Babak Lakghomi’s “Floating Notes” is a compelling mystery-in-totems

The front cover of “Floating Notes,” designed by Brent Bates, is as subtle and enigmatic as the novella it conceals.

Courtesy of Floating Notes

The front cover of “Floating Notes,” designed by Brent Bates, is as subtle and enigmatic as the novella it conceals.

Thomas Luxton, Staff Reporter

The narrator of “Floating Notes” is paranoid. One may begin to suspect him of unreliability. Within the first two pages, he has already contradicted himself: “I have to be careful or they would know I’m not Bob,” and “My name is Bob, and this is what I call my life.” But, as we are slowly drawn into his world, we start to see things as he does. Lakghomi forgoes the trappings of a typical detective novel — a reliable detective to act as a comforting guide, a simplified list of suspects, a satisfying denouement in which everything is explained — for a set of totemistic clues: a jagged hunting knife, a pair of earrings, a pilot’s certificate that may or may not belong to a man who may or may not be French.


One of the characteristics of “Floating Notes” is that the plot turns itself over endlessly. The narrator never gives us any substantive answers, but other, smaller mysteries are explained, as when, at the end of one segment, the narrator thinks that he sees someone with a rifle sneaking up on him in the hallway. The tension immediately undoes itself: “It was only the landlord.” The narrator stops here, and his landlord never appears again. Moments like this occur often, and they often seem more satisfying than relative to the plot, which lumbers at a snail’s pace, turning in slow circles. These cul-de-sacs in the atmosphere of slow, lurching suspense seem almost like jokes, but the tone carries it through and the reader is still left unsettled.


The alienation of “Floating Notes” manifests also as linguistic uncertainty. The narrator’s style of speech is abstracted. It’s very direct, but the way that he explains things feels just wrong enough to confuse and unnerve the reader. For instance, he never explains why he thought he saw the landlord holding such a specific gun; the reader could assume that it figures into something from his past, or conclude that he simply misspoke. One starts to pay attention: the narrator has had a lot of practice at that already.


And one had better be paying attention, because Babak Lakghomi’s enigmatic 2018 novella necessitates a new and exciting approach to the reading of a mystery story. The actual action of the plot — which took place in the past or remains shrouded in secrecy in the present — feels almost like something that the reader could solve if they really wanted to. Though its workings are never revealed, it is this distilled feeling of a mystery or puzzle that swiftly conveys a reader from the beginning to the end.


Lakghomi has created a unique kind of ambiguity by borrowing from a form not often associated with ambiguity: the mystery story. As he plants his oblique “clues,” he anchors his story in something substantive and hooks the reader with the promise of something more. It’s a subversion of expectations, but it doesn’t feel like a cheat. “Floating Notes” is a series of clues, and the narrator is sifting through them. The clues aren’t part of the mystery, at least not one that we ever get to see. Rather, the clues are presented instead of a mystery. This is key to the power of the book. As one progresses through “Floating Notes,” the obliquity of the story begins to matter less and less; as the lens of the book’s perspective zooms in on the clues, dark blurs accrue around the edges of the frame. The sinister atmosphere gives the most innocuous of items an aura of significance: a book about lobsters, a wrench, a plastic bag stuck in the limbs of a leafless tree.


The narrator of “Floating Notes” is living in a country very different from the unnamed one where he grew up. He is assumedly writing his story in English, but his word choice feels abstracted and overly formal at times, as though he is somewhat uncomfortable with the language. Lakghomi said in an interview with Zach Davidson of BOMB magazine, Communicating in a second language… provides a kind of detachment.” One could easily connect this alienation with the narrator’s paranoia. He seems unsure even in the written word.


At the end of his interview with Zach Davidson, Lakghomi lists a few totems of his own: “A number of blue marbles my wife gave to me on a fall day in Tehran. A worn-out Farsi translation copy of Heinrich Böll’s Group Portrait with Lady that belonged to my parents.”


This is the first entry in a series by Thomas Luxton about small press gems. “Floating Notes” was published in 2018 by New York Tyrant, a small press that has also published books by authors like Gary Lutz, Darcie Wilder, and Atticus Lish. New York Tyrant also runs an online magazine. Its 2021 catalogue will feature Vi Khi Nao’s story collection “The Human Camouflage.”


Small press books are often overlooked by the reading public. Books from their catalogs rarely appear in libraries and typically must be purchased, making them largely inaccessible and meaning that a great number of quality books are still neglected and unknown. “With small press books and literary magazines, the audience is mostly limited to other writers,” Lakghomi said in his interview with BOMB. “But at the end of this effort, there may be hope for some kind of connection with the reader, a moment of looking at something and seeing the same thing together.”