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Kara Walker—the protagonist of Abdi Nazemian’s first novel The Walk-in Closet—is ready for a new life. And she’s not exactly picky. On the eve of her thirtieth birthday, still reeling from an old break-up and stuck in a dead-end Hollywood job, Kara is ready to make some compromises if it means she’ll experience something close enough to happiness. But close enough, we learn, is intolerably far from the real thing.
Leila and Hossein Ebadi are a leading family in “Tehrangeles,” a contemporary milieu in Los Angeles inhabited by Iranians who immigrated to America after the shah’s overthrow in 1979. They seem to have it all—wealth, glamour, grandiloquent Nowruz parties, and the latest spring/summer ensembles from Prada. Of course, it’s not that the Ebadis don’t have problems; they’ve simply reached a bearable peace with their problems by never talking about them. Everyone is working to “maintain the façade,” including the Ebadis’ younger son Babak, who goes by “Bobby” and is Kara’s best friend.
Although Bobby spends most of his free time online pursuing hook-ups with men he never wants to see again, he still lets his parents pretend his relationship with Kara is a romantic one. In fact, as of late the Ebadis have been pressuring Bobby and Kara to move into a house, get married, and pop out some adorable grandkids. So Kara is faced with an odd decision. “There were two options that seemed available for my life,” she thinks early in the novel, “become a fabulous Persian wife or become one of the girls.” Kara debates marrying her closeted gay friend because even though it won’t be the life she really wants, it will be something and at this point she’s almost ready to settle.
The characters in The Walk-in Closet are fairly certain happiness exists but they struggle to believe it’s attainable for them. They worry they have too much baggage, too much hurt inside their hearts and too many eccentricities. Plus, ask anyone: It’s nearly impossible to meet decent guys in LA. So Kara, Bobby, and their friends try to satisfy themselves with tapas, expensive outerwear, and the internet.
As Bobby becomes more immersed in ManHunt and hook-up apps, Kara thinks: “It was sad watching him enter a solitary existence, but then it also made me feel all the more needed.” This is a touching reflection that reveals the co-dependency inherent to their relationship. For Kara to maintain her current way of life, where her rent and spa treatments are paid for by the Ebadis, she needs Bobby to stay in the closet, just as he needs to her to help facilitate the increasingly extravagant lie they’re perpetuating. Soon Kara posts on Craigslist too. “What about me?” she wonders. “Am I invisible? I am flesh and blood, I am a woman who needs to be held, who needs the touch of a man at least once every eighteen months.”
Nazemian is at his best exploring the relationships between Kara and Bobby and the studs they meet online. Meaningless sex is where the suffocating pressures of desire and loneliness intersect. Nazemian skillfully conveys both the fun of hooking-up and the deeper emotions Bobby and Kara seek to conceal with it.
A pleasant satire typical of fiction set in LA balances out these more emotionally complex encounters. Pilates, pop music, the movie industry, and microwaveable enchiladas are all the butt of jokes the characters bounce off each other. Nazemian’s dialogue is delightful, trendy, and full of one-liners. While reflecting about an afternoon at the gym, for instance, Kara tells Bobby: “I lied to the treadmill. Remember that day I was running next to Hot Tattooed Guy? I had to punch in my age, and I lied. To a treadmill.” The best scenes in The Walk-in Closet are elaborate set-pieces centered around this fascinating, increasingly zany dialogue—including a frat party Kara attends with her actress friend while they’re both high on GHB and an awkward lunch at Il Forniao with Kara, Bobby, and their moms.
However, the pacing of some scenes gets dragged down by Nazemian’s tendency to over-explain. Instead of allowing the dialogue to flow and letting the reader make sense of the intricacies of the characters’ exchanges, Nazemian regularly pauses mid-conversation to insert back-story, moderately relevant anecdotes, and totally unnecessary reminders. While such digressions could be employed occasionally to add complexity to seemingly banal banter, they occur with such frequency, especially in the first half of the novel, that Nazemian’s fantastic dialogue is sometimes overshadowed by paragraphs of exposition. It’s well-written exposition to be sure, but there’s way too much of it.
As the novel progresses, we learn more about the Ebadi family and how history—both at its most global and its most personal—has shaped their lives. We are also drawn into a mystery. Thanks to her Craigslist post, Kara meets a man who works as an international journalist for CNN. While Bobby tells Kara never to meet the same trick twice, Kara can’t help it and quickly develops a strange relationship with this intriguing fellow who’s staying at the Four Seasons and whom she knows only as “Kevin.”
Throughout The Walk-in Closet, Nazemian explores the ongoing conflict between desperation and hope—which Kara calls “such an overrated commodity.” We see how the little lies that might’ve initially seemed harmless can get compounded to nearly ruin lives. The truth, we learn, won’t save Kara and the people she loves, but it will allow them to escape the gilded cages they’ve built for each other and themselves. While Nazemian’s novel has some definite flaws, it is an intelligent, moving portrait of a family caught between its past and its future, between the happiness all the characters seek and the grand, unsustainable facade blocking their path.
The Walk-in Closet
By Abdi Nazemian
Curtis Brown Unlimted
Paperback, 9780615988689, 274 pp.