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An American Writer for an Age of Division

Akhtar’s parents were the first in their families to emigrate, and they spent long vacations visiting relatives in Pakistan, where Akhtar, the firstborn son of a firstborn son, was lovingly fussed over. While the men went off to hunt, he stayed inside drinking tea with the women, absorbing their Punjabi chat and gossip. “I was really into the domestic interior, family dramas,” he said. One aunt loved Shakespeare; another enthralled him with stories of the Prophet Muhammad. Embedding in this protected female space helped him make better sense of his mother. “Her pain was, in large part, the pain of being a woman in a culture that made it very hard to be a woman,” he said. “I saw all of her sisters go through this dilemma. Very smart, charismatic, resourceful women who were subordinated, and separated.”

“Janey! What did I say about drawing on the walls? Perspective! Balance! Basic compositional principles!”
Cartoon by Johnny DiNapoli

Influenced, in part, by his religious relatives, he developed an interest in Islam that soon turned to devotion, an experience that he mined in “American Dervish,” whose protagonist yearns to become a hafiz, someone who knows the entire Quran by heart. Akhtar had to beg his openly dismissive father to take him to pray at Milwaukee’s mosque. “I have an abiding interest in things that the somewhat narrow middle of contemporary Western life—economized life, if you will—tends to ignore,” he said. “The sort of declivitous lows and ecstatic highs. I was very interested in religion because it seemed to be the only thing that spoke to that register of experience.”

The religious fervor soon burned off. “Early on, I recognized—I won’t put it generously—the abject stupidity of thinking that I must know something that other people don’t, and that I must be right because I was born into something,” Akhtar said. (These days, he and Boras practice meditation.) His quest for the sublime found a new outlet when he saw “The Empire Strikes Back”—the Dagobah swamp blew his mind—and, later, in high school, when a teacher introduced him to European modernist literature. He decided that he wanted to be a writer, and the conviction deepened when he studied with the Americanist Mary Cappello at the University of Rochester, where he matriculated before transferring to Brown for his sophomore year. (Cappello, who appears in the novel as a beloved professor named Mary Moroni, told me that she still sends Akhtar detailed critiques of his work.)

Akhtar found early success in a creative-writing class in Rochester, with a short story about a burial gone awry in Pakistan. Impressed, the professor offered to connect him with literary editors at various illustrious magazines. Akhtar was elated, then frozen by doubt. What if the story was a fluke? He fell into a crushing depression. It was years before he showed his fiction to anyone else.

In July, Akhtar spent the better part of a week at the sound director Robert Kessler’s studio in Katonah, recording the audiobook of “Homeland Elegies.” On the afternoon that I visited, he was preparing to read a chapter called “On Pottersville,” which begins with a charged conversation the narrator has with a Black libertarian friend who is explaining why he votes Republican. Kessler, who has shoulder-length white hair and an aspect of relaxed competence, adjusted his blue medical mask and settled himself at the soundboard as Akhtar shut himself into a booth in an adjacent room.

“Let me know when you’re rolling, dude,” Akhtar said. Kessler gave him the O.K., and Akhtar launched into an epigraph from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which opens the section: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you’re talking about—they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”

Breaking for breath, he said, “I know it sounded nothing like Jimmy Stewart.”

“That’s a good thing,” Kessler said.

Akhtar feels that his books find their truest form in his performance of them. He takes special pleasure in rendering his parents’ accents: his mother’s lightly wheedling tone; his father’s comical bombast. As he read, he shaped the air with his hands, marking rhythm. “Fuck me,” he muttered as he stumbled on a word. “Robert was telling me that people swallow a lot of air when they’re doing this, so that’s why I’m burping a lot.”

“I keep telling him he doesn’t have to be so polite about it, to just let it out,” Kessler said.

Akhtar discovered acting at Rochester, and transferred to Brown to pursue it. The program was like a conservatory: he was in acting class two hours a day, four days a week, and otherwise translating, directing, producing, and performing. At the end of Akhtar’s senior year, Andre Gregory gave a talk on campus. “I basically accosted him,” Akhtar recalled. “I said, ‘I’m a big fan of your work, especially the spiritual dimension of what you’re doing. I know you’re good friends with Jerzy Grotowski,’ ” the avant-garde Polish director. Akhtar had become infatuated with Grotowski’s spiritual predecessor, George Gurdjieff, the early-twentieth-century Armenian mystic who encouraged his followers to awaken a higher consciousness through music and dance. “Gurdjieff is dead,” he told Gregory. “So I want to work with Grotowski.”

Two weeks later, Akhtar skipped graduation and flew to Grotowski’s institute in Tuscany. “His whole thing was about trying to find ways to gain access to a kind of animal state, what he would call an ‘organicity,’ ” Akhtar said. Grotowski led his acolytes through sixteen-hour days that began in the middle of the afternoon and went past dawn, exhausting them to the point of breakthrough, or breakdown. “He and maybe one other person in my life have set a certain bar of what’s possible, intellectually, creatively,” Akhtar told me. Still, there was something cultish about a cloistered environment devoted to a theatrical genius who had stopped making theatre. When the actors performed, they faced an empty chair.

Some people spent a decade or more at the institute. Akhtar lasted a year. He and his girlfriend, a Frenchwoman whom he had met while studying abroad, and later married, moved to New York, where they lived in a studio apartment on Second Avenue. He began working as Gregory’s assistant, helping to rehearse Gregory’s production of “Uncle Vanya” with Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn in the spectacularly dilapidated old Amsterdam Theatre. Louis Malle turned the production into the movie “Vanya on Forty-second Street.” (You can catch a glimpse of Akhtar, still with hair.) He taught acting workshops and tried to start his own company, but his approach was at odds with commercially minded New York. “I did a translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ that I rehearsed with three actors for eight months,” he said. “We never did any performances, we just continued to rehearse.” Akhtar prided himself on his artistic purity: “If you’d told me back then that I would become a Broadway playwright, I would have said, ‘Put a bullet in me now.’ ”

“He was very much opposed to films,” the director Oren Moverman, Akhtar’s best friend from those years, told me. “We had a lot of fun conversations about why film is no good, where I was there to defend the love I have for the craft.”

A dream led Akhtar to reconsider his resistance to what he had previously rejected as a debased medium. He started watching movies at a clip of six a day; within three months, he had seen three hundred and fifty, working his way through Hollywood from the thirties on up before pivoting to Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, and Ingmar Bergman. (Though his marriage managed to survive this hermetic boot camp, the couple split up a few years later.) In the fall of 1997, Akhtar enrolled at the Columbia film school. In his first semester, he directed twelve shorts, one film a week, a breakneck pace. “I just needed to learn the language,” he said.

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