Daniel's Reviews > The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
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Jul 18, 08


A few decades ago, before publishers felt the need to justify the eight dollar price tags of mass market paperbacks with page counts of 400 or more, a thriller novel could be as tightly plotted as any Hitchcock masterpiece—and lean books like John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold were both global bestsellers and geopolitical commentaries at least as astute as most now forgotten serious non-fiction studies of the Communist Threat. By bloating themselves with romantic subplots and chase scenes, thrillers have lost much of their ability to thrill. Still, they sometimes find themselves ahead of the news. When Gorbachev and Reagan had warmed to one another, there was a brief period in which the United States seemed to have no significant foreign enemies. Serious scholars wrote about “the end of history,” and many joked that writers like LeCarre had been put out of business. Thriller writers, however, merely cast about for the next great threat. China was a top candidate for a time, but the Middle East quickly became the preferred source of villains.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred it was widely noted that Tom Clancy’s novel Debt of Honor included a passenger airliner being flown into the Capitol Building by a suicide pilot. (Not as noted: The pilot was not Muslim but Japanese.) The Turner Diaries also ended with a White Supremacist terrorist flying a plane into the White House, but that character was, of course, the hero of the novel. Still, the media image—provided by thriller novels as well as the movies made from or inspired by them—of the Islamic male as the author of spectacular mayhem was so widespread that not only did nearly everyone comment that the attacks seemed like something “out of a movie” but they had little doubt, before any evidence appeared, that Middle Eastern terrorists were responsible. This was not even something new. When the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed the media immediately cast it as an act of Islamic terrorism. Even after Timothy McVeigh’s arrest and conviction, some had trouble letting this notion go—the theory that Sadaam Hussein was in collusion with McVeigh had currency amongst some in the White House who lobbied for the Iraq invasion of 2003. Indeed, when they were not in the news in connection with actual terrorist attacks, the only time most Americans heard or read about Middle Easterners was when they were represented as terrorists in thrillers.

Now the Islamist terror and America’s reaction to it is the dominant story of our time, one needn’t even go to the supermarket for their fix of fictional representations. 24 provides a weekly supply of interrogation porn on television and respectable authors like John Updike and Martin Amis employ their powers to enter the minds of suicide bombers. But with the publication of The Reluctant Fundamentalist we get a literary perspective on current events that has been largely missing. The book’s cover design does not shout thriller. It looks, in fact, with its image of an unshaven Pakistani man’s face partially covered by strips of flag, like another of the many non-fictional memoirs that have appeared in the past few years, with subtitles such as My Two Years in Gitmo. And the fact that the author, Mohsin Hamid, was born in Pakistan and educated at Princeton and is writing about a character born in Pakistan and educated at Princeton, might lead one to suspect that this is, like many novels, a thinly veiled memoir. The word thriller does, however, appear on the front cover, in a blurb, and while this book doesn’t even crack the 200 page mark and no murdered art historians are to be found within, it is a thriller, in the same sense that Graham Greene’s entertainments were thrillers.

Hamid’s protagonist, Changez, speaks directly, and cordially, to “you,” an American (who may or may not be a tourist) at a café in Lahore. He assures you that he loves America and proceeds to tell his story. A lucrative position at a slightly cultlike New York valuations firm raises him out of his family’s financial ruin and begins to give him an American outlook on the world. He starts dating a beautiful writer, Emily, and easily blends in to multicultural Manhattan. But when the 9/11 attacks occur, Changez feels a sense of pleasure, not he says at the loss of life, but at the idea of America brought to her knees. After all, he asks you, “Do you feel no joy at the video clips—so prevalent these days—of American munitions laying waste to the structures of your enemies?”

At this point, Changez’s assimilation begins to come undone. On business trips, he is subjected to intense scrutiny at airports while his colleagues travel on without him. On the streets he is glared at by drivers. Pedestrians mutter insults. Emily stops returning his calls and at first he believes it has something to do with the attacks and his ethnicity. The actual reason, he learns, is perhaps more troubling—Emily is sinking into clinical depression and obsessing over a previous boyfriend who died of cancer. She tells him, “I kind of miss home too. Except that my home was a guy with long skinny fingers.” He tries to hold on to his love for America and for Emily, but neither seem to want him anymore.

On a trip to visit his family in Pakistan, at a time, late 2002, when a war with India seemed inevitable, Changez’s perspective changes. He acquires the sense—perhaps the same one Americans felt briefly after 9/11—of being a citizen of a homeland under siege and starts to think about what responsibilities such citizenship entails. When he returns to his job he wears a two week old beard that evokes images of terrorists in the minds of his co-workers. A friend advises him to shave, telling him, “You need to be careful. This whole corporate collegiality veneer only goes so deep.”

As America, wrapped up in its 9/11 memorial and the run-up to the Iraq invasion, ignores Pakistan’s troubles (or, as he comes to believe, even encourages India’s aggression), and Emily vanishes, Changez acquires twin obsessions, personal and political, and begins making choices that eventually lead to the very conversation you are having with him in Lahore. I will not reveal the ending, but will say that it, unlike the artificially twist-heavy endings of most bestselling thrillers, is logical and genuine. The book doesn’t mean to merely shock, it sets out to create “a certain shared intimacy” with a character that events may have led you, as an American, to see as your enemy.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Amy (new)

Amy I "like" your review. Appreciate your adding this quote:

"...when the 9/11 attacks occur, Changez feels a sense of pleasure, not he says at the loss of life, but at the idea of America brought to her knees. After all, he asks you, “Do you feel no joy at the video clips—so prevalent these days—of American munitions laying waste to the structures of your enemies?"

I think the Muslim - fundamentalist and otherwise - view is that we (i.e. the West) DO enjoy such scenes - because they do. However, I do not. I do not relish the death & destruction of my enemies, even while admitting they wish for mine.


Kristine In your otherwise thoughtful book response, I was distracted by your girlfriend name error: not Emily, which you write in several places, but Erica...and which matters more than a name might sometimes matter since in the analysis (Am)Erica could lead a reader to consider the author's possible intentions in a fuller way ...


message 3: by Amy (new)

Amy Kristine wrote: "In your otherwise thoughtful book response, I was distracted by your girlfriend name error: not Emily, which you write in several places, but Erica...and which matters more than a name might somet..."

verrryyy interesting! Kristine's comment about Erica (not Emily)...is the sort of thing I never notice. Do you think the author chose that name because of the Am/Erica thing?


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