Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid is an outstanding novel: gripping and readable as a thriller, deeply affecting as a story of love, and politically provocative in its exploration of the post-9/11 American / Middle East scene.

In a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan, the main character Changez tells an American acquaintance his life story and it is by “overhearing” this second-person telling that we learn it, too. Changez goes to America at 18 to attend Princeton, moves to New York after college to work in finance, falls in love with an NYC high society young woman, Erica, and all in all seems destined to ride the American dream into adulthood. Then 9/11 happens, Erica in fact is still in love with her recently-deceased boyfriend, Pakistan/India tensions rattle Changez and implant doubts about his true allegiances…and his relationships with both Erica and America — two things he thought he loved — slowly unravel.

The book’s length, at under 200 pages, is testament to Hamid’s efficiency with words. Short, well-written novels are a real pleasure, and not just because they take less time to read: sparer novels leave space for your thoughts to echo, to quote the character Erica, and demand more of your imagination.

A compact text doesn’t necessarily come at the exclusion of “random riffs on how life works” that as readers we tend to grant novelists. There’s some unwritten pact between readers and novelists when it comes to this: keep us entertained and engaged and wondering and moving forward along an arc, and we’ll indulge your only-kind-of-related theories on happiness, the nature of love, humor, etc. Hamid subtly makes such offerings throughout.

He distinguishes the feeling of being unsettled with the feeling of being nervous. He theorizes that successful professionals focus on work by wearing blinders that make irrelevant world events or personal emotional travails. He nails the roller-coaster that follows a break-up: the heat and choice words which cause it, the exhilarating sense of freedom that accompanies new singlehood, the medium-term backpedaling and regret and depression, and the long-term equanimity with which you look back on the whole journey. (Equanimity his protagonist never achieves, by the way, which I note for those still west of true north months after a break up.) Elsewhere, he shows how words delivered “without the core of conviction” are empty, even emptier than the same words never uttered.

On a syntax level, there are winning sentences and metaphors. When describing Erica’s detachment at a cocktail party, he writes “remarks made by her companions would register only indirectly on her face, like the shadows of clouds gliding across the surface of a lake.” Then there’s a scene where sparks are starting to fly between Erica and Changez. Changez is talking about his homeland, Pakistan. Then: “I love it when you talk about where you come from,” Erica said, slipping her arms through mine, “you become so alive.” When a talented writer deploys italics, look twice: it means he had to rely on formatting to make a point that clever arrangement of words could not. “Alive” with emphasis captures the fact that if we’re truly passionate about something we can’t hide it; it also captures the awe of a woman discovering that her attraction to a man runs deeper than lust.

When I finished this novel yesterday, I stared out into the sea off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. The water sparkled beneath a big blue tropical sky and dark skinned Afro-Carribbean women paced the sidewalk with fruit baskets balanced on their heads. Usually I would be anxious to get out and explore a new city or at least swim in the water, but instead I retreated inward, stayed put on the lounge chair, and began re-reading.

Thus this novel succeeded for me not just in the way all books must — you have to hear the sound of the pages turning — but in that transcendent sense that literary types always talk about. It transported me to a new place, one created jointly by the author and me, one that not even the wide, blue sky and bustling, Caribbean streets could compete with.

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