by Steve Masover
Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is set on the afternoon of Nov 30, 1999, as confrontation peaked at the Seattle WTO protests. It’s a gorgeous, stream-of-consciousness tapestry depicting “the whole ugly beautiful thing” of an intricately interwoven globe, countless strands embodied by tens of thousands activists converging on one world-shaking afternoon at the tail end of the twentieth century.
The protagonist is Victor, a detached, apolitical nineteen year old with a shadily-scored stash of weed for sale, who has wandered the globe witnessing a web of human hurt since ditching home and his enraged adoptive father three years before. His failure to find buyers among the protesters leads him to King (an erstwhile ELF arsonist who helped destroy a ski resort in Vail the year before) and John Henry (her lover, a cerebral activist with a Christlike commitment to nonviolence). Somewhat inexplicably, Victor changes course, throwing down with the WTO protesters and setting the stage for dramatic confrontation with three of the book’s other principals: two beat cops and Seattle’s melancholic, befuddled, yet stubbornly authoritarian police chief.
Yapa’s novel paints the suffering caused by globalized capitalism’s exploitation across a vast canvas of humanity, and how it crystallizes into activist resolve. His painting is impressionistic and non-linear, and while it succeeds in gestalt, the author’s prose frequently trips over itself, muddying the narrative. The plot is intricate and sometimes exhilarating, but it is subverted by improbably-coincidental overconstruction of the novel, and by voyeuristic immersion in out-of-control police violence. I found it hard to grit my teeth through Yapa’s prolonged, cinematically sensual portrayal of police brutality that rivaled the ugliest scenes in Clockwork Orange.
Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a seventy year old Sri Lankan Deputy Minister is the novel’s seventh principal. He has flown into Seattle to collect a signature from Bill Clinton that will enable his country to join the WTO. With a diplomat’s calm and an intricately informed history, entwined with neighbors and university colleagues who morphed into the Buddhist mobs that burned, raped, maimed, and murdered their Tamil neighbors as Sri Lanka’s civil war ignited in the 1980s, Charles gives a judicious perspective on the protesters:
Charles Wickramsinghe was surprised to feel a widening respect. A respect with more than a pinch of regret. Because how wrong had he been? To think they knew nothing. To dismiss them. All these thoughtful young people striding toward the gates of capitalism — they had taken Gandhi’s hunger strike and arrived at this.
In the end I had trouble identifying with characters whose experience of the world is presented in fleeting, fragmented glimpses. I found Victor, King, John Henry, Bishop, Park, Ju, and Charles more credible as allegory than as individuals. It was hard to swallow that their collective history traced back to the Oklahoma City bombing, impoverished young women begging for change in India and Peru, the Rodney King riots, the ELF arson in Vail, farmworkers striking in Watsonville, Shanghai’s behind-the-flash backstreets, Seattle’s gay pride parade, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, ‘zine culture, the writings of Che Guevara and Mumia Abu-Jamal, storefront preaching, Fort Benning’s School of the Americas … pretty much the whole globalized ball of wax.
Does Sunil Yapa see and render the true, zero-degrees-of-separation relationships between everything and everyone in this interconnected century? He does. A reader stands in awe of his synthetic vision. But even as I tumbled voraciously through his pages I was disappointed to find no credible character with whom to identify, and little to help a reader unfamiliar with intricacies of both political economy and mass protest to ground herself in relation to the world that the novel portrays.
Steve Masover’s activist novel, Consequence, was published in September 2015.