Megha's Reviews > The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
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's review
Apr 15, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: reviews
Read in January, 2009

'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' is an attempt to give one an idea about what drives youngsters to radical Islamic fundamentalism - a term which has close connotations with political fanaticism, terrorism and anti-americanism. However, Mohsin Hamid has failed miserably. Not only the book was unable to generate a feeling of sympathy and understanding towards the protagonist Changez, it left me pretty convinced that Changez's fundamentalist beliefs are completely un-justified and that he is a hypocrite, prejudiced and a despicable human being.

*** Spoilers ***

Changez, the protagonist, is a young man from Pakistan. Having freshly graduated from Princeton, Changez bags a high-paying job at an American firm. He shows signs of brilliance at work and soon earns the respect of his colleagues. It is also at this high point of his life, that he falls in love with Erica. However, things don't stay that way for long. 9/11 proves to be a turning point in his life. After 9/11 his American Dream falls apart and he abandons America to return to Pakistan. It is also around this time that any hopes of his striking up a relationship with Erica practically die.

Unfortunately the story fails in addressing the real issue. No answers are offered to justify Changez's transition from a successful young man to an anti-American revolutionary. More than half the narrative is devoted to his love story which has nothing fresh to offer and is very shallow. On one hand, Changez tries almost too hard to make us believe that he really cares for Erica. On the other, he pretends to be Erica's dead ex-boyfriend, to make her sleep with him. So digusting!
The symbolism - Changez's love-affair with (am)Erica - is way too straight and unsubtle to have any real impact.

The moment where I hated Changez the most was when he watches the news of 9/11 attacks on television and he smiles.
"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… I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees."

Forgetting that this is the country that offered him an ivy-league education and a highly coveted job and more importantly, looking past the fact that a number of people died in the attacks, he is able to take pleasure in the misfortune of America. As if this doesn't speak volumes of his deeply rooted prejudice against America, the rest of the narrative tries to tell us how post-9/11 events changed his views about America and its role in world politics, thus cultivating in him a hatred and rage towards America. What events cause this change, we are never told. There is a constant mention of his inner struggle, but we never get a glimpse of his emotions. I am gonna need more convincing than Changez thinks that his colleagues are hostile towards him because he is sporting a beard, a symbol of him belonging to Pakistan. Dude! how about it is a professional place and you are expected to look presentable when dealing with business clients? He can't blame America if the American girl he is chasing doesn't love him back or if he loses interest in his job forcing his American employers to fire him.

To narrate this dull and uninteresting story, Mohsin Hamid has used a writing style where the narrator doesn't talk directly to the reader. Changez is telling this story to an American stranger visiting Pakistan, but we hear only one side of the conversation. The technique gets boring and awkward and repeatedly uses sentences like "You are not hungry and you desire me to continue, you say?" . The language, for the most part, is more befitting for a written form rather than a conversation.
One idea I liked was how we are given hints about developing tension between the narrator and the American he is talking to as the conversation goes on. The books has an ambiguous ending leaving us with a sense of danger lurking around the corner. The idea isn't that well executed though. Neither of the possible endings sound too plausible, considering how real-wordly this book is supposed to be.
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Comments (showing 1-19)

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message 19: by Nes (new) - rated it 2 stars

Nes good writing & thinking

Megha Nes wrote: "good writing & thinking"

I didn't find the little I have read so far all that great. Lets see, I hope it gets better.

message 17: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant Thanks for reading this one so I don't have to!

Megha Paul wrote: "Thanks for reading this one so I don't have to!"

You are welcome.
Thankfully, it is a brief novel. I would have been lot more annoyed if I had had to spend more time on it.

Claire S Megha - thought I would move over here, since we're about this book. Yes, excellent review! In my case, I was more emotional then sense-making. I agree completely with all that you said. I've thought about it since reading it more than I would have liked as well.
As you say, he seems to have deep-seated hostility towards the US. Which is fine, in my opinion, I just wish he would have been more open about that throughout. Starting with before he came here, and then during his education, etc.. Those portions would have been very interesting. And understandable - people go to places they don't like to do things that are useful; and people have complex, mixed feelings about places. But to make it seems like everything was hunky-dory until 9/11, and then everyone the whole texture of his life changed due primarily to the people around him being hostile towards him was so contrary to reality.
There was a lot of truth to his story, I wish he could have shared more of it. It must have been surreal, coming from Pakistan, living here at that time. I would have liked a lot more content on his views towards the Taliban and al-Quada and Pakistan's support of them. His views on women and religious freedom and the financial systems that the 9/11 attackers claimed to have been provoked by. Etc...
I found this book kind of like a portion of a covering that resembled an escher painting, in which the covering was opaque and was hiding something very fascinating. Extremely frustrating!

