Cyrus Shams, the hero of Kaveh Akbar’s first novel, Martyr!, is waiting for a sign from God. A bookish, alcoholic, Iranian-American poet, Cyrus isn’t asking for high drama—neither the heavenly bolt that knocked Saul off his horse en route to Damascus nor the angel that visited the Prophet Muhammad. He has set the bar for divine revelation so low that it would seem simply comical if he wasn’t so serious. In his late twenties, high on a cocktail of street and prescription drugs, he wants God to flash the light bulb, on and off, in his squalid bedroom in an Indiana college town.

“Just a little wink,” he prays, “and I’ll sell all my shit and buy a camel. I’ll start over.”

The light bulb flickers. But that’s not enough for Cyrus, whose manic quest for certainty inspires a series of seemingly unwise decisions that, as Martyr! progresses, turn out to be smart ones.

Cyrus asks God to do it again. And when the light stays on, the novel takes off, rattling through Cyrus’s nattering consciousness, guided by Akbar’s energy, his broad sympathies, and his unflagging attention to language. Soon enough, we understand why the title needs an exclamation point. It signals the pitch, the volume, and the speed at which Cyrus’s mind operates, even when he’s asleep.

Perhaps it’s the moment in which we live, when so much of what’s happening around us seems bleak and chaotic or, worse, like more evidence of the victory of soulless capitalism. But there’s something immensely appealing about a meticulously written novel whose characters (Cyrus isn’t the only one) are busily searching for meaning. It’s a pleasure to read a book in which an obsession with the metaphysical, the spiritual, and the ethical is neither a joke nor an occasion for a sermon. And it’s cheering to see a first-time (or anytime) novelist go for the heavy stuff—family, death, love, addiction, art, history, poetry, redemption, sex, friendship, US-Iranian relations, God—and manage to make it engrossing, imaginative, and funny.

Cyrus is looking for a reason to live or die, for some reassurance that his life and death matter. He admires the historical martyrs who believed that there was something worth dying for, “who gave their lives to something larger than themselves.” He’s not especially interested in martyring himself, or in being martyred. He prefers the idea of “earth martyrs,” people who live with the moral passion of saints and heroes but don’t kill themselves or anyone else.

His longing for reassurance and purpose seems partly like the product of his dreamy, youthful self-absorption. But it’s also the understandable result of the catastrophe that has shaped his life. Cyrus was only a few months old when, in 1988, his mother was killed while traveling to Dubai to visit her brother on an Iranian commercial passenger plane that was accidentally struck by a US Navy missile. The senselessness—the sheer pointlessness—of her death has left Cyrus wondering if there is a cosmic plan, or if existence is just a succession of random tragic events.

Despite the gravity of these subjects, what makes Martyr! feel light is its bravado, its buoyancy, and its innovative form. Broken up into dozens of brief sections, the narrative bounces from speaker to speaker, from present to past, from the living to the dead, from (very) close third-person perspective to an even more intimate first-person.

For much of the book we’re in Cyrus’s consciousness, but we also hear from his mother, Roya; his uncle, Arash; his father, Ali; and his best friend, Zee. The action shifts from Tehran to Indiana to Brooklyn. Scattered throughout are brief memos from US military and government officials, minimizing the importance of—and their responsibility for—the downing of Roya’s plane. There are summaries of folktales, accounts of Cyrus’s dreams, and imaginary conversations of the sort with which Cyrus, as a child, used to lull himself to sleep. In one of these dialogues, Roya and Lisa Simpson discuss the stories of Ray Bradbury and Adélia Prado, Roya’s death, the sensation of flying, and the destruction of the coral reefs. The scene ends with a passage that seems more like the end of a poem than the conclusion of a chapter:

Roya stared down at the little girl, who was now the size of a little girl. Yellow skin, white pearls, red dress. The bedroom was filling with water. A saxophone floated out from under the bed and Lisa picked it up. She started playing a song that seemed to be about the immeasurable mercy of animals, though it had no words.

