Thursday, May 24, 2007

New Fiction: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

I forget where exactly I read a capsule review of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but after pausing a moment over its description, I thought quickly of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The plots share a certain arc which defies the traditional bildungsroman, and they are both narrated in a directly confrontational mode which immediately implicates the the reader in the racial systems and assumptions which the novels explore and probe. I think a general comparison would be informing, although ultimately disappointing—Hamid's novel has nowhere near the range or heft of Ellison's, but that is not as much of a criticism as it might sound—no American novel of the 20th century has the range and heft of Invisible Man.

A brief plot summary: Hamid's Pakistani narrator Changez is a product of Princeton and in love with a rich, white New York girl, also a Princeton grad, whose boyfriend died her junior year. Despite Changez's efforts, the effects of that death still control her life. Changez has followed her to New York, where he works as a financial warrior for a firm called Underwood Samson (which, I believe, is meant to be an echo of Uncle Sam), something like a cross between D.E. Shaw and McKinsey. While Ellison's narrator never experiences this kind of success or that kind of love, there are resemblances between the narratives, but those are not particularly interesting or useful.

What I think is useful to compare is the way each novel uses direct address of an understood white audience to illustrate the very cultural critique the narrator is laying out. Both novels focus on the appropriation of a man of color for the purposes of a white ruling order; Hamid's narrator Changez uses the term "janissary" to describe his role in white, and more specifically American, society. Janissaries, elite fighting units in the Ottoman empire, were often composed of Christians taken prisoner at a very young age, raised in the empire and fiercely loyal to the sultan. This is an apt, if ironic in its cultural reversal, usage—Changez finds himself a servant of the American financial empire at the maximal point of American nationalism—the days and months immediately following 9/11. It is on September 11th that Changez first feels a fundamental separation from and incipient hostility toward America's hegemony; he smiles as he watches the towers fall. He does so involuntarily, however, and immediately chastises himself for such callousness. But as American rhetoric reveals its jingoism and foreign policy falls into line, bombing Pakistan's neighbor Afghanistan and playing a deadly game of brinksmanship by encouraging India to threaten Pakistan itself with nuclear war to ensure Musharraf's cooperation, Changez feels an increasing draw from his home and from his origins. He feels alien—not just alienated, but genuinely alien where once he felt at worst exotic.

Changez is narrating all this to an unidentified man in the city of Lahore, Changez's home city in Pakistan. But he addresses the man as "you"—speaking directly to the reader, often aggressively, even derisively, but slowly making scattered observations about "you" which animate the reader as a specific person, a specific type of person—American, white, male. There is more to "you," and finding that out is truly thrilling. But by buttonholing the reader as a specific persona—a trick Hamid probably picked up from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner—the reader's involvement in the racial dynamic of the story is inescapable, and questions about readership itself emerge forcefully. The presence of Hamid's novel in our hands—American hands—is, inevitably, reinstating Hamid in the janissary-like position which Changez resents so strongly. I felt when I read Invisible Man that the genius of the book was not in some straightforward rebellion, but in the implication of its audience in the very processes and structures which have constrained and persecuted the narrator throughout. As politics, Hamid's novel is thrillingly immediate, meaningful, and unavoidably provocative. As art, this process of implication is an incredible effect—a novel is intended to engage the reader, to create a world around her, and works like this do so incomparably well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. Well done! Fantastic novel.