Context Over Character: Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

Are you a cynic looking for a novel that turns the last 15-plus years of Occupy Wall Street, corporate crime, environmental neglect, and third-world strife into nearly pure catharsis? Well then have I got the novel for you!

Eight years after Wall Street’s subprime mortgage scheme backfired and toppled the world’s economy — sparking the Occupy movement and years of discussions on income inequality and the ill effects of globalization — tens of thousands of protestors took to Seattle’s streets in 1999 to prevent international trade meetings. Those protests appear prescient in Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. The protestors amassed in Seattle to oppose a global trade agreement between the World Trade Organization and government officials from dozens of countries, thought to be too friendly to corporations and the strongest economies. From the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and income inequality, to the push for locally sourced goods, it’s impossible to ignore the aftereffects of such agreements meant to advance globalization.

Given that, the public seems perfectly primed for Yapa’s debut, which largely bypasses political implications to offer a chorus of narrators, guiding readers through that November day in 1999. to a thoughtful yet naive delegate, to the passionate, self-righteous protestors, the book’s strengths — and weaknesses — are derived from this plenitude. While Yapa provides readers with an opportunity to empathize with the tough decisions all sides are wrestling with, attempting a 360-degree view of the types of people involved, this approach sacrifices depth, providing readers with sometimes interesting, often token interpersonal tensions between whole sets of characters.

The characters are varied and Yapa ambitiously offers each with slightly adjusted voices and mannerisms. John Henry is a quintessential protestor, breathing in the crowds’ chants, reveling in the righteous statement being made by his “people.” King is his counterpart, an adrenaline-fueled activist who teases cops and believes that “if Americans saw what pain their way of life caused in the world they would respond.” However, her conviction wanes as the brutality increases and more of her checkered past is revealed. Officer Park is a brusque, obtuse cop monitoring the protests while chauvinistically observing his fellow Officer Ju, a coveted policewoman who for some reason has a soft spot for Park’s earnest machismo. The uncanny doting shared between the two, interspersed with excessive violence and a little history of Ju’s time with the LAPD (working the ’92 riots), make this an awkward pairing that still provide a valuable perspective. That’s the story with most of the characters here: attempts at depth feel incomplete, and they are all ultimately defined by their rationales for being there.

Dr. Charles Wickramsinghe is a delegate from Sri Lanka, fighting for his country’s place in the world economy, for a seat at the table. However, he is continually reminded of his country’s stature in the world — and in turn, his stature at the meetings — by all parties involved. His decision to simply walk to the meeting finds him among the horde of protestors as the police attempt to clear the way. This shoe-on-the-other-foot plot device works well given his non-American perspective (“[The protestors] felt they had the power to do something about it. That was what made it so American…they assumed they had that power. They had been born with it — the ability to change the world.”) combined with empathetic, if ultimately hopeless, views (“he knew it was only human nature to believe it best to ignore suffering, to focus on your own good fortune…The sweet poison of privilege, wasn’t it?”). Wickramsinghe, though he is something of a rag doll, provides the most interesting perspective, especially as Yapa finds a new place in the fray with each new chapter that he narrates.

The primary two players, however, are Victor, a 19-year-old runaway pothead, and Victor’s stepfather Chief Bishop, leader of the Seattle police force. Victor’s mother died in his adolescence, and he is left with his now-adoptive father Bishop. When Victor, in his grief, turns to his mother’s old boxes of rebellious books and a bong, he is instilled with a free, albeit naive, spirit. After his stepfather finds him indulging in this emotional and chemical solace, Chief Bishop burns the books and breaks his bong, instructing his stepson: “This is what happens when you care too much.” Victor runs away soon after at the age of 16, returning to Seattle in search of more money to continue traveling, seeing the protestors as potential customers.

While all of the characters represent distinct rationales, these two differ slightly in that they are pushed into their roles. Chief Bishop deploys the “I’m just here to do my job” defense — even if it takes violence to clear the streets, he instructs his force to clear the streets. When they can’t do so, they become frustrated, agitated, and more aggressive. Victor, on the other hand, has already seen enough of the world to question the vague mission statement of “protecting the third world,” though after years of living with Bishop, who often pleads for apathy in the protestors and his son, Victor certainly has reason to be skeptical of the side of the fight that the cops represent. He displays an understanding of Wickramsinghe’s bleak thoughts on human nature, yet, through his eyes, it’s also easy to understand how unifying and contagious “the cause” is when witnessing blatant police brutality. Yet, their intrigue, if not their voices entirely, disappear for large stretches, especially in the middle of the novel, when this centerpiece pairing is left lingering in the background.

Yapa is also has a penchant for stringing out an epiphany for a couple of paragraphs before the real substance is delivered, such as when King, the lead protestor, waxes poetic about the roles of humans, those lining the streets, those manning the assembly lines now moved overseas, a new form of slavery, then ultimately making her way to the point: “How legitimate could the WTO be if they are forced to beat innocent citizens in the street to protect their own meetings?” Sometimes, Yapa’s conversational style of delivering exposition is only effective, such as when Victor reimagines a conversation about the point of protesting that he had with Bishop before running away. Victor didn’t have answers then, and he’s not sure he does now, but hearing him think through the conversation again with his new, visceral perspective is thought-provoking. But sometimes the conversational conceit can muddle the exposition when carried out to a distracting extent, such as when, for a full, dramatic chapter, King remembers her darkest memories by beginning the vast majority of thoughts with either “Could she tell him…” or “She wanted to tell him…”

The most frustrating aspect of the novel, though, is that while Victor and Chief Bishop represent the core emotional conflict, offering a breadth of tension both personal and civil, their voices are too often diluted by the chorus of chants and yells. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and varied chorus that benefits from Yapa’s creativity and versatility. But in the end, this democratic approach forces the protest, writ large, to carry readers’ interests. It’s a good thing, then, that for the last decade, it’s been impossible to avoid the topics and trends that were the subject of the protest. Readers are primed, and Yapa does an admirable job delivering a story well worth hearing.

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