Reif Larsen waits 200 pages before betraying his literary lineage by using the phrase “gravity’s rainbow.” For in his sprawling, pyrotechnic second novel, I Am Radar, one is never far from Pynchon’s masterpiece, that once-groundbreaking combination of adolescent hilarity and theoretical physics. The authors share a soaring erudition and ambition—evidenced by the length and ostentation of their books. But where Pynchon’s main theme might be a paranoiac fear of annihilation and conspiracy, Larsen’s seems to be an affirmation of the pathetic randomness of life. It’s telling that his previous book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, was made into a film by the director of Amélie, and his new release resembles the joyful, madcap creations of Wes Anderson.
The “Radar” of the title is Radar Radmanovic, an American boy with Serbian roots. He was born with black skin even though his parents are white, and his mother’s desire that Radar be “normal” leads to their entanglement with an odd group of Norwegians who claim the ability to change skin color by electrochemical means. The Norwegians double as performance artists, offering shows in places as far-flung as Yugoslavia, Cambodia and the Congo, all recently embroiled in appalling wars.
This is maximalism of the maximum order, so the novel also includes dissertations on Nikola Tesla, Morse code, electromagnetic pulses and, perhaps inevitably, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Schrödinger’s hapless cat. I Am Radar aims for nothing less than to encapsulate our “age of extremes” in fictional form, and Larsen rises to the challenge he has set. His prose is angelic, and while the effort to touch on everything threatens to make the book more noise than signal, it’s precisely the noise of modernity that novelists like Larsen are determined to convey. It’s an exhilarating ride.