This book had me at its opening scene, set in a tea store, where Darius talks to us for the first of many times about his love for properly steeped looseleaf teas. But then it had to go and introduce frequent, detailed allusions to Star Trek: The Next Generation, complete with Darius declaring that Captain Picard is the best captain, and … reader, at that point, I would have hid a dead body for this book. That’s how much we vibed. Darius is half-Persian and male and a teenager and fat; I’m a 32-year-old thin, white woman, yet Adib Khorram bridged that gap through incorrigibly nerdy narration and I am here for it.
Darius is, as the title suggests, very much not OK. He is bullied at school (and outside of school), and even though he and his dad watch Star Trek every night together and are both taking medication for depression, there seems to be an emotional gulf between them. Meanwhile, Darius feels awkwardly out of touch with his mom’s Persian heritage: he doesn’t speak Farsi, unlike his kid sister, Laleh. So when his family announces their first trip to Iran in Darius’s lifetime, he’s filled with trepidation. But in Iran he meets Sohrab, a boy his age, and everything changes.
As I said in my introduction, Darius and I are worlds apart (I also don’t struggle with depression). Yet Darius the Great Is Not Okay perfectly belies the idea that you need to be like a protagonist in order to sympathize with them. Khorram is just so good at bringing Darius’s thoughts to life through the page. I knew very little about life in Iran before reading this book—and, in spite of Khorram’s excellent exposition, I won’t pretend to know much more now—yet I had such a good time watching Darius navigate the differences between his two cultures. The “caught between two worlds” trope is an old one and often clichéd, but Khorram avoids that here and creates something quite special and particular.
This is particularly true in the case of how Darius gets to know his grandparents. He bonds almost immediately with his grandmother, about whom Darius observes, “For Fariba Bahrami, love was an opportunity, not a burden.” Oh. My. God. Favourite line of the whole book right there, because this resonated so much with me and how I approach my love for my closest people. Love without condition truly is an opportunity, a wonderful gift, and that line is a perfect example of the philosophical eloquence in Khorram’s writing.
Darius struggles more with his grandfather, who seems to mirror the disapproval he experiences from his father. Indeed, the lack of significant support from any other male characters in the book is one of the reasons Sohrab’s presence is so important. Sohrab provides a kind of unconditional sensitive masculine presence that, up until now, Darius has never had.
So let’s talk about that.
Darius and Sohrab’s relationship is definitely queer-coded, and Khorram makes a smart decision in never putting an explicit label on it. If one wants to interpret either character as gay, I understand, and I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong. Nevertheless, as an aromantic asexual reader, I am here to tell you that I am getting serious ace vibes from their relationship. Darius and Sohrab’s relationship was, for me, the most recognizable part of this book. So much of it felt similar to my relationship with my ride-or-die. We complete one another even though we do not feel any romantic or sexual attraction to the other, and our friendship goes deeper than any relationship I have ever experienced. Regardless of either character’s sexuality here, I assert that reading their relationship as platonic or even queerplatonic is a more fruitful interpretation for its healthy approach to masculinity. Men and boys of every sexual orientation should feel comfortable—even seek out—a Sohrab in their life, because everyone deserves a friend like this.
This is not a comfortable book. Sure, Khorram lulls you into a false sense of security with his wonderful prose. Yet at its core, Darius the Great Is Not Okay is about discomfort. It’s Darius’s dying grandfather getting lost and consequently not being able to drive ever again. It’s Darius’s uncharitable thoughts towards his eight-year-old sister as she snuggles up with her dad to watch Star Trek, “replacing” him. It’s the brief but heartbreaking, sympathetic conversation between Darius and his mom where she admits she regrets not teaching him Farsi as a kid. It’s the explosive, climactic scene between Darius and Sohrab that tips Darius’s depression over the edge—but it is also all the little scenes that nudge his depression in various ways. This is a book steeped in the bitter green leaves of discomfort for the express purpose of showing us the life of a teenager teetering on the brink simply because, as the title discloses, not only is he not OK but no one really seems to know what to do about it.
I love the ending, the way it is hopeful but not sanguine, the way it allows Darius to breathe without promising us a magical reprieve for his mental illness. The detente between him and his dad. The careful, perfect acknowledgment that change can be gradual as well as cataclysmic, yet both types can be equally soothing or stormy. Finally, I love how Khorram navigates his novel into a liminal space between realism and allegory to serve us up a cross-cultural experience that is, at its core, irrepressibly human.