Book Review: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that “within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.”
In The Light of What We Know takes this theorem as its metaphorical heart in order to explore the nature of personal identity, memory and its effects on who we become, and how we make the choices we make: In looking at who we are, pinning down exactly what brought us to this point is slipperier than we know, and, further, perhaps we can’t ever truly understand who we are in the first place. “The farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall far short of the limits of what is true.” Rahman’s novel explores issues of race and class, science, international politics, mathematics, and more. Each chapter begins with several epigraphs, ranging from literary—Somerset Maugham or Ford Madox Ford—to scientific, to political, including the definition of rape, and these quotations help establish the complicated themes and ideas that the book works through. And, being a book of ideas as well as compelling, complicated, and interesting characters, it is easily the best book I have read so far this year, perhaps one of the best books I have ever read.
In 2008 an old friend, looking thin, unkempt, and shaky, shows up on the doorstep of our narrator, a banker who is embroiled in the fallout from the financial collapse related to the housing market. Zafar, the friend, is a mathematician who has also been involved in the news-grabbing headlines of the day: the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, and both men find themselves at a crossroads in their lives where they are trying to understand how the choices they have made in the past have brought them to their current (unhappy) place in the world.
The narrator, who remains nameless throughout, intertwines his story with Zafar’s story, much of it culled from recordings of their conversations and from Zafar’s own notebooks. Zafar’s story reaches as far back as his impoverished childhood when he emigrated from Bangladesh to Britain and follows his path to Oxford, where he meets the narrator, and then to Afghanistan. Zafar is like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, haunted and compelled to tell his story, seeking forgiveness, or at least understanding, for the sin that he has committed. The difference between Coleridge’s character and Zafar is that it’s not clear whether Zafar is truly seeking atonement or is simply justifying his course of action.
On the surface, the two men seem similar: Both are Oxford-educated South Asians who chose high-powered careers yet have struggled with love and find themselves now discontent and trying to make sense of that discontent. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that key differences are at play in the men’s stories. The narrator comes from considerable privilege. His family is wealthy and connected, and he makes the point that he was able to buy his luxurious house even before he made it big selling mortgage-backed securities.
Zafar, on the other hand, grew up in poverty; his immigrant parents worked menial jobs, and he always felt out of place in the elite world he eventually finds himself in. His observations on class go beyond bitterness; he is an astute thinker about the intersections of race and class, and some of the scenes in the novel that explore reactions to him as a Bangladeshi are told with an appropriately scathing awareness.
Zafar is deeply angry at the U.S. and British involvement in Afghanistan, skeptical of any humanitarian rhetoric and convinced that the politics at work are merely the play of very wealthy Westerners attempting to grab more power. However, he, like any realistic human being, is an unreliable narrator of his own story. “No one can tell their own story…They’re the most untrue stories of all, the stories we write ourselves by our own hand in the first person where our own dishonesty is hidden from us.” Despite his anger and resentment, he also puts those he disdains on a pedestal.
This contradiction in some ways is at the heart of his story: He falls in love with Emily Hampton-Wyvern before he even meets her, upon simply hearing her name, a name that suggests status, power, wealth. Emily embodies Zafar’s view of the British: beautiful yet aloof and unattainable, unable ever to apologize for her wrongdoings, unaware due to her enormous privilege, perhaps, that she has done anything wrong. Zafar’s relationship with Emily eventually brings him to Afghanistan and to the sin his narrative unfolds.
The end of the novel and the final unwrapping of Zafar’s narrative is the only less than perfect aspect of the story. It feels a little too much like the finale of a children’s crime story, Scooby Doo for instance, in which all the pieces of the puzzle are suddenly laid out for us the readers so that we get to see all behind the scenes that we had not seen before. However, by this point, Rahman’s narrative has been so complex, interesting, and provocative that, as a reader, I easily forgave this clunkiness. Even the less than perfect ending lends itself to thought and contemplation, and one is left with more questions than answers, perfectly appropriate given how little we can truly know about the nature of life.


