On the Hamid book

Via Martin Kramer, I am reminded of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist last winter. Firstly, I will say that TRF, on the whole, left me wanting. While Hamid’s writing is elegant and for the most part lucid, the book’s construction is frustrating. The first two thirds or so of the book are fine (in places it is prosaically wondrous), some of the best 9/11 writing I’ve had the provenance of reading. After that point, however, it reads like a rushed term paper, dropping motifs and aspects of the narrative that would have made it more enjoyable. It seems to depreciate in quality and relevance.

Pace Kramer’s recommendation, I am struck not by his literary and quality evaluations. Instead I am surprised with his mention of the book’s theme. “The thesis: America has its own unique way of inspiring self-loathing in others, even those it embraces—and it comes back to haunt us. (Think Sayyid Qutb and Edward Said.)” (I am at a loss as to how Edward Said is at all comparable to Sayyid Qutb, in either the content of his works or his personal mores. But I don’t tend to find the Orientalist vs. Said arguments interesting or useful, so I won’t engage that.)

One would think, from reading Kramer’s recommendation, that Hamid’s book is the first book to show the alienation and radicalization that can result from encounters with Western culture. The book’s frame of reference is the post-colonial narrative of writers like Tayyib Salih and V. S. Naipaul. It is not especially unique, therefore, except in its release date. In fact, its similarities to Salih’s Season of Migration to the North are notably striking, leading me to believe that Hamid very consciously aped elements of plot and phraseology from the Sudanese author. The entire work is self-conscious in that way, trying to imitate the great works of Third World self-realization. However, its major short coming is that its protagonist does not show evidence of the kind of character development that its antecedents do. In those works, the interaction between society and man is an active one. In TRF, that relationship is a passive one, and change simply happens. We know that he is becoming a radical, but we have no real evidence to show for it. The most important part of the novel is narrated like a news article. Elegance of prose is abandoned and we are told about life changes but we are not given a template onto which to visualize this. It moves quickly from great writing to poor writing, in a matter of pages. The books TRF seeks to imitate are more worthwhile reading, whether on the beach or in the dorm. It deserves to be read, but only after exposure to more serious and less shallow novels of the same genre.

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