The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Rachel Smucker

Hamid gives us the actions, we create the motives.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Publisher: Harcourt
ISBN: 0151013047
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Price: $22.00
Length: 192
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-04
UK publication date: 2007-03
Author website

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less

Alt-rock heroes the Foo Fighters deliver a three-hour blast of rock power that defies modern norms.

It's a Saturday night in Sacramento and the downtown area around the swank new Golden 1 Center is buzzing as if people are waiting for a spaceship to appear because the alt-rock heroes known as the Foo Fighters are in town. Dave Grohl and his band of merry mates have carried the torch for 20th-century rock 'n' roll here in the next millennium like few others, consistently cranking out one great guitar-driven album after another while building a cross-generational appeal that enables them to keep selling out arenas across America.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.