Colson Whitehead once wrote that all it took to belong in New York was an act of commemoration – the summoning of a piece of the city that no longer existed. “You’re a New Yorker the first time you say, ‘It was at Munsey’s’ or ‘It was the Tic Toc Lounge,'” he wrote. “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” Whitehead wrote this trial in 2001 and it’s easy to see why he pondered what was missing: two towers had left the horizon and 2,977 people had left with them.
Two decades later, an author once again takes stock of the city’s relationship to memory. His name is Zain Khalid, and his first novel, living brotherfeels like the first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic that captures the vibe of New York right now, depicting a wounded city where, rather than clinging to what’s gone, residents are eager to get rid of of the recent past.
living brother is a book of ideas, a book of fathers and sons, a magico-realistic mystery and a story of revenge. It opens in Staten Island, “New York’s most overlooked borough” and where Khalid grew up. It is there that the protagonists of the book, a trio of adoptive brothers – Dayo, Iseul and Youssef – grow up, under the care of Salim, a handsome, emaciated imam and polymath. Salim is distant but loving with Dayo and Iseul, and cruel with Youssef, who narrates the first and best section of the novel.
Earth’s Mightiest Heroes often settle in New York, and the brothers, with their supernatural talents, leap from the pages of the book. With the gift of chatter in multiple languages, Dayo embodies the town’s quest for wealth. Iseul is a gentle giant, athletic enough to play D1 college basketball and confident enough to be the only sibling who finds anything resembling romantic love.
But it is Youssef, the least beloved son, who is the most complicated: he is followed by a mysterious character called Brother, a shape-shifting creature who feeds on his memories and knowledge. Brother, initially reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s demons (animal companions that represent the souls of their human counterparts) is both part of and separate from Youssef. Most of the time, he appears to Youssef in animal form, like in a first encounter, in which he takes the form of a “melting sun-colored dog”. Youssef offers him a bite of apple, then looks down at the fruit: “I haven’t been able to identify what I was holding all my life,” he says. “I took a bite, and it tasted like it smelled, but I didn’t have the word for it that I used to have.”
Brother is not a hallucination; he is the embodiment of a condition shared by Youssef and his adoptive father. Salim’s disease is never given a name or manifested as a transforming pet, but it also causes him to forget the past. Youssef and Salim clash fiercely, but have a lot in common: Intellectuals and storytellers, they share a ferocious distaste for American politics. We are told early on that perhaps Salim’s proudest legacy is his success in encouraging his neighbors and friends not to vote.
These themes – political cynicism and oblivion – define New York right now. While Whitehead’s New York of 2001 was a city that came together, determined to hold on to its past, New York is now a place where turnout in the last mayoral election hit. a record high and the words Never forget were traded for a shared sense of amnesia that overshadows the loss of over 40,000 New Yorkers (and counting) killed by COVID. They received no museum, no sacred memorial. To some extent, that’s because the pandemic has no end date. It’s also because this time, instead of going to war against an external enemy, the war that we have waged and continue to wage – over masks, vaccination mandates and almost every other aspect of the past two and a half years – is against ourselves.
Youssef’s dilemma as a character reflects this New York identity crisis – although he is deeply engaged in the world, with politics and literature, he cannot find a system or institution to believe in or belong. Instead, he accepts and even loves Brother – who strips him of the pain of not belonging by robbing him of his memories. As the book progresses, Brother becomes more powerful, taking more and more of Youssef, leaving him a passive participant in his own life, in the grip of a force he cannot control.
But living brother is not all darkness. His cynicism is countered by the incredible warmth with which Khalid writes about his city. Early on, he describes a summer in Coolidge, a fictional version of several Staten Island neighborhoods where the boys grow up:
“As the nights grew warmer and the air became the same temperature as our skin and the sun resisted setting until the moon was halfway through its shift, the streets of Coolidge were buzzing with activity,” he wrote. “Bounces from Wu-Tang, Dipset and early drill drills drew attention to parked cars and deep concrete. The boys learn that “all parts of a pig are delicious, including the legs” and enjoy watermelon, curries, flan, and generic brand cola. Their neighborhood is teeming with food, music and people, strangers who can become family.
Despite the political pessimism of his novel, Khalid can never quite bring himself to condemn New York. Another notable scene takes place at Ground Zero in 2003, where Dayo and Youssef sell trinkets at a makeshift stand honoring “First Responder William August Corrigan”. They are Muslim American teenagers who suffer from the worst of the Islamophobia of the time, so there is a clear logic to their scam: they too feel victims of the attacks. When the tourists lose interest in the merchandise, Dayo switches to a bit of pristine trolling, delivering an off-the-cuff speech in which he aligns himself with the attackers: “Two years ago, after centuries of Western subjugation, my brothers struck a blow against the Zionist neo-colonialist regime…” He is rewarded by a crowd of spectators, but a cop intervenes and the two brothers are forced to flee quickly. While escaping, they receive free food from a pair of Hindi-speaking street vendors, in a classic moment of melting-pot sentimentality.
Next, Dayo states the name of the ferry they plan to take home: Spirit of America. “Are you American? Have you ever felt American? Dayo asks Youssef, who says no. “No one is,” Dayo replies. “It’s not that we’re anything else, but this idea, to commit to any nation-state, to these old and corrupt ideas, it’s a disease, and it’s going to rot our brains if we’re not careful.” He yells at the ferry, “Fuck, I already flowing.”
This rapid sequence of ideological pivots – two instances of anti-American sentiment surrounding a scene of New Yorkers helping New Yorkers – is characteristic of the first section of the book. Its contradictions make it shine. It’s full of ideas, imagination, puns, names, notable New York cameos (Argosy! The 13th Step!) and occasional acts of literary audacity, which sometimes go overboard. Read it with a pen and you’ll spend more ink than a zealous NSA editor.
Does the rest of living brother were as strong as his first act. When the book leaves town, it tumbles off its axis. The street scenes, the density, the atmospheric reality underlying Khalid’s fantasy disappear. The second section is told in a letter from Salim written in Saudi Arabia. It is learned that Salim was close to the boys’ biological fathers, that together they sought to construct a vaguely described pan-Islamic utopia, and that they made enemies of a powerful mufti named Ibrahim, which resulted in the death of the three fathers and the adoption of the sons. But without the New York backdrop, the abstractions pile up and the bubbling plot ceases to satisfy.
There are a few bright moments left. In the third section, Youssef narrates again and the action returns, too briefly, to the city. The brothers are on the top floor of the tallest building on Staten Island:
The building was new construction, sleek, soulless, filled with East Asians and whites. The kind of place we card-carrying locals of old Coolidge were supposed to hate. I couldn’t hate it, though. Beyond each of their glass walls was the whole of New York. And that evening, as the night sky froze before a northeasterly, the city was a shimmering necklace worn by an unworthy horizon… What shall I say? New York remains New York.
This book, so focused on the past, sometimes seems to have little optimism for the future. But some of Khalid’s best writing comes when he asks Youssef to speak eloquently about whatever is on the horizon. Even though living brother is far from hopeful, grappling with intellectual and political energies that seem to have no proper outlet, Youssef and its author maintain a delirious sense of wonder throughout. It’s a very New York quality: once in a while, the cynicism drops and the sentiment – the affection that keeps us in this worn-out city – shines through.