The Situation: Radar Radmanovic was born black. Well, that statement may be a bit misleading, and it isn't completely true as most people would understand it. What Radar was born with is extremely dark skin. Like black. As in charcoal. Naturally, this came as a shock to his white mother, Charlene, and Serbian father, Kermin. But despite having skin as black as night, causing the hospital staff, the neighbors, and the media to question Charlene's fidelity and Kermin's chances of being the actual father, Radar is a healthy and normal baby boy. However, his skin color isn't the only strange thing to come out of his birthday. The moment he is born, the entire hospital loses power, and Charlene develops an olfactory condition that allows her to smell everything intensely, both pleasant and unpleasant. The circumstances surrounding Radar's life are bizarre enough, but little does he know that the story of his birth is simply one part of a much larger story spanning countries, families, and generations.
The Problem: Despite his auspicious beginning, Radar manages to grow up and become a decent and responsible adult. While his mother fights depression and her own feelings of intense guilt off and on over the years, Radar's father seemingly keeps his son at arm's length, secretly working on projects of his own that he won't let anyone, even his family, get close to. Only when a massive blackout occurs in Radar's part of New Jersey is he able to get even remotely close to what Kermin has been up to all of these years. Unfortunately, Kermin is nowhere to be found. And what Radar is able to find leads to more questions than answers, and the few answers he manages to get are often painful revelations. Now with the goal of finding his father, Radar embarks on an adventure that he never would have considered under normal circumstances. And even after he has decided to take it, he begins to believe his involvement to be a colossal mistake. Locating his father may be his ultimate goal, but there is so much more at stake in this strange but interwoven tale that spans history and borders.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that mostly takes place during modern day, but also frequently reaches into history to tell how other characters got where they are today. Starting with Radar's birth, the novel briefly goes into the histories of both Charlene and Kermin and how the two ended up together. After telling the story of his parents agreeing to try a radical experiment on him to "fix" his skin color, the story leaves Radar to talk about two Serbian brothers and their involvement in a group that Radar will find after the blackout in New Jersey. And after returning to Radar's story, the narrative leaves him once again to talk about the involvement of an heir to a prosperous rubber plantation in Cambodia. Each story somehow involves a secret society that seeks to stage strange puppet shows in troubled or war-torn locations all over the world, despite that often meaning the performance will end in a disaster with many people dead. These performances don't involve the usual sort of puppets on strings, but puppets that almost don't need to be controlled by their puppet master. Both Radar and Kermin also prove to be very good with radios, electricity, and machines in general. I could almost give this book the label of historical fiction as Larson uses real events in history, and even goes so far as to include footnotes, diagrams, figures, and in-text citations. It is a complex history that follows several characters, though mainly Radar, and shows how they all came to be a part of this strange group of performers.
My Verdict: I am sure this book has an audience, I am just not sure who it would be. It's certainly a strange story, but not even strange just in a general science fiction way. A child born with unusually dark skin I can handle. I can also grasp onto a genius becoming obsessed with creating a puppet that doesn't need to be controlled. Fine. But I Am Radar loses me when those building the puppets insist on staging their strange performances in war-torn or disputed areas, despite the examples from history proving this to be a terrible idea. It takes "the show must go on" to an entirely different level. Despite the book's length, I can honestly say that there isn't really any point where I felt the story dragged. But there are still parts where I felt that too much history is given, especially when that history doesn't provide any answers or clarification. And the ending doesn't really help, at all. Fascinating and bizarre characters are introduced, only for them to disappear and never be heard from again. And others are given detailed histories only to be unceremoniously killed off and rarely referenced. I am certain there is something in this book that went completely over my head. Perhaps a true science fiction lover will be able to read I A m Radar and appreciate it in full.
Favorite Moment: When Charlene finally realizes that her issues with her son's skin are not only harmful, but ultimately, all about her.
Favorite Character: This story is so all over the place that I had a hard time picking a favorite. Radar seems like the obvious choice. Despite everything he has been through, and the people that raised him, he grows up to be fairly well-adjusted.
Recommended Reading: For some reason that I can't quite put my finger on, I feel like I should recommend David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. It could be because it also follows the life of one central figure from childhood into the adulthood, while they attempt to navigate the strange circumstances surrounding their life and also live a normal one.