Sestina: Tin Can Call

The summer I turned sixteen, I learned
the burning that happens when contact
is made: flesh and mouths, a new kind of touch.
Kids really, trying to smash ourselves together,
atoms mingling, heeding the old call
looking for The Other who would hear—

The low buzzing we made, like bees, hear
not just our desires but everything we’d learned
about desire—that birth is a call
to the universe; from conception we have contact.
We only survive when we are together.
We learn from being touched what it is to touch.

Hands, eyes, lips, hearts, touch
and understand. Without speaking, we hear:
all that our ancestors have learned
to cultivate society, not just sex as contact
but contact that issues forth the greater call.

String stretched taut, tin can call:
We twin sisters sleep at night, while parents forget to touch.
The line is in place, but loss of contact,
not even scratchy murmurings—hear
vestigial sighs and moans that have become unlearned,
aloneness now safer than being together.

How hard it is to hold together
when our atoms buzz about in empty space, call
to one another only through cosmic forces we can never learn.
And yet, I risk this cosmic touch
of forever, in another, and now hear
the heart beat growing inside me, this impossible yet mundane contact

of creation, of birth—contact
that challenges all notions of aloneness. Together:
on a brilliant night of unexpected lightning. We heard
the call of love, heard the call
that defies sound waves. Our touch
something both old and new but within us, cosmically learned:

We dance the dance of contact, all our being calling,
reaching for togetherness and psychic touch.
I hear without hearing all the universe has learned.

Right Now and a Memory

August 3, 2014, 1:30 am
My infant son is sleeping fitfully next to me. I find that every time he stirs or struggles, I am roused, awakened. Maybe it’s a curse for all parents—this worry about everything that could happen. Terrible things flash through my mind of all the ways he could be hurt or worse. So, when he stirs, I do too, and now I am awake.
He woke me up at one, am straining and fussing for a nipple that wasn’t there. I can only guess that, in his baby mind, breasts just appear from out of his slumber, filled with warm milk…so he always surfaces from his sleep—usually not fully—looking, searching for it, eyes closed, grunting and turning his head this way and that. He’s begun to strain so much he inch-worms himself in his little co-sleeper. He’ll end up perpendicular to where he started, just his head in his bed and the rest of his body in ours. Or worse still, one night he came rolling into me while I was asleep. He only did that once, and, as far as we can tell, he’s not actually rolling yet, but this is just one more thing to worry about—he, swaddled, rolling over, and, because his arms are pinned to his side, being unable to hold himself up.
Hence I don’t sleep well.
So I’m lying here, unsleeping, remembering. I remember this:
This really happened:
I’d driven to Chicago from Ann Arbor. It was summery, and the city held on to the heat. Even after the sun went down the pavement released its trapped heat of the day, and the buildings and smog cradled it, holding it: a muggy, Midwestern summer.
Nighttime, we set out walking. I don’t remember now if we had a destination or if we were aimless. But we walked for hours. We ended up in a place that felt to me, someone unfamiliar with the city, as the edge of town: factories, train tracks, warehouses. There was a chocolate factory there that my Chicago friends knew about.
As we got close, the smell of chocolate took over the night. The sky glowed pink with the lights of the city. Chicago isn’t ever truly dark. The factory was silhouetted black against that pink, and in front of the factory, parked on the train tracks that bounded the factory, was a train car.
A long tube or hose stretched from the car into the factory. The car was pumping its goods into the factory to be processed, but coming out of the top of the car and then falling back down like snow to coat its roof and the ground around it was sugar: sugar falling like snow. How could we not climb the ladder up, dance in the falling sugar, eat handfuls, not caring that our hair and insides of our shoes were sticky, not caring that we were covered, like the top of the train car, in sugar?
Afterward, buzzing and sticky, we went to the river. A bridge went over the river with several lanes of traffic for cars. But the bridge also had a pedestrian walkway with places where we could crawl down underneath the bridge and sit on the platforms made of girders. From these nests, we could hear the whir and thump of traffic, and we could watch the boats with their points of light guiding them under the bridge.
We breakfasted at IHOP at six am and stumbled back to the apartment in Logan Square where we fell asleep in our clothes with sugar still in our hair.