Punctuating the novel are poems from the Book of Martyrs that Cyrus is writing. Each is directly addressed to one of his heroes: Bobby Sands, the IRA member who staged a fatal hunger strike; Hypatia of Alexandria, the mathematician and astronomer believed to have been executed for witchcraft; Qu Yuan, the Chinese poet who drowned himself when his country’s capital was invaded; Roya, martyred by an accident; and Ali, whose health was destroyed by the punishing work he did to support himself and Cyrus. One poem memorializes Bhagat Singh, an Indian revolutionary who murdered a colonial police officer:


Who am I? swigging from the bad jug,
dying my robe the color of spring—
damn the gallows, stuff me
in a cannon
, you wrote that too…

Heartfelt and impassioned, these odes express Cyrus’s hopes and grief, his hunger for answers. But what’s most interesting is that they are all persona poems, examples of literary ventriloquism, of Akbar writing not as himself but as Cyrus—writing the poems that Cyrus might have written.

Like his protagonist, Kaveh Akbar was born in Tehran and raised partly in Indiana. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, he teaches at the University of Iowa and in the low-residency MFA programs at Warren Wilson College and Randolph College, and he is the poetry editor of The Nation. His books include the poetry collections Pilgrim Bell (2021) and Calling a Wolf a Wolf (2017) and a chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic (2017).

Cyrus’s poems share certain themes—prayer, faith, forgiveness, the possibilities of language, political repression—with Akbar’s, but they are not as subtle, surprising, or wide-ranging. Here is a brief passage from Akbar’s longest poem, “The Palace,” which is (among other things) a meditation on America and on the limits and abuses of power:

A king governs best
in the dark, where you can’t see his hands move. A king

doesn’t see us
watching the king.

We sew God’s initials into our workshirts

while our babies get thinner.
The babies do not see us

watching our babies
get thinner.

Our babies born addicted to fear of babies
Our babies gumming apples in the sun.

Reading Martyr!, one can’t help thinking that if Cyrus stays sober and works hard enough, he might someday write poems as accomplished as Akbar’s.

Cyrus not only wants to write meaningful poetry and commune with the divine. He also longs to be a good person, an ambition at which he’s not much better than he is at contacting God through a light bulb. Two years later, Cyrus is reluctantly in recovery and working as a medical actor, pretending to be a series of patients on whom medical students can practice their communication skills.

Cyrus turns a routine classroom exercise into a session in hell for a young female medical student assigned to the part of “Dr. Monfort.” Playing the patient, “Mrs. Kaufmann,” a cranky elderly widow, Cyrus goes off script and delivers an unnervingly honest and convincing performance. As “Dr. Monfort” attempts to break the news that “Mrs. Kaufmann” is fatally ill, Cyrus forces the “doctor” to tell the painful truth without the pallid platitudes she’s been advised to use, then horrifies her with a detailed account of his own grotesque suicide attempt.

Often Cyrus can’t keep from voicing his deepest thoughts aloud, regardless of whether his audience wants to hear them or not. At an AA meeting, expressing regret for tormenting the medical student, he spirals into a rant about the misery of sobriety:

“I snapped at this woman at work today…. It felt so good, putting her on her heels like that. Being in control…. It’s those moments of rushing the cockpit where I actually feel anything anymore, where I remember who I am. Rushing the cockpit? Bad metaphor.” Cyrus smiled, took a deep breath. “There are no big decisions in my life. Mostly I just sit around listening to my brain saying the same shit over and over: ‘Wouldn’t you rather be masturbating?’ ‘Wouldn’t you rather be overwhelmed?’ And the answer is always, always yes, yes. I turn my headphones up till it hurts, act like a dick to a random woman just doing her job. Because it feels different than nothing. Which is all sobriety is. Nothing. Nothing in every direction.”

After the meeting, Cyrus has coffee with his AA sponsor, an old-timer named Gabe. In response to Cyrus’s wish to find “something in Islam” to replace the nondenominational AA higher power who, Cyrus thinks, “sends all Muslims to hell,” Gabe says, “You’re the most American kid I know…. You buy fucking vinyl records. We’re having this conversation in Indiana, not Tehran.”

It’s a typically barbed and complex introduction to another question that preoccupies Cyrus. What does it mean to be Iranian when he and his father, Ali, moved to the US when Cyrus was a few months old? The other voices who take turns narrating Martyr!—Roya, Arash, and Roya’s lover, Leila—suggest how soul-destroying it was to observe the restrictions imposed by the ayatollahs, but Ali’s decision to emigrate was more emotional than political.


