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Caffeinated in Lahore
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Take Two

[Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan]

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a fantastic novel—a thoughtful deconstruction of the stereotype of Islamic radicalism, as well as an elegantly constructed work of art. It's not a thriller, and it's not properly speaking about terrorism, although the book jacket and title seem designed to make you think so. It is, however, about the complex relationship between Islam and the West, and about America in the aftermath of September 11.

Hamid's opening chapter sets a cool literary trap, a juxtaposition of two interviews. The first is between the narrator, the oddly named Changez, and an unnamed expatriate American sitting down to tea in Lahore. The novel is written in second person like a Browning monologue, or a sort of narrative apostrophe, addressed to an unnamed and silent audience, but the clear implication is that the novel is addressed to the reader as well. And maybe it's a sort of ethnocentrism that makes me say this, although I don't think it is: the novel by extension seems addressed to a distinctly American reader, speaking as it does of American attitudes and prejudices in a cooly ironic voice that arises at times into accusation. Certainly the novel could be enjoyed by readers of any culture, but what it has to say seems directed, both thematically and in terms of the novel's form, to America. This "interview" serves as the novel's frame: sitting at a table in Lahore, Changez tells his American acquaintance all about his graduation from Princeton University and the strange times that followed. The chapters open and close with this reminder that Changez is telling his story to this American, whose identity becomes clear only at the very end.

Within this opening frame, a second interview occurs, a job interview. Changez begins his tale by telling of his interview with Jim, the recruiting manager of Underwood Samson, a major valuation firm in New York. Changez nails the interview, with luck more than aplomb. His personal story appeals to Jim, who takes a chance on him and hires him. It's an auspicious beginning, not only because of the hefty opening salary and Manhattan office, but also because the job will almost certainly ease the path to Harvard Business School and even greater earnings in the future.

The novel then follows the odd trajectory of Changez's career and personal life. He excels in comparison to his fellow new hires; in the firm's competitive ranking system he scores the best among his analyst class. Meanwhile, he pines for his friend from Princeton, Erica, who returns his interest but maintains a certain aloofness at the same time.

Eventually Changez begins to question his role in America, and in the world. He is ambivalent about working in the world of American finance, given the fact that the US has used its wealth as a source of power to control other nations and use them for their own interests. When the September 11 attacks occur, he is in the Phillipines on a project, and admits to a certain satisfaction at seeing the U. S. dealing with the same kind of tragedy that has visited so many other parts of the world on a regular basis. The ensuing conflict with the neighbor of his own Pakistan angers and distrubs him further. He begins to question whether he should be living in the US as his own nation prepares for an ultimately averted war with India. On a project in Santiago, valuing a publishing house there, Changez finds himself unable to work. The director of the house, who resents the intrusion of Changez's firm, calls him a janissary, a foreigner raised from birth to be a mercenary. The criticism rings true with Changez, who catches the next flight to New York, and eventualy home to Lahore.

Coinciding with this development of his global awareness is his growing distance from Erica. After their initial unsuccessful attempt at lovemaking (she is uncomfortable and does not become aroused), Changez later tell her to pretend that he is Chris, who was once her lover, and who is now dead. Their lovemaking is successful, but the experience sends Erica into greater and greater despondancy until at last she has to be institutionalized. His unrequited love for her works on his psyche at the same time as world affairs destroy his feelings about work.

On a certain level this is a novel about economics, and somewhat conventional. In his work Changez has to evaluate how companies that might be acquisition targets might cut costs, and that usually involves cutting staff. The take of bean counters putting people out of work isn't that new. The novel also confronts the issue of third world economies like Pakistan losing their best talent to lucrative work in the United States. Changez wryly observes on the plane home from Lahore that here in the midst of a possible war, Pakistan's young talent is headed out of the country along with him. But Hamid has a twist on the scenarios presented by the Lou Dobbs of the world who fret about the loss of professional jobs to foreigners: some don't want to be part of the American hegemony and go home for a mix of family, nostalgia, and nationalistic pride. Not everyone, the novel seems to say, wants to come here.

What does Hamid have to say about the post 9/11 world? It helps to look at the allegorical meanings which present themselves in the novel. Erica, as her name suggests, seems to be an allegorical representation of Am-erica. Following the great trauma in her life (the death of her boyfriend Chris), Erica gradually withdraws into herself, fixated on the life she had before, increasingly unable to function or communicate with others. America in a mental institution? Her end is deliberately ambiguous, as if to say, America's story isn't written yet, and we don't know how she's going to end. But it isn't looking good. And if Changez's name is any indication, the message may be that America is increasingly intolerant and resistant to "change(s)". The problem with allegorical interpretations is that they tend to be reductive, and there are certainly other ways that readers could interpret Erica's meaning in the book. For example, I also felt that Erica's mental decline mirrored Changez's own gradual disillusionment with America. But no matter how you read this allegorical relationship, I don't think the name Hamid gives Changez's love interest is an accident.

After Changez returns to Lahore, he has become radicalized (although not necessarily "Fundamentalist," as the misleading title suggests) in his view of the relationship between the Islamic world and the U. S. He even leads a protest of the U. S. Ambassador. But what's interesting about this radicalization is that it is made ambivalent by his continued fascination with Erica. Changez admits that he hasn't totally left New York, in the sense that he still dreams about his time there, still loves and obsesses over his lost Erica. In the end, America is like the woman in the old joke: Can't live with her...

I really love this book, and without giving away important plot details, I'll simply end by saying this book has to be read until its final page. And I have not intended to reduce this fine novel to a couple of packaged meanings: the novel is better than that. It's rich and layered and defies simplistic interpretation; it deserves a lot more discussion than a few paragraphs will allow. And it deserves successive readings. (For example, is there a pattern of pairings in the book, playing on the idea of the "twin towers?" I need to read it again to be sure.) It has a compelling narrative, and a complex, fascinating narrator. It has feeling and plenty of surprises for the reader. A perfect structure. Why not read it? I can't think of a reason.

Originally published at Ohdave's Into My Own.

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