My Philosophy, An Open Letter

Dear Dad,

I feel like you’ve asked me a few times about, as you put it, “the philosophy on my body hair,” and I’ve tried my best to explain it. But I want to see if I can articulate my “philosophy” a bit better.
I stopped shaving in high school. I was, as you know, pretty involved in punk rock, specifically hard core and riot grrrl, both of which were anti-commodification and anti-consumerism. Punk rock was all about the community: community in music, community around creating art, be it zines or spoken word, or more. Riot grrrl was (is?) a specifically feminist version of this, an attempt to assert women’s place in that community, not just as girlfriends, but as central creators of music or art or politics.
Riot grrrl and feminism in general helped give me a place and helped me name my sadness and anger that I had felt as a girl growing up. I am sure that lots of people experience this—I don’t claim to be unique in this, but, for whatever reason, growing up I never felt “pretty” in the standard or cool way that the popular girls were. Perhaps it was because I was jockish; perhaps it was because I went through puberty early and was tall and gawky in that awkward way that all preteens are earlier than everyone else; perhaps it was because I was smart and more interested in books than in fashion, or perhaps it was because mom didn’t see any value in spending money on expensive, designer clothes, and so I never was as stylish as a lot of my classmates. Whatever…Kids picked on me, on both Stacey and me, not as badly as they picked on other kids, but they did. Perhaps they were just jealous of Stacey and me, that we were twins and therefore had a certain amount of fame and “coolness” automatically conferred on us. Or perhaps they were just being kids. Again, I claim no specific uniqueness in this.
But I went through periods of wanting to be cooler, wanting to be prettier and feeling sad that I wasn’t. I also, at the same time, felt critical of this. No one wants to feel sad, so there was that, but I also had some consciousness that no one should feel sad in this way.
I’m pretty sure that my playing sports and being sporty early on was instrumental in my feeling like a feminist long before I had a name for what I felt. Growing up, I was angry when we’d play softball, and the boys wouldn’t let me or other girls pitch. I was angry when anyone asserted that girls “don’t do that,” whatever “that” may be. I was annoyed by anyone who tried to tell me what girls “should” be or do.
So then when I started hanging out in the punk rock and riot grrrl communities and seeing girls who didn’t shave, it made me suddenly aware of all the ways that ideas of beauty are so limiting, so prescriptive, and so rooted in social convention. This is true for men and women, but in the world we live in, women are more often expected to strive to be beautiful. It’s easiest to see this in the makeup and fashion industries for instance, but the social convention of shaving is just one other way women are taught that their natural bodies are not beautiful. And it’s one other way our status becomes about what we look like rather than who we are inside.
You said that shaving is not a social convention, but, again, the very fact that we, as mammals, grow hair naturally, shows that something in society has decided this (not nature). No other mammal has any kind of hair removal for beauty. It’s also obvious if you look at other cultures—shaving is less common in Europe or parts of Central America, and it is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon.
Anyway, I was inspired by the fact that I could feel beautiful in my natural state, but more importantly, I was inspired by the fact that the girls I knew in punk rock weren’t just interested in being considered beautiful; they recognized that there are so many more important things to be: strong, smart, politically active, creative.
And I had always hated shaving. It took a lot of time, grew back prickly and irritating, cost money, and sometimes hurt. I started to realize there was no reason for me to do something I didn’t want to do just because society said I should.
And this has generally become my ethos: I’m not interested in consumerism despite relentless attempts to get me to buy, buy, buy. I’m not someone who ever just accepts the political party line that would rather I didn’t think critically about policy choices of our leaders. I don’t follow fad diets or spend my money on makeup. Sure there are social conventions I do follow; I’m not saying that I’m a complete social renegade, but I would like to think I choose the things to follow because I care about them or enjoy them. (For instance I care about being fit and healthy in part because I enjoy working out and in part because I feel better when I do.)
I would like my son to grow up believing women can be whoever they want to be. Heck, I’d like him growing up believing he can be whatever he wants to be: Maybe he’ll be into sports and such, but maybe he’ll be bookish or into fashion or art. Maybe he’ll want to wear princess dresses as our neighbor did, or maybe he’ll wear nothing but jeans and sneakers. Maybe he’ll want to shave his legs and armpits! Regardless of what he chooses, I want him to feel like he has a choice in creating his identity, that he doesn’t just have to follow what is expected of him. I hope that I can model that for him in the choices I make myself.
I hope all this makes sense. I really am happy to talk more about it if you want; you don’t have to feel embarrassed to ask me.
I love you,

