A City in Ruin
The strong pulse of Sunil Yapa's debut novel
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
Moving from consciousness to consciousness among a cast of characters from every walk—cops, protestors, delegates—Sunil Yapa's Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist explores the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization summit protests with all the complexity and conviction of those testing a core question of social movements, government and individual hearts—How do we reconcile the many, contradictory things that we want the world to be? Each character, humanized by Yapa's always exhilarated pen, does what they think is right. Each character's choices are rationalized, brought to light in the context of who they are: their race, their origin, their profession, what they've seen, what they each have and what they've each lost. It is through this multiplicity of voices and stories that we experience the conflict—and empathically, human nature—in all its intricacies.
There's 19-year-old Victor, a black man who ran away from home three years ago (and, in one of those a little too staged elements of the plot, is the adopted son of the Chief of Police), who attends the protest hoping to sell enough weed to buy a plane ticket, but is instead swept up in the quickening movement of the protest. His critique of those around him is essential to the inquiry at hand. “You met with the cops? Wow, must be nice to be white,” he tells the organizers of the protest after learning they've struck a bargain for a mass-arrest. But while biting, his observations are never devoid of hope. There's the street medic and activist with a violent history, King, and a cop, Julia, both of whose badass female-ness is constantly undermined by the immediate knowledge, and constant reminders of just how attractive they are, as though it were essential to their roles in the story. There are other peripheral characters in the crowd scene, whose consciousnesses we visit and depart with each chapter, but because of the sheer numbers of the cast, some are developed more fully than others.
The sentiments that he writes into each character are precise and deeply affecting, but often so flowery as to undermine the authenticity of the moment.
In intermissions that come at intervals are the observations on the burning American cityscape from Dr. Charles Wickramisinghe, a delegate to the summit from Sri Lanka. To him, the very survival of the place he loves hinges on his nations admittance to the WTO. With intelligence and more than a little condescension, he turns an eye on the protests. “There was something so distinctly American about it all, a fundamental difference in perspective and place—in how they saw themselves in the world. And this is what made it so American—not that they felt compassion for mistreated workers three continents away, workers they had never seen or known, whose world they could not begin to understand, not that they felt guilty about their privilege, no, not that either, but that they felt the need to do something about it. That they felt they had the power to do something about it.” It's critique and praise in a singular insight, a vast consciousness distilled into a few brave sentences.
And Yapa's sentences are consistently so—full of big ideas, inflated and impassioned. The sentiments that he writes into each character are precise and deeply affecting, but often so flowery as to undermine the authenticity of the moment. Even if he gets carried away with his language, Yapa conjures a rhythm—an exhilarated sense of movement, potential and possibility that ultimately, triumphantly, damns the convictions of the powers that be. Yet, we are never provided an answer to the core query that might translate to a resolution. The happiness of the characters on either side of the issue, who so badly seek justice, is impossible. No matter how beautiful its language or its convenient plot devices, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is not escapist fiction. It's a sensitive dramatization of a wrecked system; as such, its important.