After Roya’s death, Ali and Cyrus were besieged by neighbors paying condolence calls and bringing covered dishes of food. Oppressed by the constant reminders of loss, Ali answered an ad seeking workers at an industrial chicken farm in Indiana. “A new beginning away from everyone’s thin performances of rage, grief, pity—that became, in an instant, all he wanted in the world. A chicken hadn’t shot his wife out of the sky.”

The farm turns out to be a vast eugenics experiment designed to breed poultry that will “go from egg to harvest in as little time as possible, on as little feed as possible,” a process that involves destroying the chickens’ immune systems. Ali endures his job by drinking quantities of gin and raising a certifiably American son who lives on Hot Pockets, watches Michael Jordan, and is forbidden to speak Farsi at home, lest it impede his learning English.

“American when it suited him and Iranian when it didn’t”: Cyrus is conscious of his hyphenated identity, which magnifies his confusion about who he is and what he wants. He also suspects that his fascination with martyrdom is somehow DNA encoded, the residue of a culture he left behind before he was old enough to absorb it:

In Iran, there are these schools for the children of men killed in the war, who they call “martyrs.” Those martyr schools are the good schools, the fancy schools, you try to get your kids into them…. I’ve heard of children of martyrs trying to hide it, like they’re ashamed of all the privilege. Like trust fund kids, except instead of trust funds they have dead parents.

If Cyrus imagines that he’s managed to escape the long shadow of Persian history, his annual New Year’s phone conversation with Uncle Arash—permanently damaged by his military service during the Iran–Iraq War—recalls what their country suffered in the decades before Cyrus’s birth:

At night, after the human wave attacks and the mustard gas left countless dozens or hundreds of Iranians dying on the battlefield, it was Arash’s job to quietly and secretly put on a long black cloak, get atop a horse, and ride around the battlefield of fallen men with a flashlight under his face. He was meant to look like an angel. He was meant to inspire the dying men to die with dignity, conviction. To keep them from suicide. The delirious dying men would see Arash on his mount, in his illuminated hood, and believe they were being visited by Gabriel himself, or the twelfth imam returning for them.

Cyrus wonders what higher ideal would inspire him to sacrifice what he has: an affordable apartment, close friends, books he wants to read. He isn’t bored or lonely. He has a close, casually sexual, undefined connection to his best friend, Zee, a Polish-Egyptian drummer who—as we learn in the section that Zee narrates—truly loves him. But Cyrus is too distracted and self-obsessed to see how much he and Zee mean to each other, though he is grateful for Zee’s sensible and affectionate advice. For Cyrus, even something as apparently positive as gratitude inspires more doubt, more unease—and still more thoughts of violence and death.

This compulsive overthinking is at once the source of Cyrus’s charm and his particular burden. His interior monologues, his conversations with Zee, his observations, and his metaphorical cast of mind allow Akbar to switch from druggy lyricism to gritty plain speech, a gift that made me think of another poet-novelist, Denis Johnson. Cyrus’s mental high-wire act keeps us with him throughout the novel, even when we may suspect that, were we to meet him in life, he might drive us a little nuts, especially after he tells us a long dream about seeing Donald Trump, or, as Cyrus calls him, President Invective, in an upscale mall.

Cyrus is a mythical hero to himself, a knight who is never going to decide that looking for the Holy Grail is simply too much trouble. Eventually his desire to observe an “earth martyr” firsthand takes him from Indiana to the Brooklyn Museum. There, an Iranian artist named Orkideh is performing a piece so freighted that it makes The Artist Is Present (2010)—in which Marina Abramović spent seven hours a day for three months sitting in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, staring fixedly into the eyes of whoever sat across from her—seem low-key and lightweight.

Orkideh is dying of cancer. She has refused all further treatment and will spend her final days in a chair in the museum, “talking to whoever came in about whatever they wanted to talk about. Guests were encouraged to ask about what dying felt like, or simply sit quietly with the artist,” who is dressed comfortably, and is barefoot.

