Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The risk in the contemporary story is how quickly it dates, or how its specific concerns can erode over time. That may be why the best novels about wars tend to be a decade or more in the coming.

There have been few more historical events so quickly placed in the literature of the time as 9/11. The genre of "9/11 fiction" feels quite a crowded one, if, not a particularly inspiring one. Unlike other acts of terrorism, the affects of this one were not just localised, but global, and being an attack on Western soil provided a nearly unique event at which novelists (not only American ones) could take on. Yet those works that have been most evocative around 9/11 and its subsequent consequences have often been works of faction, with the ubiquitous live coverage of the event meaning that it was "experienced" if that is the word, by everyone around at the time.

Mohsin Hamid's second novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" couldn't have been written without 9/11 though the event itself is merely used as plot pivot. More of a fable than a novel, I read this Booker-listed work at one sitting, which seems only appropriate, as Changez, the titular character, tells his story to an American who has apparently come to speak to him in a cafe in Lahore. We suspect that this is a novel where 9/11 will play a major part from the very start, as Changez tells his story of coming to America as a top grade student, succeeding at Princeton and being head hunted by Underwood Samson, an elite management consultancy. It is a reminder that America - and its Ivy league universities, like Oxbridge in England - has always sought to educate the world's brightest. Whether as a way of spreading "soft power" or simply to ensure a steady stream of brilliant young men (and women) into the money-making businesses of New York, Hamid's novel cleverly makes the point that this world slowly changed after 9/11. Pakistan, of course, was an American ally long before then, and in his mix of economic brilliance and political naivety Changez is at first shocked, then worried, then angry that the country of his birth and the country where he was educated and works, are no longer aligned.

Changez is an engaging narrator, though his naivety seems sometimes hard to fathom with the necessary steeliness, brilliance and confidence that anyone graduating so high at Princeton and getting such a job on Wall Street would necessarily need. With the beautiful Erica, the troubled American WASP he's desperately in love with, he gets an entree into the best of American young high society at the start of the 20th century and is a convincing eastern prince in these scenarios. The book at times feels like its about to break out into broad satire - does Changez become a revolutionary, planting bombs, recruiting martyrs and quoting the Qu'ran as his attitude to America changes? None of this happens - he changes only slowly, as he begins to realise that his ethnicity (though not his religion - this is hardly mentioned in the novel) begins to separate him out from others in his adopted land. Away with his firm he realises he has more in common with the people whose jobs he is trying to analyse out of existence, rather than the firm that pays him. Seeing on the news that there seems an imminent war between India and Pakistan (a detail that didn't come over particularly strongly in the west at the time), he knows he must return to Lahore.

The story of an outsider being torn between two worlds is as old as literature itself. There's something Jamesian about Changez, happily working in the most competitive of American endeavours, before he realises that he is going against nature, family and natural justice. Yet "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" came out in 2007, when American-style capitalism had yet to fall off its own cliff. Reading the novel now, in 2014, one can't help but see that it is the rapacious nature of American capitalism - hinted at here - rather than American imperialism which is the threat to the world. Hamid was himself a Princeton man who became a management consultant, and like the lawyer in Zadie Smith's "NW", we see something of the brilliant outsider being co-opted into these traditional professions. In the post-9/11 world the real economy has slowed down and Underwood Samson is laying people off. The "hook" of Changez's accidental conversion to an anti-American stand (which is handled with quiet sensitivity) is played off against the small realities post-9/11. In those days, months and years afterwards, I imagine the atmosphere must have felt very different in New York for anyone vaguely foreign - a change that is still echoed today in the brutishness of American airport security measures.
Yet this wouldn't have been a Booker contender if it was just a polemic. There's another story underneath, of a young man who has fallen in love. His love for the unobtainable Erica seems a counterpoint to the political story. For Erica, somewhat unbelievably, is harbouring love for an ex-boyfriend with whom he simply can't compete: for Chris died of cancer. This has sent made her mentally unstable.

As I've said there's something of the fable about the book, and yet I'm a little  uncomfortable with this love story - it seems to come from somewhere else - a tragedy in its own right that helps us sympathise with Changez but also wonder about his fallibility. Erica is not just playing hard to get, but is herself in the midst of a very personal spiral of depression, incarceration and despair. Looking for meaning in his life, he is as in love with a "missing" person as Erica is.

In a little under 200 pages, Changez tells his story to the American who has come looking for him. We learn finally that there might be reason for this - but again Hamid's tale is subtly told, and the title is an appropriate one. Could Changez be one of those who are spirited away to Guantanamo by America and its "allies"? There's a very believable story being told here and the strengths of this short novel are there in that idea of how we perceive things. Hamid has given us an outsider-hero who, looking back on his time in America, now can hardly believe he was there; yet for a while he was living the American dream

Its a subtle little book, and I think is perhaps one of the more successful entries into the 9/11 fiction genre, but I never quite believe in Changez as a character. Again, there's a Jamesian sense that we have to take him at his word - yet could this slightly naive individual really be number one in his class? His naivety around women comes despite an $80,000 salary, and the confidence of the Princeton man. This is, after all, set in the early 2000s, not the early 1900s. The cultural references, as well, seem hackneyed ones, Top Gun and Star Wars. Compared with the complex characterisation of Oscar Wao in Juno Diaz's novel, Hamid's Changez seems something of an endearing cipher. We know that 9/11 is going to happen but when it does, Changez is not in New York, but watching it on television whilst abroad. That he feels exalted by it seems out of character - after all his job would have been in one of those Manhattan towers, those people would have been his peers.

Moreover, reading the book now, it does feel a long time since 9/11 - and its "uniqueness" lessened by our understanding of what followed in London and Madrid; in Afghanistan and Iraq; and in a Pakistan which saw Benazir Bhutto assassinated not long after this novel was written. The contemporary novel - when so connected to events and attitudes - quickly becomes a slightly awkward historical one. Do we also expect less somehow of our global writers? It is the specifics of Hamid's narrator, and his descriptions of New York and Lahore that make the book engaging, whilst the political backdrop seems somewhat forced - a story placed on top to give it contemporary value. The book was a bestseller, has been made into a film, and according to wikipedia is "formally experimental", yet I found it a little too comfortable in its handling of its material, a little too sure-footed in its monologue. If it really owes something to Camus's "The Fall", its colloquialism and humour seem to act against any genuine attempt at existentialism - its an engagingly easy read, that I felt pushed my buttons a little too easily to be a genuinely challenging novel, and though the voice throughout is a joy, there's little in its language that goes beyond a somewhat superficial melodrama - the troublingly underdrawn character of Erica a case in point.

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