Of the South Asian authors of his generation, none has staked a bolder claim to being a “world writer” than the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid. Starting with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), his books have unhesitatingly tackled think-tank-worthy international subjects such as September 11, economic growth, and the migrant crisis, using his home country as a backdrop rather than a subject in itself. In Hamid’s work you rarely find direct references to Pakistani landmarks or historical events; Islam’s inner controversies are elided.
This is generally not a problem, because Hamid is a tireless renovator of the Anglophone South Asian novel. Eschewing the genre’s traditional forms—the family drama, the historical saga, the political doorstopper—he has favored sleek, formally inventive works and has said that he is “attracted to the idea of a book you can read in one sitting.” And he has shown that one way of dealing with a large Western readership—which, for a postcolonial writer, can open you up to accusations of pandering to the West and selling out your own country—is to make the address to the West a charged, volatile part of the narrative.
The superb, bravely wrathful The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a monologue delivered by a well-educated, courtly, and rather insistent Pakistani man named Changez to an American in Lahore. The Pakistani wants to explain to this unnamed American, and to himself, why he felt compelled to abandon the US after the September 11 attacks and why, at the height of his social and financial success in the West, a part of him desired “to see America harmed.” As the monologue continues, we wonder: Is Changez making veiled threats against the American? Is the American, who may or may not have a gun strapped under his armpit, a CIA agent? The novel doesn’t answer these questions; it lets the reader’s own biases—against bearded, America-baiting Muslims in particular—fill in the gaps.
Hamid’s third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), continues this experiment of address. Delivered as a second-person discourse to the reader, the book subverts the get-rich-quick self-help genre by plunging “you” into the insalubrious life of a poor boy raised in the slums and the many moral compromises you have to make during your ascent from DVD delivery boy to seller of expired food to drinking-water entrepreneur. To get filthy rich in Asia, you (and particularly you, the Westerner who might have naively bought the hype about the Asian economic miracle) need to get filthy—morally, physically, psychologically.
After the success of these novels, some of Hamid’s postcolonial anger about the Western gaze seemed to cool. Having moved back to Pakistan after years in the US and UK and become the father of two children, Hamid said in an interview that he was now “less concerned with using [his] novels to question how the novel works” and more interested in “how a story can become as powerful as it needs to be to do the things that it needs to do.”
From this came the moving Exit West (2017), which features two lovers fleeing their Pakistan-like country as it is gradually swallowed by civil war. Teleported across the globe by a series of secret magic doors that resemble giant iPhones or the black monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they end up in refugee encampments in Mykonos, London, and finally Marin County, California, where they make a home in a utopian multiracial society built on the ashes of whatever once counted as Western civilization.
“The apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic,” Hamid writes, sounding a surprisingly optimistic note,
which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.
The book’s most radical message might be that there is a way out of the crisis. Hamid refuses to grant the bourgeois reader the solace of doomsday thinking.
Hamid’s latest novel, The Last White Man, continues this trend of taking a seemingly intractable problem—in this case, race relations—and portraying it as a strange blessing rather than a curse. Like Exit West, it features magic-realist elements. But it is Hamid’s first novel not centered around Pakistan (or its unnamed equivalent), and it illustrates the problems that occur when a novelist wholeheartedly embraces his identity as a “world writer.”
The Nobel Prize–winning British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has said that as his fame grew, he began to think more about “how to write novels for an international audience and…to come up with universal themes”:
After you have…sat in a hotel room in Norway talking about your work—you come home and you start to go back to work…. And you can’t help every now and again remembering these Norwegians and you stop and you think: “I can’t write that, because the Norwegians wouldn’t understand.”
Perhaps Hamid too has become concerned about the Norwegians, because The Last White Man is set in an unnamed city in a largely white, unnamed, probably Northern European country. Still, the book is quick to make up for its lack of Pakistani characters by turning its white people brown.
This is a very literal process. Here’s the first sentence of the novel: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” From there, Hamid traces Anders’s inner and outer transformation as the affliction spreads through the town.
In Exit West, the device of the teleportation doors allows Hamid to collapse several migrations into a single year by bypassing the realities of policed borders and interminable asylum waiting periods. In The Last White Man he has similarly hit upon an irresistible way to dramatize a white society’s fear of its growing dark-skinned population. At first Anders, a gym instructor in his twenties or thirties, looks into his smartphone’s camera and his mirror and wants “to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.” Then, as he slowly comes to terms with what has happened to him, he feels like the “victim of a crime.”
Out in the world, wearing a cap low over his face, he realizes he is no longer seen as completely human—the grocery clerk won’t respond to his “mumbled thanks and goodbye,” and a white woman honks and curses at him when he idles at a green light. “If there had only been some way for her to know he was white, or for him to know it,” he thinks. Many astute observations about the experience of being dark-skinned in a white town follow—the feeling of not knowing “where his sense of threat was coming from,” of being “recast as a supporting character” at his workplace. But the novel begins to falter as the disease affects more of the population and no one seems to ask why this is happening.
In Exit West, too, the magical black doors appear without reason. They simply exist and are indifferent to their users’ origins. In short inset sections, Hamid gives us glimpses of individuals in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa traipsing through the doors—to escape hardship or find love or satisfy their curiosity. In The Last White Man, however, the racial epidemic works in one direction—toward brownness—and appears localized. The doors in Exit West are unquestioned, but that’s partly because the book’s main characters, Nadia and Saeed, are in such a precarious situation in their bombed-out hometown that they have no time to study or debate the physics of teleportation. By contrast, the characters in The Last White Man live in a stable, first-world society (albeit one in industrial decline, with an opioid epidemic), where they have time to examine their affliction and consult doctors.
