Review by Liz von Klemperer
Superman, Cosmo, & Other False Idols: In Akhil Sharma’s first short story collection, the consumption of American media plays out in real time
In his first short story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, Akhil Sharma presents the American Dream as a Wizard of Oz sham. Forces like Cosmopolitan Magazine and Marvel Comics are the culprits behind the curtain, pulling the strings to the happily-ever-after narratives his characters crave. Sharma presents a darkly comedic take on the Indian immigrant experience, as his characters unsuccessfully seek affirmation through fast and easy pleasure peddled by American media. What results is a melancholy and at turns tender exploration of the human psyche at it’s most vulnerable.
Sharma’s characters fumble to bridge the gap between traditional Indian and commercial American cultures. Arranged marriages are a pervading theme, and Sharma describes them as pragmatic unions orchestrated by parents and often between two strangers. This contrasts starkly with the concept of love touted by the American media, which sells a narrative of spontaneous and consuming passion. In The Well, for example, Pavan, a first generation immigrant, “falls in love” with a host of fictional characters, such as Mrs. Muir form The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Spider Man’s Mary Jane, and Wonder Woman. His dreams of a partnership that’s worlds away from the dysfunction of his parents arranged marriage. After seeing his parents fight as a child, for example, he vows to give a flower to his future wife every day. But when Pavan grows up and meets Betsy, a blonde American woman, he blatantly ignores her request that their relationship be casual and physical. He tells her he loves her, and even goes so far as to not use a condom in hopes that by impregnating her she will fall in love with him back. Unsurprisingly this manipulative method of fostering love backfires, and Bestys pregnancy ends in an abortion. Pavan, with all his misguided idealism and supersized dreams of love, is left blinking and stunned. No matter what cultural norms feed and facilitate a romantic union, dysfunction and heartache have no cultural boundaries.
In Sharma’s stories, the desire to latch onto shiny promises of comfort and understanding come to head with the very nature of American media, which is meant to reel a consumer in and sell a product. In this case, the product is an idea, and Sharma’s characters have invested heavily. Sharma casts his characters as earnest fools who have fallen into a masterfully laid trap, and are subsequently forced to recon with their naiveté. While Betsy is jaded and unable to stomach googley eyed romance, Pavan has taken the American love story to heart. To Pavan, Spider Man is not just a story, it is a possible alternative to his parents passive aggressive, dysfunctional relationship. Sharma lays bare how the media we consume is fundamentally at odds with reality as well as dangerously misleading, especially for those who consume whole heartedly. Sharma is also playing with the classic idea of the United States as the Promised Land, where people can seek futures of new and boundless possibility. In Sharma’s world, his characters are shackled by their circumstances, whether it is isolation or hardship, and there is no American Dream tale to be found.
In Surrounded by Sleep, Sharma approaches immigrant indoctrination into American culture through the perspective of a child when ten-year-old Ajay prays to Superman after his older brother Birji’s near fatal swimming pool accident. After the accident, Ajay’s mother creates a shrine and prays constantly, hoping that her display of piety will convince God to spare her child. Ajay then Americanizes this practice by substituting Krishna with American cultural idols, like Superman. Ajay imagines God as like Clark Kent, with “a gray cardigan, slacks, and thick glasses.” Ajay entreats God to make his brother well again, and also asks God to make him rich and famous. At ten he is already steeped in the narrative of the American superhero, whose beginnings are always “distinguished by misfortune,” and wants to believe that his success will be in direct proportion to his suffering. In the hospital, he loses himself in fantasy novels in which the hero, “had an undiscovered talent that made him famous when it was revealed.” Within the superhero narrative lays the American bootstrap mentality, the concept that, through trials and tribulations, the little guy can succeed and rise to the top. Despite Ajay’s earnest desire to make meaning out of his suffering, he ultimately concludes “the world was always real, whether you were reading or sleeping, and that it eroded you every day.” There is no corollary reward, or obligatory triumphant ending. At the end of the story, Ajay and his father drive by the pool where Birji drowned, and Ajay reflects that people swam there without knowing the tragedy that transpired there. Unlike in a Marvel comic, strife often has no redemption, and the world continues ambivalently.
This collection is prescient today because it exemplifies the ways in which the Ellis Island narrative has been thwarted and replaced by that of Trumpian isolationism and fear. If not Lady Liberty, what cultural icons can serve as bastions of wholesome American values? In a country where our president is an ex reality TV host, who do we look to? Super Man, Spider Man, and Wonder Woman are easily digestible figures to turn to for Sharma’s characters. These are, of course, merely shiny scraps that offer no true or lasting message.
In addition to having bought into glossy magazine covers, his characters are unremittingly selfish. Pavan wants affection but is blind to the wishes of his partner. Ajay wants his brother to get better, but couched in this plea is heroic glory and redemption for himself. To top it all off, Sharma’s characters often do not change despite being forced to recognize the error of their ways. No, this is not a shining immigrant story of strife and redemption, nor is it the immigrant story of disenfranchisement and racism. It is a stark, unrelenting portrait of humans navigating their all too human desires. There is one welcomed break from cynicism contained in these stories, however. Unlike the stock ideas of success and intimacy his characters adhere to, his characters themselves are not pretty or glorious. They are, as protagonist Gopal Maurya concludes in Cosmopolitan, “dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on the inside.” Their desires, sorrows and failures are hard to look at, but they are pure, raw.
A Life of Adventure and Delight is available now through W.W. Norton & Company.
Liz von Klemperer is a writer, lover, and succulent fosterer. Her reviews appear in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Brooklyn Rail, LAMBDA Literary, and beyond. Find more at lizvk.com.