Known Unknowns of the Class War


Naeem Mohaiemen review of Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know over at the Asian American Writers' Workshop (photo by Naeem Mohaiemen):

When you turn to page 186 of In the Light of What We Know, you encounter an illustration. The novel’s two main characters have by this point discussed many things, and readers may have already been craving visual aids. But this is the first time the text is interrupted by a diagram. You sense, therefore, the arrival of a crucial digression.

The illustration is of a diagonal line that runs from the top left corner of the diagram to the bottom right, interrupted mid-way by a vertical rectangle. On the other side of the rectangle, two diagonals slope downward in the same direction as the first, one atop the other. If you are not particular about the condition of your books (as I am not), you will have the urge to fold the page to better work out the optical illusion. It appears as if the descending diagonal line continues, after interruption, along the upper diagonal on the right. But folding would reveal the opposite—that it is actually the second, lower diagonal that it is joined with.

Named “Poggendorff’s illusion,” after the nineteenth-century German physicist Johann Poggendorff who discovered it in a drawing, the illusion is something Zafar, the novel’s British-Bangladeshi protagonist, starts explaining to our unnamed narrator. But as with many other incomplete yet meticulously plotted diversions within Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, Zafar does not finish the story. It is up to the narrator to fill in the gaps, after “consulting pages on the Internet,” as one of the novel’s many Infinite Jest-like footnotes inform us.

Yet, even after the optical dislocation has been explained—in dialogue, in footnote, and in an expansive reference to the similar Müller-Lyer illusion—the reader will be drawn back to page 186. The illusion stubbornly refuses to budge. As Zafar underscores, “Knowing doesn’t fix things.” We might add, too, that knowing doesn’t overcome the desire to have faith in the unknown, the unverifiable. Why have faith in God, for example? Some expected science to free people from faith, but of course it did not work out that way. Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime affirmed the capacity of human reason to comprehend and size up that which cannot be perceived by the faculties. Kant described three kinds of emotions evoked by this comprehension: wonder, beauty, and terror. Some volatile combination of all three forms of the sublime permeate the pages of this acidic, inventive novel.

More here.