Megha That's right Katie. There is perhaps truth to the story. I am sure it must have been extremely difficult for Changez to live in America after 9/11, but Mohsin Hamid doesn't present his difficulties well. I am also not surprised that Changez is prejudiced against America. I think Mohsin Hamid was trying to say that the circumstances fueled his anger, but he never said how. Instead he spent unnecessary amount of time talking about Changez's love affair.

Claire S Yeah, the whole love story thing was another muddle. With her name implying (Am)Erica, are we to take her entirely as an allegory for the US? So the US has gone mad? More than before? The US was in love with someone/something who died? Etc.. or, Changez really was in love with an actual woman, and the whole allegory to to the US is another layer on top of that? Then which part of that whole thing is the real-woman part, and which is the US part? It's all very distraught-izing!

I'll be very interested in your review of Suketa Mehta's Maximum City as well. Seems a strong instance of the perceiver's attributes strongly coloring in the perceived and all.. And there's talk of the SM team making a film of it? Eek.

message 12: by Lars (new) - rated it 1 star

Lars I completely agree with your review. I found the writing tiresome for the same reasons you outlined. I thought the ending poorly executed and disjointed from the rest of the novel--one more disappointment in a book of disappointments.

A wonder this novel was among the Booker Prize finalists.

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Bryant No wonder, Lars - the Booker judges have eccentric tastes, and one year they even chose Vernon God Little as the winner, surely an example of collective insanity.

Megha I wasn't too impressed with their choice of 'The White Tiger' as a winner either.
How 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' made it to the shortlist is a big mystery as well.

message 9: by Lars (new) - rated it 1 star

Lars Unfortunately, Paul, I loved "Vernon God Little"...truly loved it! And while I don't want to speak for her, I believe Megha feels similarly. Haha...

I have only read excerpts of "The White Tiger", and the writing did not strike me. I have heard a lot of mixed reviews of it, though.

Paul Bryant Well, this shakes my confidence...! I could not stand the voice VGL was written in, it was like a dentist's drill in my brain, like an updated Holden Caulfield. But it takes all shapes and sizes to make a world, as my old grandma said, and it's a good job as we're not all the same.

message 7: by Lars (new) - rated it 1 star

Lars I could see the comparison to Holden Caulfield, however I found VGL far funnier. It reminded me of "A Confederacy of Dunces" or (the little-known but brilliant) "The Feud" by Thomas Berger, and it is one of those rare pieces of fiction that actually had me laughing out loud.

It may also be worth pointing out that I first read the book as an American citizen, thoroughly disappointed with the hysterical direction my country (as well as its media and leadership) had taken. So while I found the novel very funny, I also appreciated the very relevant critique it offered.

Paul Bryant Hi mp - after vowing not to bother with this one I went ahead and read it! Doh!

Megha Paul wrote: "Hi mp - after vowing not to bother with this one I went ahead and read it! Doh!"

Hahaha. Glad to see that we agree on the rating.

Colin McKay Miller Seems like your comment section is a wasteland of two-star reviews on this one.

message 3: by Megha (last edited Oct 26, 2010 05:14PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha Colin wrote: "Seems like your comment section is a wasteland of two-star reviews on this one."

Oh right, I just noticed that. Had this been a more popular book (a la Twilight), a few 5-star reviewers would have dropped by to tell us why we were all wrong.

Patrick Claire wrote: "Megha - thought I would move over here, since we're about this book. Yes, excellent review! In my case, I was more emotional then sense-making. I agree completely with all that you said. I've thoug..."

I actually do not think that Changez character had everything under control... I think prior to 9/11 he already had a dormantly uncomfortable disposition toward the US that 9/11 unlocked for him.

Megha Patrick wrote: "I actually do not think that Changez character had everything under control... I think prior to 9/11 he already had a dormantly uncomfortable disposition toward the US that 9/11 unlocked for him. "

That's right Patrick and that is one of the problems I have with this book. It does not say anything about what makes him have a hostile feeling towards America and turn into a fundamentalist. Like I said in the first paragraph of this review, it is mere prejudice on his part, which can never suffice to justify his actions.

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