Portrait of Sebastian Khan
By Aatif Rashid
7.13 Books, March 2019
256 pages, $16.99
Reviewed by Bailey Drumm
Sebastian Khan is someone everyone knows. He is intelligent – a Berkeley student, Model UN member. He is attractive – wavy black hair, light-olive skin, and high cheekbones, and all-too aware of how he influences others. He is at the end of his college career, looking more into the past than the future that awaits him. He’s enjoying his time left with his roommate, Harry, close friend, Viola, girlfriend, Fatima. Aatif Rashid’s Portrait of Sebastian Khan (7.13 Books, 2019) follows Khan, the lustful deviant that he is, through a countdown that leads to “the end of the world,” (which happens also to be his graduation day) as he tries to find calmness in what is familiar to him; paintings, partying, and his friends.
Rashid gives us the chance to look at millennials in a different light. A tension between passion and privilege arises in conversations and interactions — about love, the future, or even topics of study. There are characters, like Fatima, who are goal-oriented and looking forward to the future. But, there are also characters like Sebastian, who are unaware of where they belong. He explains:
“Because of the joblessness, people are rethinking their futures, wondering whether it’s even necessary to immerse themselves completely in a corporate job, like they did before 2006. They slow down, they enjoy life, they travel the world. They’re no longer in a rush to settle down.”
Khan is an Art History major, and Rashid embraces this, using fruitful language to immerse us into how Sebastian views the world. Everything is detailed through the lens of a painting, or compared directly to one. Each chapter opens with a detailed description of the character it is be focused on, be it the homeless man at the station, a mysterious member of the Model UN, or (most usually) a woman,. Each character’s entrance is painted for the reader to appreciate, as if walking through a gallery, before they learn of their part in the grand scheme of things.
Though it is easy to get lost in the details of the paintings and beautiful youth engrained into the pages, Rashid uses Khan’s experiences to weave in life lessons. There are many parenthetical asides that offer background information without interrupting from the action, creating an atmosphere where the reader is included. Khan’s love for art comes from the comfort he found within it when his mother passed away years ago. “—and it’s thus, in all those sensory details, that he knows he is alive.” He seems dramatic, describing white women as a piece of sculpted marble, and a girl’s voice as magical, sonorous, and melodious. Paintings move him as do beautiful people, but as he grows his views change on the situations depicted. As his friends begin to plan for their futures, he loses his crutches. The things he once loved about the Model UN, such as being able to dress up and act important without real responsibilities, become extremely childish to him as he reflects on the look of a laminate badge. Even alcohol, which once was his elixir, becomes bitter and disinteresting.
Rashid effortlessly weaves in comedic interludes, breaking up the denser descriptions fluidly. Viola often serves as the role of the adviser on Khan’s shoulder. She knows him well and calls him out, stating, “You’re acting weird as fuck.” The comedy shows us how these young adults interact with the world around them. When the Model UN leaves the hotel bar at one point, Rashid depicts their exit: “After the students leave, silence settles on the hotel lobby once more, and the older patrons and the receptionists and the middle-aged bartender all share a relived look.” But most importantly, through the comedy, comes honesty. At one point we learn about Khan through his friends, and how his friends think of him. Harry explains, “Sebastian Khan is a very discerning man, with particular and refined tastes. When we’re at Trader Joe’s, he makes sure to read all the tasting notes for their wines before making a purchase.” But Viola replies, without disagreement, “And yet if it’s two a.m. at a party, and the only wine left is Two Buck Chuck, Sebastian will still drink.”
This year forces Khan to face his truth and himself. He is in control of his future and destiny, and is learning what that means in the grand scheme of leaving the campus. Growing up is no longer just getting a degree, getting a job, and raising a family. Does he want to get engaged, and move to the city with his girlfriend? Does he want to leave it all behind and run off to Europe, exploring cities with random women? Does he want to be alone? It’s not until he’s left to reflect on a situation that caused a series of events to occur that he realizes, “…in that moment there was no magic in the apartment, no witch’s spell — only him, Sebastian Khan, making a choice as always.”