitgeist
His character is beautifully developed, and his story is a pleasure to read.
N. Robinson
There was weirdness for sure just like there is in life.
Scott Bright

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By J.E.M. on May 16, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The imagination, energy and scope of this novel are breathtaking. It's incredible to me that this expansive world was contained in one person. The narration, generous and grand, bursts from the pages and is a real treat to read. I found myself fascinated by the characters in this book--fraught and desperate and weird, but also so relatable, so human. An excellent read.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By J from NY VINE VOICE on May 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A tale that goes from being euphoric to crushing in a second, the subject is chiefly Zal, a misbegotten child. He begin his existence in a cage, and his mother finds him the quality of his skin disgusting. Sort of reminiscent of something by Par Lagerkvist, he is saved by his sister and later adopted by an American father and begins a search for his true identity.

The fascinating parts of this novel, to me, were when Zal dreams in bird language. His identity is so horribly distorted by his mother's objectification of him as some kind of animal that he imagines he thinks this way, as well. I would read another book by Khakpour--it is a bit like the union of Lagerkvist and Marquez. Recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Anita Mohan on June 11, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Loved this novel. I've read at least 1 literary novel per week for more than 20 years and this is one of the standouts. It has all the beautiful lucidity of the best contemporary American literary fiction, as well as the willingness to take the reader into dark unsettling places that the most seductive and memorable world literature (by Kafka, Bernhard etc.) has.

The Last Illusion is a contemporary re-imagining of the Persian medieval epic The Shahnameh. The main character Zal is born fair-skinned and blond in Iran. His deranged mother calls him White Demon and confines him to a bird cage along with her other pet birds, feeding him insects and letting him sleep on straw. He communicates with the birds by squawking. He is taken out of his life as a bird by an older sibling. A white American psychologist who studies feral children and whose great love is a dead Persian poet adopts him and takes him to New York City.

Zal comes of age in pre-9/11 New York City, still longing for his life as a bird. He sneaks candied insects and still longs to fly. When he meets illusionist Bran Silber, he think he's found a kindred spirit who is equally interested in flying. He also develops a relationship with an anorexic eccentric photographer and falls in love with her gigantic sister Willa. Meanwhile, the illusionist is planning to make the World Trade Center disappear.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By MNYC on June 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This novel is a fascinating, funny and heartbreaking exploration of the interplay between making myth and making a life. Khakpour ingeniously weaves a tale from the Persian Book of Kings into the world of pre-9/11 New York to examine the most American of stories: reinvention.

Though the novel centers on Zal, a young man who cannot entirely shake his bird-ness (after his mother threw him in a cage and made him live with her other birds for the first ten years of his life), and his quest to understand what it is to be human, all of Khakpours characters ache for something just beyond themselves. They wish to become someone or something else that would allow them to make sense in their worlds. From the possibly psychic Asiya, to the riotously funny illusionist Bran Silber, to Asiya’s morbidly obese sister Willa, these characters seek to create themselves, to self-mythologize, and yet these reinventions fail to take hold, leaving them constantly just out of place.

And when Khakpour dives into Zal’s bird-ness, the novel really takes off. She re-orients the reader’s experience to Zal’s, and his more avian tendencies begin to feel “normal,” while his attempts to become human, while often hilarious, feel like the true strangeness. It’s a remarkable sleight-of-hand, and a joy to read.

Ultimately, this novel is a deepy compassionate, slightly magical story of what it is to be human, and to what lengths we’ll go to create and preserve ourselves. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Maxine McLister on May 23, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Zal is born in Iran with extremely pale skin and light coloured hair. His mother is convinced she has given birth to a `white demon' and puts him in a cage where she raises him along with her menagerie of birds. He is finally rescued as a young adolescent by his sister and subsequently adopted by a behavioural analyst who takes him to New York. Zal tries to appear normal but he can't escape his upbringing completely; he dreams of flying and hides his secret stash of candied insects from his adoptive father. Eventually, in his efforts to become more human, Zal leaves home. He meets a famous illusionist, Bran Silber (whose last illusion is referenced by the title) as well as a young artist, Asiya McDonald, who creates art from dead birds. Zal begins a relationship with Asiya who suffers from anorexia, panic attacks, and who may be psychic but it is Asiya's sister, Willa, morbidly obese and bed-ridden, that he falls madly in love with. He tries but mostly fails at new adventures while he starts and loses several jobs including one at a pet store from which he is fired after developing feelings for a well-endowed canary.

The story takes place between 1999 when the world was obsessed with Y2K and 2001 and the fall of the Towers. The character, Zal, is taken from the Iranian Book of Kings in which an albino, Zal, is abandoned, then raised by a giant eagle, and eventually becomes a great hero.
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