Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Since Falstaff's refused to review a couple of books, I figured I will do them first before moving to the others. Here's my take on Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist

In a cafe in Lahore's Old Anarkali district, a bearded Pakistani named Changez converses with an American who happens to be in the area. The conversation is one-sided, humility mixed with a good amount of sarcasm. The narrator talks about his life in the States and his reasons for his return to his homeland. His intentions and the identity of the American remain unknown; they are immaterial. Changez's story goes something like this:

Changez comes from an upper middle class family from Lahore where even the women are professionals. His upbringing is that of a typical upper class male (though slowly dropping off from that strata) in the developing world. He goes to Princeton on a scholarship and his life there is unremarkable. After a successful interview with a valuation firm called Underwood Samson (US), Changez moves to New York. He takes to NY and US, and the focus of his life is on "fundamentals" as US wants it to be. He rises fast and becomes the Boss's favorite. He also gets into a relationship with an all-American Princetonian called Erica, and through her is inducted into NY society.

While on a business trip to Manila, Sep 11 happens and watching it on TV, our man smiles at the symbolism of it. Back in the States, the world is changing. The attack on Afghanistan, racial profiling and slurs that he is subjected to, a trip back to the homeland, another trip to Chile where the client talks to him about janissaries and most of all, the alienation of Erica who now lives only in nostalgia all make Changez realise that he is wasting his time in the States. He quits his job, packs his bags and moves back to Pakistan. Whether he is a different kind of a fundamentalist now, one which the world is more familiar with, is left unanswered.

Its a nice enough setup, interesting in a number of ways. Hamid's writing is smooth and the book is a real fast read. The atmosphere is just right - one gets the feeling of sitting in a cafe, chilled out, listening to this man's story. Hamid, like good diasporic writers is very good with cultural displacement - his comparisons between Manila and Lahore, his reactions to Erica's father's remarks on Pakistan, the lack of refinment that he finds in his fellow Princetonians, their disregard for money, even the smile when the Towers come down are nice touches which most immigrants in the New World will be able to associate with. But beyond that, there's nothing more to the book - the plot is trite, Changez's transformation is too simplistic. The characters - Jim, Erica, Changez - are engaging but they all seem etched out by pop Western imagination than by anyone who's walked the streets of Lahore and Mahattan. The monologue, Changez's relationship with Erica which mirrors his relationship with America, the names of the characters are all interesting but in the absence of a credible storyline they seem mere stunts that are there to make up for the lack of a plot.

The other issue that bugs me about the book is this: we live in times when conversations between the West and the Islamic world are absolutely essential. Fundamentalism can be of more than one kind, everyone who disagrees with America is not a terrorist are all ideas that everyone should be made aware of and Hamid is to be appreciated for starting this conversation. But here's the thing: this book is currently on the Times bestseller list. Millions of Americans read this and (perhaps) think that they understand the other side, the terrorist psyche, they understand Changez. For some reason, that's a little disconcerting.

Don't get me wrong, its a nice enough book and I liked it. I would readily pick it up at an airport bookstore to keep me entertained on a short flight. As long as its understood that this is mostly entertainment, and it is not hugely insightful or substantative. Which is why I think that the right tribute for this book is not the Booker (though considering the times, its not surprising that it made it to the longlist) but a Hollywood adaptation. Which I am sure will happen soon enough.


blackmamba said...

I hear Mira Nair has bought the rights. That would work better as she would be literally forced to flesh out the characters.

The book have a couple of potentially interesting characters we might care about, if only we got to know then better.

Falstaff said...

I think my problem with the book was that the whole thing was so desperately artificial. It was practically written in styrofoam. The characters were all caricatures - cardboard cut-outs who 'stood for' things instead of being real people. The corporate bits were particularly jarring in being so dreadfully fake (I mean really, the guy is a hotshot Princeton MBA applying for jobs with PE firms and he's never heard of case interviews?! What kind of dumbass is he?). And the whole dating American woman who represents America is such a cheap cliche. Even Jhumpa Lahiri is infinitely more subtle and interesting. The cafe setting was interesting, true, except that it was such an obvious Camus rip-off, and the comparison that set up just showed up Hamid's novel all the more.

