Kareems Got Other Skills
Imad Rahman, I Dream of Microwaves (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stars as the protagonist and narrator of Imad Rahman’s debut collection of stories I Dream of Microwaves. He’s a struggling method actor who drinks bourbon like water and has a predilection for the word “dude.” When he’s not portraying ethnic criminals on America’s Most Wanted or struggling for the lead in a musical version of Apocalypse Now for dinner theater, he works in an assortment of jobs that call into question his dignity, but never his dedication or integrity as an actor.
Whether working as a dogwalker under a haughty animal psychologist or as a tough guy video repo-man, Kareem—perhaps like Rahman himself—is a junkie for experience who channels all that he sees and lives through into his acting. “It was the only thing I could be sure of: Whatever happens, you’ll be able to use it onstage. It was how I saw my own life.”
I Dream of Microwaves, in a word, is hilarious.
In the story “Call Me Manny,” after assuming the persona of a murderer-turned actor of Hispanic origin, Kareem agrees to act as a Muslim man with anti-American views. He must attempt to lure likeminded brown people—a.k.a. terrorists—out of the woodwork in post 9/11 America. Two patriotic data analysts turned bounty hunters ask him: “You think you can do Arab? You a civic-minded civilian, Manny?” Such are the ironic yet tragic circumstances that define Kareem’s life and career—two seemingly inseparable entities.
Most of the stories in this book are characterized not only by Kareem’s ability to end up in uproariously engaging situations, but also by Rahman’s facetious commentary on various aspects of society. In “Eating, Ohio,” Kareem is working as the Zima Zorro at a local bar, and he gets in a bar fight with the Red Bull Matador. Lonely and desperate on his birthday, he responds to a classified ad that seeks well-decorated homes in which to shoot sophisticated porn flicks. Kareem isn’t given a role in the movie, because his look wouldn’t be “compatible” with target audiences, but he’s allowed to record the movie’s voiceover. Kareem reads from script: “It’s all about colonialism, as represented here in both small and large degrees… In a postmodern world, porn is completely aware of being porn.” No aspect of the American experience—academic theory or dirty movies—is free from Rahman’s scrutinizing lens.
What’s most poignant in I Dream of Microwaves is Rahman’s satirical vision of life in suburban America. From an Olive Garden parking lot, he comments: “The heartland was punctuated by a sprawling mass of junk-food joints, shopping malls, Italian restaurants possibly unfamiliar with linguine, Mexican eateries frequented by fat pink-faced couples in matching T-shirts.” The burbs might not be aesthetically pleasing or teeming with highbrow intellectualism, but they are full of laughs and ripe with experience, especially if one is open-minded like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The misadventures of the main character are indeed overtly cinematic, both in style and content. Rahman seems to be influenced by the world of movies to a degree that recalls the great Argentine writer Manuel Puig, author of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Kiss of the Spider Woman, among other works. Rahman’s subtle and direct references to cinema serve to enhance his mirthful and merciless depictions of characters and situations.
To the same effect, the book is also filled with exciting movie-like subplots, plot twists and dialogues. Some readers may find Rahman’s flair for the dramatic gimmicky or contrived. But it is apparent that the book’s dramatic tendencies are purposeful and self-mocking. In a line that screams of self-awareness, Kareem tells us: “In the movies, this would be the part where coincidence makes the dude swoon.”
Rahman employs the mechanisms of cinema and television not to ensnare readers with cheap tricks, but to parody the conventions of cinema, literature, and his own writing, blurring the lines between all three. This may pose problems for literary stalwarts, who will be tempted to call this book “entertaining” or “light” literature. Indeed, Mario Vargas Llosa used similar words to posthumously criticize Manuel Puig.
But this book is made for and from a society brought up on cinema, sitcoms and more recently the Olive Garden. It wisely acknowledges its place within these realms, simultaneously mocking and embracing them. In I Dream of Microwaves, Rahman transcends the worlds of popular culture and chain restaurants to give readers an innovative work of fiction imbued with both depth and humor.