If Cyrus can be Iranian when he wants to, he wants to be very Iranian when he meets Orkideh. He’s simultaneously insulted and thrilled when she suggests that he is “a cliché…another death-obsessed Iranian man.” They recognize each other! She knows him! In her presence he becomes a spiritual fanboy, besieging her with his questions about art, life, death, and martyrdom. He keeps returning to the museum, where he and Orkideh discuss W.E.B. Du Bois, the Iranian discovery of cubism centuries before Braque and Picasso, Orkideh’s illness, and Cyrus’s attempts to write, to organize his thoughts into a coherent narrative:

I write these sentences where I try to lineate grief or doubt or joy or sex or whatever till it sounds as urgent as it feels. But I know the words will never feel like the thing…. I know my writing can never make any of these deaths matter the way they’re supposed to. It’ll never arrest fascism in its tracks or save the planet. It’ll never bring my mother back, you know?

Predictably, Orkideh dies before she can answer the questions that she has gracefully deflected since meeting Cyrus. But she does live long enough to (accidentally or intentionally) reveal a startling clue to his past. Together with a mysterious painting of hers that hangs in the museum, his meetings with Orkideh make him reconsider everything he has believed about his life so far.

Some readers will have anticipated Cyrus’s dramatic discovery, but—regardless of when we figure it out—it changes how we read Martyr! Like Cyrus and his family, we’ve been mistaken about some very basic facts. I went back through the book to see if, knowing what I eventually learned, the previous sections still made sense. And it’s a tribute to Akbar’s skill that the early parts of the book can be read two ways, before and after the big reveal, without it seeming like a trick.

In fact the plot twist adds another dimension to the novel. The death that Cyrus has mourned turns out to have been tragic—but not entirely meaningless. Something about it relates to the notion of a higher sacrifice that he has been exploring all along. However we may feel about this dramatic reversal, it reminds us that we have probably not been reading Martyr! for its mysteries and its plot—Will Cyrus discover the meaning of life?—but rather for the immersion in his enjoyably hyperactive sensibility.

A generous spirit animates Martyr!, and Akbar respects the part of our psyche that longs for a happy ending. The final chapters include testaments to love and art that, for better or worse, may well be the first things Cyrus takes on faith, without an exhaustive interrogation. From beyond the grave, Orkideh speaks about her work: “Creativity didn’t live in my brain any more than walking lived in my legs. It lived in every painting I ever saw, every book I ever read, every conversation I ever had.” She echoes and answers a question that Cyrus asked earlier about how one coexists with “the murderous whims of evil men.”

Twice in these last pages Cyrus is moved to prayer. The first time occurs when, sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn, he reads an interview with Orkideh, published after her death:

Cyrus found himself praying, suddenly, without even realizing it…. The most basic form of prayer, he’d heard once, was something like “help me help me help me, please please please, thank you thank you thank you”; and Cyrus’s prayer in the park was not much more advanced than that.

Cyrus’s plea for help is answered by a phone call from Zee, whom he asks to come join him in the park. As soon as Cyrus sees Zee, he understands—with more joy and certainty than he has felt about anything so far—the depth of their love for each other. “Cyrus loved that Zee moved through life unencumbered by the flinching anxiety that governed, corroded his own soul. Cyrus was dizzy with it, this love, its abrupt and total overwhelm.” For the second time, Cyrus is moved to prayer:

The golden light cracking through the ground had gathered into a vast and deep pool, warm and gurgling absently like an unattended infant. Cyrus knelt over the swirl and gasped a little. He was, somewhere in the back of his mind, aware he was crying, that Zee was there kneeling beside him, wiping the tears from his cheeks, kissing them. It was almost unbearable, how good and warm it felt to be there—together—in the pond’s golden light. The feeling of prayer—not prayer itself, but the stillness it leaves—lifted from the earth, smelling of grass and woodsmoke. Cyrus reached his hand into the pool and closed his eyes. He felt another hand—was it his own, or Zee’s?—grab it.

We want things to go well for Cyrus. We want him to have a good life, with Zee or not. We wish him health and luck, satisfying and productive work. But we suspect that he’s addicted to questions that have no answers. He’s a poet. He reads Miłosz, Hikmet, Seneca, Rumi, Plath, and Woolf. He’ll write more poems about prayer, he’ll be in recovery or not, the riddles and ghosts that haunt him will appear in new disguises. Happiness is attainable, but at least once a year, on Nowruz, he’ll remember that his uncle put on a black cloak, stuck a flashlight under his chin, and galloped on horseback through fields of dying Iranian soldiers.