During the 2014 edition of Canada Reads, Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach received biting criticism. Its unnamed protagonist is a traumatized immigrant from the Middle East who finds residence in Montreal and ekes out a life of poverty, stealing things, doing drugs, and recovering from a supposed suicide attempt. On the show, some panelists argued that Cockroach isn’t representative of the typical immigrant experience. Adnan Khan’s debut novel, There Has to Be a Knife, is liable to invite the same kind of criticism. The novel might not be a comfortable read for some, but for those who understand poverty, alienation, addiction, and heartbreak, Khan’s novel, like Hage’s, is a radiant beacon.
The leading man, Omar Ali, is a South Asian–Canadian who stumbles through life in the wake of his ex-girlfriend Anna’s suicide. He breaks into houses, is almost always drunk or high, and posts provocative, terrorist-sounding content on reddit forums in anticipation of the reaction he will receive, which makes him feel more alive. The novel is lit by Omar, whose snappy, insular perspective guides us through Toronto’s kitchens and streets, into an RCMP jail and a mosque, and out into the surprise of tenderness and friendship.
There Has to Be a Knife begins in the wake of Anna’s suicide. While working as a chef, Omar drops a knife, which he tries to catch – blade side up. On the way to Anna’s viewing, Omar thinks, “How much blood does a human body hold again? Like ten wine bottles?” Unreliable first-person narration coupled with Omar’s self-destructive tendencies drive us deeper into his delirious insomniac world, inviting comparison to the characters that frequent the feverish drug dreams of Denis Johnson’s story collection Jesus’ Son or the violent and sensual encounters found in Lynn Crosbie’s fiction. Acting as an internet troll, Omar posts fantasies of terrorist plots online: “a really simple scenario. bay st. uhaul truck. fertilizer and rye. and like some ghetto home hardware alarm clock bomb thing.”
With his high-school friend, Hussain, Omar robs a man who tries to sell them sneakers out of the trunk of his car. The two would-be criminals break into the house of Kali, a girl Omar is dating, to steal her roommate’s audio recording equipment. The novel finds Omar often going along with his friend’s plans for the simple thrill of it, though Khan makes clear that Omar has his own motivating factor in his life. Omar refuses to believe that Anna did not leave him a note before taking her life. His unflinching insistence that such a thing exists, despite dead ends from mutual friends, prevents him from falling headlong into utter passivity and stupor.
Following the robberies, the RCMP arrive at Omar’s door and let him know that, although they’re aware of his pro-Sharia reddit jokes, their assessment is that he doesn’t pose an imminent threat. Instead, they try to cajole him into becoming an informant by visiting a mosque to chat with other Muslims as a means of eliciting leads on terrorist organizations. The episodes at the mosque offer comic relief: Omar moved to Canada when he was nine and doesn’t remember how to pray. Khan offers readers glimpses of what it means to be a non-practising Muslim, an unusual and welcome mainstream portrait in the context of a culture that often portrays Muslim characters in ways that are severe and stereotypical.
It is sometimes difficult to locate Omar in time and place throughout the novel, and the first-person narration proves claustrophobic at times – it is made more airless by a lack of chapter breaks throughout the novel. Nevertheless, There Has to Be a Knife is an entertaining page-turner, at once a thriller and an intersectional, transgressive work of fiction that makes no compromises in its alternating nihilism and tenderness. In the best scenes, Khan’s writing is carried by humour and snarky wit, allowing its snappy, macho style to smuggle in an innocence and sense of play that reveals Omar’s energetic consciousness. There are significant moments that permit Omar to loosen up and come to a form of self-recognition, such as when he admits the solace of prayer: “All I ever needed was a place to take a breather from everything.”
The novel’s final pages gesture outward, toward confrontation and friendship; although the scale of the shift in Omar’s perception is small – better suited to a short story than a novel – it’s still convincing in light of his stubborn and consistent presentation throughout. The happy ending could be read as a validation of Omar’s toxic masculinity, particularly his sense of possession and entitlement: he is unwilling to admit his potential insignificance in Anna’s world.
The counter to this comes in the realization that Omar and Anna represent gradations of the same experience. Both suffered violence at the hands of family members. Both were self-destructive. Their shared history is lengthy: they broke up and reunited many times over the course of a decade. The implication, Khan insists, is that Anna’s fate and Omar’s could easily have been the same.
There Has to Be a Knife is a wholly contemporary novel, at once raucous and jarring but always refusing to sacrifice nuance for a simple message or a clichéd approach.