But Anders and the other characters do none of this. Instead, after the initial panic, Anders makes peace with his metamorphosis, as does his lover, Oona, who eventually jokes that “it suited him” and even, with a kind of out-of-body pleasure, enjoys “her grind with a dark-skinned stranger.” Does she worry about becoming dark herself? It isn’t always clear. Anders and Oona are presented as middle-of-the-road liberals, the sort who, after their complexions change, will realize guiltily that they’ve never talked to the one brown man who works with them.
The state doesn’t get involved directly with their condition either. Compare this to the chaotic, pitiless quarantining of victims of a contagious blindness disorder in José Saramago’s Blindness—a clear inspiration for the conceit of Hamid’s book and for his long, whispery sentences. In Blindness, the probing of doctors and the panic of the state apparatus are always undercutting the magic; and we too feel the terror of the diseased. In The Last White Man, the government, like Oona and Anders, accepts magic with a shrug.
Meanwhile—surprising in the work of a novelist who has written mainly about brown people—the existing dark-skinned residents of the city are ignored. We don’t see their reaction to suddenly having colored brethren who are culturally white and dressed in the fancier clothes of the middle and upper-middle classes; nor do we learn if they fear being blamed for this epidemic. At one point Anders “wonder[s] if people who had been born dark could tell the difference, could tell who had always been this way and who had become dark only recently,” but the novel never takes this thought further.
More puzzlingly, Hamid makes little of the disjuncture between race and culture, presenting race as a totalizing physical fact. But one imagines that a white person who becomes brown might cling harder to his whiteness, shout his allegiance to his nation from the rooftops, explain to everyone that the transformation is merely skin-deep (as Anders does fleetingly at the start of the novel). The question of whether turning brown gives the formerly white characters any access to nonwhite cultures is similarly ignored, as are the nonwhite cultures themselves. Even such questions as what the transformation actually looks like—whether it is a pigmentation swap-out or full-scale alteration of bone structure and voice—are glossed over; we are only told vaguely that Anders is “no longer recognizably himself, beyond being the same rough size and shape. Even the expression in his eyes was different.”
Instead, the novel focuses on a predictable tale of increasing paranoia among the remaining whites, the (largely offstage) formation of militias that target dark-skinned people, and the Covid-like isolation this necessitates for Anders and, by association, Oona. The two of them spend more time with their aging parents, think about mortality, get together and smoke joints—and that’s about it. Nothing much more happens. Hamid has so thinly imagined the inner worlds of these whites, their own cultural life—reducing it to physical activities like yoga and gym-going—that we don’t get a sense of what they lose or of what becoming dark-skinned really means to them, apart from a new face in the mirror and an estrangement from the comforts of whiteness.
By the end, everyone in the town—even the hard-core racists—has turned brown, and a fragile peace is established. Once the shock has faded, people start posting pictures of themselves on social media “as though participating in a scandalous town-wide masquerade,” and soon the last white man—Anders’s father, by sheer coincidence—has died of natural causes. “Sometimes it felt like the town was a town in mourning, and the country a country in mourning,” Hamid writes in the wise-elder voice of the novel, “and this suited Anders, and suited Oona, coinciding as it did with their own feelings, but at other times it felt like the opposite, that something new was being born, and strangely enough this suited them too.”
What is Hamid up to with this flimsy parable, the weakest book in his formidable oeuvre? The decision to set the novel in a majority-white country is not, in itself, problematic. But in doing so, he has unwittingly replicated a reflex of certain white writers: conflating whiteness with everywhereness, with a lack of specificity, an unquestioning sense of the centrality of whiteness. In writing a novel about race, Hamid has produced his first deracinated book.
He has also gone too far in eliminating all traces of Pakistani culture. How much fun he might have had if the white characters in The Last White Man found themselves metamorphosing into Pakistanis, or if they had to investigate which type of brown person they’d become! This, after all, is the complaint of monoracial cultures that decry immigration and demand assimilation: Why should we have to learn about your way of life? But this novel, ostensibly about the clash of cultures and races, refuses to confront its white readers with other cultures. The “world novel” in this way creates a world that is simpler than the world: an unintentional children’s book.
Or not so unintentional. In an interview shortly after the publication of Exit West, Hamid argued that it was crucial to deploy novels to counter a fashionable pessimism that he now believed was “a deeply conservative and reactionary position,” one that tended “to lead towards deference, towards the strong and powerful, towards powerlessness and a kind of surrender.” “Putting forth an optimistic vision like that,” he added, “makes that vision, in some small way, more likely to come true.”
Exit West did put forward a bold new vision, depositing its asylum-seeking central characters not in detention but in a safe encampment in Marin, which “sounds like a festival” with “music and voices and a motorcycle and the wind.” But Exit West also relied, at times, on a fairytale-like belief in the goodness of humans. In one pivotal scene, as racial tension builds in migrant-choked London, the nativist gangs that have been threatening violence suddenly step “back from the brink”:
Perhaps they had decided they did not have it in them to do what would have needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done….
And so, irrespective of the reason, decency on this occasion won out.
But, of course, the reason matters—it is the central question of our age: What will extinguish this anger erupting between tribes and races and nations? In The Last White Man, Hamid sidesteps the problem of interracial conflict by letting everyone quickly turn brown, so that racial differences cease to exist. In one sense, he is trying to present a compressed portrait of how societies change—yours is a white country one decade, a brown one the next, and the important thing is not to rage against the new but to thoughtfully mourn who you were, to recognize, as Oona does, that “whiteness…could no longer be seen but was still a part of them.” But to reach this conclusion without first dramatizing the intermediate stage of anger is to avoid the issue altogether. It is to write The Reluctant Fundamentalist without the reluctance or the fundamentalism. It is to flee, using literature, into a world of consoling make-believe.