Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A novel of a Pakistani man, educated at Princeton, employed at a prestigious consulting company, who has a post-9/11 meltdown, paired with a love affair gone wrong, who may or may not end up a terrorist and who may or may not be telling his story to a CIA agent in Pakistan, who he may or may not kidnap or kill.

This has probably been the most financially successful of the post 9/11 novels, and it's not hard to guess why. Well, actually the cynic in me guesses it's because it's short, but also because of the wisely chosen title and the fact that this is the only 9/11 novel written in English by a Middle Easterner (as far as I know). (Full disclosure: I knew Mohsin casually from my freshman dorm and from a creative writing workshop)

There was a lot that I liked about this spare novel --the inside view of a foreigner at an Ivy League institution, the inside view of one of those NYC banking-consulting-big business firms that so many of my classmates joined after college, the inside view of the room in the airport where they make you take off your pants if you don't come from the right country... But the thing that interested me most is the form. It's a first person novel told directly to another character. It's a really awkward form compared to the typical first person novel, in which the narrator floats above the text without a temporal body and therefore without a need to address where and when s/he is as s/he tells the story. But Hamid has to include lines that would never be spoken by the average person, like "Look here comes our waiter now" and "My what big arms you have" (I paraphrase) in order to reveal that the narrator is talking to someone he clearly believes is a brawny CIA operative in a Pakistani restaurant. And it made me think about how un-real first person really is.

A lot of students will express how hard it is to reveal the narrator in a first person work because people don't go around explaining what they look like and so on. But I say, for one, yes they do, and two, the whole premise of a first person story or novel is unnatural in the first place, so why are we pretending that it's more suited to realism than a third person narrative is. Of course, we all speak in first person, but we don't go around telling our life stories in scene and exposition. So embrace the falseness of it all, I say. I tend to think if you've chosen first person it should be stylized, made different somehow than the generic first person voice of so much writing, and I think, too, that a first person narrator can say anything they want. Including, what big arms you have.


rafe said...

Hello again. You are so much more up-to-date than I am; I just read Hamid's first novel (_Moth Smoke_) last month, and I liked it quite a lot. Again, the narrative form was really interesting, framed around a court case; and again, I felt like it was stylized enough not to be gimmicky (although I can imagine someone else disagreeing). Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting the new one once it's in paperback, and perhaps teaching something of his in a postcolonial lit class at some point.

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

I like to browse the New Fiction section at the library and it tempts me into reading lots of very current things. Moth Smoke is more overtly literary than this novel, so probably would provide more to discuss in a lit classroom. Reluctant Fundamentalist, while well written, is a little more commercially oriented with a love story (sort of) and a mystery (sort of). Though there would certainly be lots of contemporary relevance and lots of opinions on the "what actually happened" question.