‘Call Me Zebra’ Book Review
Abigail Piper | Tuesday, February 20, 2018
“In this false world, we guard our lives with our deaths.”
When I began reading “Call Me Zebra,” quotes like this made me think it was going to be a hard read. I did not need another “The Satanic Verses” circa 2015 moment, where the entire book flew so far over my head a sharpshooter couldn’t have hit it.
However, upon reading the novel, the intimidating abstractness clearly becomes an important part of the Zebra character. The reader begins to participate in the overthinking Zebra elicits and these phrases become one of a million things to contemplate while reading the novel — but in a good way.
Notre Dame creative writing professor Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel, “Call Me Zebra,” gracefully and wittily explores the monumentally daunting questions and conflicts of love and loss, hope and despair, exile and home, past and present. The highly-anticipated novel follows the self-named Zebra as she traces her past through the lens of her expansive literary knowledge in an attempt to make use of her exile — to find the truth in the nothingness, her nothingness.
An untraditional heroine to say the least, Zebra does not possess the same inherent likeability of similarly independent feminist literary icons. She is no Elizabeth Bennet or Jo March. She is a completely new heroine.
As the last in a line of “Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists,” Zebra comes off as completely absurd, which is hilarious at times and gnawingly depressing at others. Even so, Van der Vliet Oloomi manages to make her believable and relatable to anyone who has ever felt lost in the “void.” Her bitter outlook on the world pulls at anyone who at some point has felt disenchanted with life, i.e. pretty much everyone.
Despite her self-proclaimed spot in the 0.1 percent of the population who aren’t “numbskulls,” it is in Zebra’s suppressed but desperate craving for human love that she is like everyone else. As the novel moves forward, Zebra’s humanity progressively peeks through her darkness. Her love affair with Ludo, conviction that her mother lives inside a pet bird and inability to fight the sadness that cripples her, among other things, redeem her from being a detestable and distant character. They ground her in the world she rejects.
She is undeniably unique though. Zebra opts to live in her own mind, talking with her father and remembering her trek across “no man’s land” to escape Iran, rather than the present around her. For her, “thinking is meant to be treated like a rare precious stone.” Her home inside her head and the conflict that ensues illuminate the power and pitfalls of thought. It appeals to the swarm of unwanted, bleak thoughts often ushered in by a deathly combination of loneliness and boredom. Most people don’t ask for this kind of unwarranted and often dispiriting introspection. Zebra lives in that state of mind.
It’s the classic curse of “overthinking.” As I read, thinking about Zebra made me think about the overthinking, which is overthinking in itself, which really messed with my head — not sure if this time it was in a good way.
The political poignancy of her geopolitical exile makes the novel culturally relevant in a time when refugees, abandonment and terror continue to rattle the earth, but the personal poignancy of this exile makes the novel relevant for anyone who has ever felt the suffocation of isolation. Zebra hyperbolizes the drama of the deep dark thoughts everyone, even the 99.9 percent, have in moments of loneliness. Her status as an exile has put her in a perpetual state of loneliness, one she struggles to escape even when confronted with the option of love.
“Call Me Zebra” is for the exiles. The bibliophiles. The quirky. The sad. The lonely. The hopeful. The twisted. The romantics.
In other words, everyone.