A Review (!) of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"

It has been a while since I have posted a straight-up review, hasn't it? Well, here you have it!

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid's Booker-nominated novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist approaches a foreign stranger on the streets of Lahore and declares himself "a lover of America." "I noticed you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services" (1).

Over an uncomfortable meal, this "lover of America" unfolds his amorous tale: his absorption in the romance of American college life; his obsessive friendship with a Princeton classmate who (like the nation which she stands in for erotically in the mind of Hamid's hero Changez) is creatively brilliant, thoughtlessly privileged, and terminally nostalgic in the most painfully literal of ways; his fundamentalist devotion and radical disillusionment with the religion of capitalism in his first job with an elite corporate risk appraisal firm.

Changez actually strives both to attract and repel his audience. He is travelling internationally for business on September 11, 2001, and he recounts his reaction to this assault on his national beloved with an unusual level of starkness:

I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.

Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist. But please believe me when I tell you that I am no sociopath; I am not indifferent to the suffering of others. [...]

But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack - death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes - no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. (72-3)
I read this passage and felt the very surge of anger the narrator observes in his interlocutor, but this is knee jerk anger, unconcerned with Hamid's interest in how symbolism works up and is worked by individuals. In fact, I was reluctant to quote this section, which seeks to enrage with its forthrightness, when so few of my readers would have the context of the previous 71 pages of sympathetic, studious, enamored politeness (boardering frequently on an excruciatingly comprehensible but hardly justified self-loathing) of Changez's first years in the States to mitigate the impact.

The novel is told by Changez in an unusual mix of first and second persons, and the relationship this establishes between the protagonist and his unknown, unspeaking new American acquaintance is both the great strength and great weakness of the novel. Second person narrative is a notoriously difficult tool to wield: here it results in a lot of "You look [insert emotional response here]. You must be thinking [insert stereotypical and stereotyping American attitude here]" moments in Changez's conversation. Each time one of these arrises the narrative jars with gimmicky resonance.

On the other hand, the mystery of this encounter drives the short book forward with increasing urgency: How random is their meeting in Lahore? Who is the American, and what is he doing there? Is his perpetual distrust of Changez and the other Pakistanis they encounter merely the jumpiness of a stranger in a strange land? Is it prejudice? Or does he have good cause to think that people mean him harm? Is Changez's account of his reactions even to be trusted, or does it (and perhaps even Hamid's novel?) rely too strongly on broadly stereotyped American behaviors? We are encouraged by the conventions of the novel to sympathize with Changez (the narrator) while also being implicitly identified with his unpleasant, frightened, and voiceless audience. This speaks volumes about the unusual relationship with readers that Hamid is setting up here. Will the effect of this device differ if the reader is not (like the "tourist" Changez directs his tale to in Lahore, and like me) American? The ambiguities of this relationship add a great deal of complexity to what can sometimes seem a too-straightforward novel that retreads ground covered abundantly by the American and international media. To uphold these complexities, I wished for an even more ambiguous ending than the rather striking one Hamid gives.

If any of you have read the novel, I would love to hear what you think about this relationship between Changez and his American interlocutor, what this does to the way we feel about ourselves as readers, or how effective the ending of the novel was in the spoiler-welcoming comments.

One Response so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Here's another review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist:

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