It seems as though Esther and I spent the last weekend of the summer in Haworth, what with the warm winds and balmy sunshine there. But autumn is most definitely with us now: the morning air has had a sharp bite to it these last few days, and yesterday evening I walked home from work in the first shower of icy rain. (Brrrrr...)
While I trudged, head down, arms folded, I was thinking about writing this post on Mohsin Hamid's second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both what I would say and how I would justify it. Regular readers may have noticed that I've been thinking about writing it for a very long time, almost a month in fact, and have kept postponing it from week to week. I suppose I've been hoping that I might change my mind about it, or that I would at least come to appreciate it better. Alas not. I simply didn't enjoy it, not one bit. I'm willing to admit that this is, to some extent, my own fault - that I just don't 'get' its references and resonances, or admire what its style is trying to achieve. (The LRB has something to say on these points.) Yet, allowing for these failures on my part, I still think it a wooden, staged kind of novel, its characterisation stiff, its polemical thrust something of a foregone conclusion. This despite the fact that it comes with any number of literary endorsements: a place on the Booker shortlist, a shout quote from last year's winner, Kiran Desai, and a whole paragraph of praise from Philip Pullman. Each to their own, I guess.
Changez is a university lecturer in Lahore when, one quiet afternoon, he takes it upon himself to join an American stranger for tea in a cafe. Sitting down he introduces himself as 'a lover of America' and proceeds, entirely uninvited, to give a monologue history of his life, from his stupendous achievements at school in Pakistan to his undergraduate degree at Princeton and subsequent career at the prestigious Underwood Samson & Company in New York. Speaking in a cool, formal and vaguely patronising tone, he declaims on well into the evening, keeping the American at his side through dinner and drinks. Along the way he describes his failed (and bizarrely aseuxual) relationship with Erica, a fellow Princeton graduate with a tragic past, and the way in which the events of 9/11 opened his eyes to the cruel policies of his adopted country. At no point does the American respond or speak - Hamid is determined to silence him - and although Changez engages with him, his actions and comments are filtered through the novel's second-person narrative. Thus events in the present are reported as though for a blind man in excruciating descriptive passages:
Observe how the shadows have lengthened. Soon they will shut to traffic the gates at either end of this market, transforming Old Anarkali into a pedestrian-only piazza. In fact, they have begun... The gates are now being locked as you can see, and those gaps that remain are too narrow for anything wider than a man.
This is a necessary clumsiness if we are to have any scene-setting at all - the mode demands it - but it jars horribly and, for me, fails to envoke the spirit and smells of Old Anarkali, the kind of venue I imagine to be designed for beautiful prose. It made me experience the story at a far remove, so that I was unable (and uninspired) to engage with character or place.
As the novel progressed it becomes increasingly clear to me that the second-person is a restrictive and disturbing mode in which to write fiction. I don't think it suits me at all; it makes me feel...absent. In a first or third person narrative the reader is addressed and invited to enter the story as a member of an audience. They are included and embraced; and even if that inclusion makes them uncomfortable, it at least brings them up close to events. The second-person, on contrary, doesn't address an external audience; it addresses itself. And in doing so it actively excludes the reader, placing them in a voyeuristic limbo outside of the world of the novel. It made me feel like nothing was real. Which sounds strange, I know. It is fiction, after all. But I mean: I wasn't given the opportunity to leave my reality, or to engage with the novel's reality, and so the world of the novel didn't exist for me. It didn't have a transformative quality that asks you to suspend your disbelief and enter. Instead, it left me feeling stranded, all by myself.
Hamid plays at complicating the 'purity' of the second-person experience by making frequent attempts to characterise the American for us, via Changez:
But why do you recoil? Ah yes, this beggar is a particularly unfortunate fellow. One can only wonder what series of accidents could have left him so thoroughly disfugured. He draws close to you because you are a foreigner. Will you give him something? No? Very wise; one ought not to encourage beggars, and, yes, you are right, it is far better to donate to charities that address the causes of poverty rather than to him a creature who is merely its symptom. What am I doing? I am handing him a few rupees - misguidedly, of course, and out of habit.
But they're clunky at best, disengenous and manipulative at worst. They are related to the deeply political agenda of the novel, which is aimed at criticising America's meddling in the Middle East and Asia, and one always gets the feeling that Changez is engaged in taunting and mocking his ideological enemy rather than representing him. Later, in an admittedly brilliant sleight of hand, Hamid hints that the two might be real adversaries, engaged in the surveillance and capture of one other, although this never confirmed. Still, the puzzle and tension of their relationship, doesn't stand to excuse the obviousness of Changez' politics, or of his trajectory from a good proto-American to outspoken critic. The disillusionment that Hamid describes is ubiquitous by now:
I reflected that I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country's constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East, and now Afghanistan: in each of the major conflicts and standoffs that ringed my mother continent of Asia, America played a role... It was right for me to refuse to participate any longer in facilitating this project of domination...
And the American never has a chance to respond to Changez' allegations, or to mediate the reader's sympathies. It is true that, at times, the book is very brave, as when Changez' describes his initial reaction to the attack on the World Trade Centre:
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... my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack...no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to its knees.
But at other times it is simply obvious, using all the cliches of the West v. East dynamic. Of course, it didn't help that I have little or no sympathy for Changez. It is not that his situation isn't difficult, or that I don't concur with (some) of this analysis of American foreign policy, but that I don't believe in him.
Finally, there is the super-contemporaryness of it - The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel of the now. It is tied so closely to the zeitgeist of the first decade of the 20th century, and to people's understandings and conceptions of current affairs, that it can't hope to outlive either. A novel like On Chesil Beach or Mister Pip, and especially Darkmans, reaches out of the merely contemporary and exists seperately from the instant in which it was written. It can hope for some kind of immortality. The Reluctant Fundamentlist, on the other hand, is the kind of novel that will disappear like so much smoke as the years pass, as it becomes irrelevant to our visions of ourselves and of our world. I can accept that such novels have their place and their merits, but not that they should win the Booker Prize.