The plot, as you say, was trite, but more importantly, the argument Hamid was making seemed ridiculous and wrong. Nothing, repeat, nothing justifies smiling about the 9/11 attack. I'd be the first person to agree that the US has a lot to answer for, but what sane or civilized person feels anything but shock and sadness about the needless killing of innocent thousands? I'm not sure that I saw anything 'reluctant' about Changez's fundamentalism - he seemed to me a close-minded, insecure little man from the very start and everything that followed was just dreary and predictable.

Oh, and the fact that we're going to be subjected to a film version of this only makes things worse. We'll probably end up with Irfan playing the lead role. It'll be like the Namesake all over again. The only way I can see this being made into an engaging film is if it went the 'My Dinner with Andre' way. But I doubt Nair has the guts to do that. Actually, I doubt anyone making movies in Hollywood does.

Veena said...

BM: She did kya? Okay. As Falstaff says it will be another Namesake but then I liked the Namesake. No complaints there.

Falstaff: I am trying to be nice and mild about this and here you go spoil all that! Agree with you on quite a few things. Especially Hamid's argument being wrong - thats what is really concerning. American junta is going to read this as some insightful work and think this is how a terrorist mind works and this is how they are made. A bit scary that.

Just a couple of things:
- Despite the artificiality, I found the book entertaining. The setting and atmosphere, while a rip-off, still worked in the first half of the story. So while I think it would be interesting to see this go the Malle way, I am not entirely against Mira Nair doing this.

- This whole smile thing. Yes, nothing justifies smiling at the murder of thousands. That can be nobody's reaction. However I sort of see smiling at the symbolism of the thing - if one can be conned to forget for a second that there were people in the buildings and that this resulted in other losses as well, then it is more or less like scoring a point in a game. A flag on the Everest. An "innocent" spectator on the other side might just smile at it. That's perhaps was Hamid was trying to get at. But you are right - smiling as a first reaction only proves your point that there was nothing "reluctant" about Changez.

And Oh yeah he wasn't MBA and all just plain undergrad but that case interview was comic. Not just that he didn't know much abt it but the interview itself. Hamid being some sort of brand consultant or something, I expected better

Falstaff said...

veena: I think part of the trouble for me was that the comparisons to The Fall were so obvious that I couldn't help making them, and that just destroyed the book by comparison.

Agree with you about American junta reading this as insightful being dangerous. It's not just that Changez's reaction is one that I find ethically unacceptable, it's also that I think it's empirically inaccurate. I can't think of a single person I know who reacted that way to 9/11 and I know dozens of people who fit the Changez profile. When the WTC went down, we weren't thinking 'ah, good, one point for us'; we weren't even thinking 'Oh, what a tragedy, all those innocent people'; we were thinking 'shit! who do I know who works in the Towers' and 'how long do you think it's going to take before the airstrikes against the Middle East start?".

As for his not being an MBA - my bad - but small difference. I've seen how undergrads here prepare for interviews with consulting firms and I-banks. There is no way someone is going into an interview like that without having at least some idea of what a case interview is.

Not even if they're from Princeton.

blackmamba said...

falstaff: some of the characters in the book are better left on styrofoam - many of whom end up getting a lot of ink. But there are a few characters who can be interesting - like that editor in Chile, the mentor figure at work etc.

That is where I hope Nair might add something to the film - like the wedding planner and a couple of odd characters in Monsoon Wedding.

And if you were to just look at it as a screenplay, and not a booker longlisted book - it is not so bad.

Space Bar said...

Not even if they're from Princeton

Mm hmm.


Anonymous said...

An unrelated question. Why are the mainstream books about 9/11 and terrorists so bad? John Updike's Terrorist was utterly disappointing and so was this one. Both were vastly entertaining no doubt but seemed like masala movies rather than any deeply insightful novels. And also, did anyone think that the woman who he was dating (Erica?) was just like the one in the Murakami novel (Norwegian Wood?)- Naoko? The whole Grief With Boyfriends Death and Shrinking Into Herself Thing?


Falstaff said...

n!: Have you read Falling Man? I thought it was quite interesting - not brilliant perhaps, and not DeLillo's best work, but certainly surprising. Some of the plot elements were random, but I think he got the mood and the tone right, and conveyed the sense of fragmentation, of things irrevocably broken, very well.

Space Bar said...

Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was moving in parts but on the whole was too gimmicky. I guess it's not easy to do 9/11 just yet.

Feanor said...

Lorraine Adams' Harbor is a good one, methinks, dealing with terrorism (real and imagined), and has sympathetic characters whose motivations are delineated well. There's a somewhat mild apologistic quality at times, but overall, I'd recommend it.