When I was a third of the way through Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator, a young Pakistani man named Changez, tells the American stranger about how he first learned of the destruction of the World Trade Center. While on a business trip to Manila, he turned on the television in his room and saw the towers fall.
“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.”
The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tells him the story of his life in the months just before and after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid’s elegant and chilling little novel.
In 2001, as he explains, Changez was hardly a radical. Fresh out of Princeton, he was living in New York City and working as a financial analyst. He appears to have been something of an enigma until his reaction to the attacks–a sudden smile–pierces the shell. It seems to have come as a surprise even to himself, and while hardly endearing, it sets his tale in motion.
A less sophisticated author might have told a one-note story in which an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid’s novel, while it contains a few such moments, is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspirations and inner struggle. His resentment is at least in part self-loathing, directed at the American he’d been on his way to becoming. For to be an American, he declares, is to view the world in a certain way–a perspective he absorbed in his eagerness to join the country’s elite.
However, his indoctrination was never total. Starting with his job interview at Underwood Samson, a small firm that appraises businesses around the world, and a post-graduation trip to Greece with friends from Princeton, Changez maintains an outsider’s double perspective. One the trip he is smitten with Erica, one of the other travelers, but is also bothered by his rich friends’ profligate spending and the condescension with which they give orders to anyone they’ve paid for a service.
“I…found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.”
Yet even as he recognizes the foibles of that ruling class, Changez, who comes from a high-status but downwardly mobile family, also aspires to join it. Given his oft-mentioned phenomenal aptitude for his new job and a talent for winning over people, that goal seems all but guaranteed.
By the time he reaches Manila, where he is sent to appraise a recording business, Changez finds himself trying to assert his Americanness. Suddenly he is the one ordering around men his father’s age. Unnerved when a jeepney driver gives him a hostile look, Changez puzzles over its significance until he glances at one of his colleagues and feels his own hostility toward the other man’s “oblivious immersion” in his work.
So which is he, the ignorant master or the canny subaltern? And has he sacrificed his identity in pursuit of status? Changez has already begun to ask himself these questions when he sees the towers fall. And in the wake of the attacks, as tensions escalate between India and Pakistan, and the United States is meanwhile caught up in patriotic displays that strike Changez as a dangerous form of nostalgia, he loses interest in his work. Assigned to help appraise a publishing company in Valparaiso, Chile, he spends his time visiting Pablo Neruda’s house and lunching with the publisher, who compares Changez to a janissary–one of the Christian youths captured and then conscripted by the Ottomans, compelled to do battle against their own civilization.
And then there is the matter of Erica, who is friendly with Changez but mourning the death of her former boyfriend, Chris, from lung cancer. Changez is polite and formal; Erica is uninhibited, going topless, for instance, on a beach in Greece. The two become intimate, but she is haunted by Chris, and after 9/11 her sadness mysteriously turns pathological. She lands in an institution, then disappears.
This part of the story seems a bit too convenient–Erica’s obsession with the past engineered to dovetail with America’s nostalgia and with Changez’s yearning for a lost Lahore–while her disappearance neatly parallels his departure from America. (The protagonists’ names get no points for subtlety either.) Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ethos and hypocrisies of the Ivy League meritocracy, but less so its individual members. Throughout the book, secondary characters are sketched rather than distinctively rendered.
We never learn the American man’s identity, yet Changez regularly interrupts the story to address him. Perhaps, it is suggested, he had been pursuing Changez, who has become a leader of anti-American protests. Apparently, the man is “on a mission“–and he may be carrying a weapon. While these interruptions came too frequently for my taste, they do lend the tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller.
It seems that Hamid would have us understand the novel’s title ironically. We are prodded to question whether every critic of America in a Muslim-majority country should be labeled a fundamentalist, or whether the term more accurately describes the capitalists of the American upper class. Yet these queries seem less interesting than the novel itself, in which the fundamentalist, and potential assassin, may be sitting on either side of the table.