Review: An Ultra High-Energy Novel About the 1999 Seattle Anti-World Trade Organization Protests

The following article first appeared in The National Book Review

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of Fist

By Sunil Yapa

Lee Boudreaux Books 320 pp. $26

It is, of course, wrong to judge a book by its cover, but Sunil Yapa's Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist makes the temptation almost irresistible. Aggressively yellow and black, with painted lettering, and a subtle anarchist symbol replacing the "A" of "A Novel," it seems to promise a forward, uncompromising, and confident novel -- one bearing as much truth and human anatomy as the title itself.

The book's subject, similarly, is nothing if not bold. It depicts a single day of anti-globalization protesting, at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. The story begins in the morning, when Victor, a young, biracial vagrant wakes up and decides to sell weed to protestors in order to buy a plane ticket. When he fails at this task, he becomes involved in the protest itself.

Victor is trained on the spot by two professional (and romantically entangled) protestors, John Henry and King, and he ultimately becomes a victim of violent anti-protest tactics used by the police, as well as a key witness. The novel does not, however, follow Victor exclusively. Instead, it depicts the protest from various perspectives. Each chapter features a separate character -- including John Henry, King, police officer Timothy Park, and Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe, a diplomat from Sri Lanka who must travel through the protests to get President Bill Clinton's signature on a petition for Sri Lanka's entry into the WTO.

Dr. Wickramsinghe's journey is depicted in chapters entitled "Intermission," the only titled chapters in the novel. It is fitting that his trip is singled out in this way. Not only is he removed from the protests themselves -- he only tangentially interacts with the other main characters - but he moves at a sharply different tempo from the rest of the action.

Most of the conversations in the book are limited to a few sentences shouted over the noise of the crowd -- punctuated by disjointed images of protesters chaining themselves to doors, breaking windows, and clashing with police. Yapa strives to cultivate a breakneck pace throughout, slowed only by Dr. Wickramsinghe's "intermissions" and a variety of flashbacks.

This highly immediate writing style suggests an explanation for the use of the word "intermissions." The novel is cinematic, and the prose often leans on poeticism and some slightly pulpy conventions to make it so. This is not a book that is meant to be experienced slowly and explored. Rather, it asks to be consumed in a single sitting, much like a film or a play.

Unfortunately, these intermissions are the most effective and interesting parts of the story. Dr. Wickramsinghe is perhaps the only character who does not fit into the dichotomy of police and protestor. As a result, he has the least fixed, most interesting point of view. He initially condemns the protestors, but he is later held by police as one of the crowd.

Dr. Wickramsinghe's much slower tempo also comes as a relief from the constant waves of crisis and panic in the rest of the novel, and it allows Yapa to transcend the stylistic limitations of such a singular focus. During the intermissions, the prose relaxes into a less pulpy and more direct style, and in these sections Yapa's considerable talent emerges. He handles Dr. Wickramsinghe's journey with a deftness and clarity that the rest of the novel lacks.

Though Yapa's frequent use of memories and flashbacks serve a similar purpose in slowing the novel down, they do not succeed as the intermissions do in providing escape. Rather, these memories are written in an exaggeratedly poetic style and because of that they verge on the saccharine. This tendency to err on the sentimental side is a persistent problem.

That is especially true as the climax approaches. Though the violence increases enormously as the novel nears its end, Yapa does not leave himself room to increase the urgency of his prose, which has been frantically kinetic from the very first chapter. He is, as a result, forced to rely on more and more flashbacks to create an emotional investment in the characters, and this device fails to produce a meaningful relationship between the reader and the characters, leaving the novel without a strong emotional payoff at the end.

The book's attempts at complexity are, on the whole, ineffective. Victor's biracial identity and complicated family history do little to add intensity to the reader's experience of the novel's action, and instead result in some of its most treacly moments; King's past sins, and Officer Park's past heroism, similarly add little depth to the book's action.

Yapa never quite takes the next step to thoroughly confront any single issue, such as the role of race at the protests, the gap in privilege between the protestors and the subject of their protest, sexism among both the protestors and the police, and perhaps most notably, the relationship between a protest in 1999 and protests of the future.

That is perhaps the greatest missed opportunity. This novel will certainly gain attention because of the nation's recent upswing in political activism, especially surrounding issues of race. But readers who approach this novel hoping to learn from the past will likely be disappointed. Rather than providing an uncompromising story of social protest, Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist delivers a surprisingly tepid depiction of an ultimately limited cast of characters.