The Freedom to Create

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Leaving the Atocha Station is the second book I’ve read recently that has a definitive quirky hipsterism to it; the first was Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Both books have a first-person narration by an overly self-conscious young person who, in their hyper self-awareness, is both funny and off-putting. We relate to Lerner’s Adam and Heti’s Sheila (presumably herself) in that all of us have moments where we fear we are simply frauds. Adam and Sheila have their heightened sense of fraudulence further compounded by the fact that both are artists—writers (Adam is a poet who is in Spain on a fellowship supposedly writing a long historical poem on Franco and fascism, and Sheila has been working on writing a (terrible sounding) play forever)–and they fear that, in reality, they have nothing to say despite their surface credentials.
And yet, while we relate, both characters are somewhat annoying. Sheila is most annoying when she indulges in shameful rape fantasies that involve a man she is convinced is too hot for her, and Adam is annoying because he lies, wallows in a great deal of self-pity, and seems to have disdain for the women he’s involved with despite the fact that they put up with his jealousy and paranoia.
Both books are at their best when they step outside of the personal narrative to explore larger ideas. Leaving the Atocha Station is, in these moments, a rumination on language and language’s ability (or inability) to communicate the singular internal life of any person. Adam is, after all, not quite fluent in Spanish, and his translations of conversations help shed light on the ephemeral nature of language and how our relationships to the stories we tell ourselves shape our own experience of reality: “She described to me the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger. She began to quote the cliches people had offered her about what time would do, how he was in a better place, or maybe she was just offering these cliches to me without irony…The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole; although here I was basically guessing: all I knew was painting was mentioned with some bitterness or regret.”
The novel also has some beautiful moments of poetry, usually the result of Adam’s drug-induced haziness, and I was moved by Adam’s reaction to the March 11 Madrid train bombings, his shock and fear coupled simultaneously with his own critical and personal cerebral interaction with what has happened: “Why I thought, why everybody thought, that dying in a terrorist attack was more bound up with the inexorable logic of History than dying in a car crash or from lung caner, I couldn’t really say. I told Teresa that it derived from our impoverished sense of the political, that we could not think of the car or cigarette as Titadine because that would force us to confront our economic mode.”
Heti similarly plays with larger ideas: At its heart the novel seems to be asking the question “How can a person be truly free to create art?” Two of her friends have an ugly painting contest, and one friend thinks “freedom…is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever [one] wants…” But she goes on to explain, “That’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas…Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish.” The whole novel, which seems to actually be memoir (though I know it’s dangerous to conflate the author’s life with her character’s) is itself a pushing the boundaries of that freedom, hence the embarrassing rape fantasies and self-deprecation.
This narrative self-deprecation seems intentional on both authors’ parts, and, while I can respect the honesty that comes with these kinds of unreliable anti-heroes, it’s hard to hang out in their company for long stretches.
Despite that, both novels feel successful to me. They both were engaging and entertaining, and Adam and Sheila are postmodern Holden Caulfields: We relate to their struggles, and that relating can make us feel uncomfortable but can also hold up a mirror for us to reflect on the larger questions at the heart of being alive.