At first, I was shocked. I searched for clues throughout the book, analyzing its pages for anything that would shed light on its dramatic and ambiguous ending. Was it possible that this novel concluded the way I thought it did? The answer is yes, and in fact, that is exactly how author Mohsin Hamid designed it. Much of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is based on the reader’s own expectations, knowledge and biases; Hamid gives us the actions, we create the motives.
Despite its slim size, The Reluctant Fundamentalist does not give the impression of a rough, quickly-written “sophomore slump” of a novel; in fact, Hamid spent nearly seven years in its making, and as he did with his first novel, Moth Smoke. Like central character Changez, he grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and attended Princeton as an undergraduate. His geographic knowledge of Changez’s life is comprehensive, though don’t be tempted to think of this book as autobiographical—Hamid currently lives in London, and has nothing more in common with Changez than knowledge of a few locations.
The novel begins unexpectedly with the voice of Changez (pronounced chan-gays), speaking to an American man. This strange “dialogue” continues throughout the entire book, without the American ever saying a word. Changez is our only source of information here, using language to convey movement and emotion (“Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist”). His foreign-yet-eloquent speech is endearing and amusing, making him quite a likable and friendly narrator.
But friendly appearances do not guarantee honesty; be wary to take whatever Changez says with a grain of salt. As he is the only direct speaker in the novel, all we learn about his family, friends, and life are limited to what he tells us. Some of his descriptions are so personal that it is hard to develop a truly firm grasp on personalities of other characters. But this is a minor offense; Hamid gives us enough emotion on Changez’s behalf to allow us to predict and imagine the behaviors of others without having to actually read about it ourselves.
Hamid works well with this extremely limited perspective. It allows for a connection between reader and narrator that is outside the realm of being present in the novel; that is, although Changez speaks directly to the American and uses the pronoun “you,” he does not give the impression of talking to the reader. The end of each chapter is like a pause in the story, where putting the book down almost feels like an interruption. We are outsiders, observing a curious exchange between two odd gentlemen, perhaps sitting at the very same café in Lahore, eavesdropping on their fascinating conversation. Despite this, it is easy to feel a connection with Changez as a human being, not just a stranger telling an interesting tale.
Why Changez relates his life story to a seemingly random person is a mystery until the book’s end. Hamid drops what may be interpreted as hints throughout, though the truth lies in our own minds. “I hope you will not mind my saying so,” Changez says to the American, “but the frequency and purposefulness with which you glance about ... brings to mind the behavior of an animal that has ventured too far from its lair and is now, in unfamiliar surroundings, uncertain whether it is predator or prey!” A slightly odd comment, but not completely bizarre—so what are we to make of it? A tourist slightly unnerved by an overly friendly Pakistani? Someone on the lookout?
Here, Hamid brings our attention to the apparent nervousness of the American, a sense of paranoia that is not found infrequently throughout the novel. It is not the only instance where Hamid’s command of language shows through. He uses the most precise words to play upon our expectations, and makes us think twice about our own conclusions. Are they the results of pure observation, or something more? Think of The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a clever trap, designed to catch us in the process of creating stereotypes.
Generalizations abound, and not just on the behalf of the reader. While Changez deals with American prejudices on a daily basis, he is just as guilty of stereotyping as are his peers. His growing sense of discontent with America is based on his experience as a corporate employee and four years at Princeton—not exactly your average American life. But Changez is brought even more fully to life through this fault of his, this hypocrisy behind his ultimate rejection of the United States.
Changez’s personal dilemmas are unique, but his reactions are so human that it is hard to dismiss him as a mere fictional character. His life in post-9/11 New York City is so familiar-sounding that even six years later (has it really been that long?) we are still seeing his story retold, over and over—delays at airport security gates, anti-Middle Eastern sentiment, verbal and physical harassment. People live Changez’s life every day.
Yet The Reluctant Fundamentalist does not center itself around the events of 9/11; they are a central part of Changez’s story, but don’t steal the spotlight. Like other novels of this structure—Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life—The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems to have created its own niche in the literary world.
What Hamid conveys here is a sense of displacement, a realization that allegiances cannot be split between countries, jobs, or even people. The intensely personal way in which he writes The Reluctant Fundamentalist draws us in even closer to Changez’s life, past and present, and forces us to ask ourselves if we are really any different from this “fictional” character.