Brando Skyhorse’s ‘My Name Is Iris’ is a sharp satire in suburbia

The corrosive lies start right in the title of Brando Skyhorse’s new novel: “My Name Is Iris.”

“I was born Inés,” the narrator confesses, but a 7th-grade teacher kept stumbling over her name and finally gave her a new one.

“Now even my parents call me Iris, proud of the fact that someone in America was thoughtful enough to give me an American name.”

That’s not the most painful line in this ominous social satire, but it’s a good start.

On the rapidly expanding shelf of dystopian novels, “My Name Is Iris” offers a sharp vision of how racism gets imbibed by its victims like a sweet poison. In Skyhorse’s telling, America’s melting-pot myth is a narcotic that promises inclusion but induces self-harm.

That theme is clearly adjacent to Skyhorse’s 2014 memoir, “Take This Man.” As a child, Skyhorse’s Mexican mother convinced him they were Native Americans. By the time he became a teenager, he realized that wasn’t true. Years of reflection about who he really is followed.

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With “My Name Is Iris,” Skyhorse takes the classic immigrant success story and ferments it in MAGA hysteria. His heroine has been raised in the United States by Mexican-born parents determined to give her every advantage of their adopted land. Iris is constantly admonished to work hard, follow the rules and never speak Spanish outside the home.

Heeding her parents’ advice, she becomes an ideal upper-middle-class citizen. “I’m not trying to be white,” she insists. “I simply had to de-emphasize all the other parts that made me Inés.” That’s all. She doesn’t mind because she’s not like those minorities.

“I lock my doors at night,” she tells us proudly, “never cut in a line or disobey a posted sign or a command from a uniformed person, have excellent cholesterol, and good, mechanically stimulated orgasms. (I’m not ashamed of my agency.)”

Indeed, Iris is not ashamed of anything.

“I am a success,” she proclaims. “America believes in me.”

The novel opens in a triumphant moment of self-reliance: Iris throws out her husband, takes their 9-year-old daughter and buys a house in a quiet neighborhood with fancy grocery stores and a good school “named after a long-dead KKK member.”

“I relished the joy and satisfaction I felt from following the rules and reaping my success,” Iris says in a state of hushed delight. “You could see inside the heart of these houses through floor-to-ceiling glass. Empty, immaculate, showplace living rooms, the faint glow of alarm lights and expensive machines pulsing in the dark like luxury stores after close. And — paradise! — stacks of unattended packages left on the porches. On alternating lawns were mounted cardboard signs: lawn care advertisements, security system warnings, poop ’n’ scoop reminders.”

Iris has finally planted her life on the terra firma of the American Dream: a community of unsullied cleanliness, order and safety. “I wanted to live where the land had no memory,” she says. “I had earned the right to forget who I was.”

Skyhorse pushes hard on this caricature of internalized racism and classism, but before the story can calcify into something obvious, things get weird.

Although Donald Trump is not mentioned, the central monument of his administration makes a surreal appearance early in “My Name Is Iris.” Soon after moving into the lovely house in that perfect neighborhood, Iris’s daughter tells her mother, “I was climbing the wall outside.”

“Honey,” Iris says, “we don’t have a wall.”

They have a wall. A big wall. “Capital W Wall.” It wasn’t there the day before, but now suddenly it runs across the whole yard. And it’s rising higher.

The audacity of that intrusion is brilliant. The wall breaks into this novel trailing all its toxic implications about America’s racist fears and political expediency. But for Iris — the ideally accommodating Mexican American — the wall is an impossible contradiction, a tear in the fabric of her suburban fantasy. It’s smooth to the touch but embedded with thousands of splinters of razor metal; across its limestone surface, Iris can see hideous images “undulate and breathe.” She can even hear the wall murmuring, “Go home.”

Wisely, Skyhorse never tries to explain the wall, and no other character ever acknowledges it, but it keeps slowly rising out of the ground. The effect is something like Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” reimagined with Roger Stone’s immigration policy. Even as the wall makes it increasingly difficult for Iris to be the bleached citizen her neighbors expect, she refuses to let it derail her life. “I didn’t have time,” she says, “to ponder what this meant.”

But Skyhorse does. He places Iris’s private wall crisis in the context of a larger development that’s reorganizing the United States. A handy ID system invented by a 19-year-old college dropout provides every (legitimate) citizen with a wristband. “It’s easy,” the brochure says. “It’s fast. It’s secure. It’s good for the environment — and for You. All state and public services tracked in one location, right on your wrist. WELCOME TO THE BAND!”

Considering how eagerly we all carry around cellphones that track our location, communication, spending, medical data and search history, the world in “My Name Is Iris” seems no more bizarre than the place we live now. Skyhorse has just turned the screw a bit to include immigration status on everyone’s wrist. Who could object to such a simple convenience, a mere record of fact?

But human catastrophes are often built from such administrative moves to categorize human beings. It’s not long before Iris spots dire warnings popping up: “Wear your bands and prove you belong here. Real proof for real Americans. Band Together.” Stores post signs: “YES WE SCAN! and ¡SÍ, SE ESCANEA!” Soon, the words “unbanded” and “terrorist” are being used interchangeably. “It felt different to be an American,” Iris thinks. “Belligerent entitlement morphed into frothing anger.”

Could there be a more incisive diagnosis of our era? How unsettling to venture into this futuristic story only to end up back here in the seething realm of present-day America. But following Iris’s circuitous journey won’t leave you where you started. As Skyhorse’s clever satire accelerates into a truly terrifying thriller, the most insidious functions of racism appear illuminated in an eerie new light.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

Avid Reader Press. 257 pp. $28

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