When White People Become People of Color
THE LAST WHITE MAN, by Mohsin Hamid
The opening sentence of “The Last White Man,” the latest novel by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, may sound overfamiliar — “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown” — but who wouldn’t read on? A protagonist as erudite as his creator might have been grateful not to turn into a giant bug; Anders, who works in a gym and seems as aliterate as he is inarticulate, feels only rage at losing his whiteness: “He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.” But the self-divided Anders — could he have a more Nordic name? — calms down when he learns there’s a pandemic of changelings; the formerly white come to include his yoga-teacher girlfriend, Oona; Oona’s racist mother; and, eventually, everybody who was born white. (All except Anders’s dying father, a secondary character who gives the book its catchy, if misleading, title.) By the end, a pulp-magazine premise has metamorphosed into a vision of humanity unvexed by racial animosities.
In a 2017 essay in The Guardian, Hamid called for a “radical, politically engaged fiction” that would “peer with all the madness and insight and unexpectedness and wisdom we can muster into where we might desirably go, as individuals, families, societies, cultures, nations, earthlings, organisms.” Or, as he puts it in a note to readers in the new book’s advance copies, “I believe fiction has a strange power … that enables it to destabilize the collective imaginings we inherit and reproduce.” Our imaginings certainly could use some destabilizing, although literary fiction hardly has the transformative clout its practitioners wish it had. Hamid’s likely readers already know race is a “construct” that we could do nicely without; the unenlightened many (the enlightened too) are streaming movies and TV shows. But whether deliberately or not — and Hamid’s too smart a writer not to know what he’s doing — “The Last White Man” has an additional agenda: to destabilize not just our toxic imaginings but our conventional notions of fiction itself.
In a better world, people wouldn’t always be at each other’s throats, yet fiction traditionally thrives on conflict and tension — to “thrive” meaning, first of all, to keep the reader reading. There’s something inherently cheesy about even the most august canonical novels, with their crankings-up of distress and danger and suspense before a tragic or a comic denouement. No matter what slow torments the writer inflicts on us (and on the characters), we know that eventually Elizabeth’s going to get Mr. Darcy and the whale’s going to get Ahab — just as we know that James Bond will disarm the doomsday bomb at the last tick of the timer. As sublime and ennobling as fiction can be, it’s a game that reader and writer consent to play together: The writer pretends not to be in control of what happens next, while the reader revels in vicarious anguish. Aristotle thought of this process as pity and fear “effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”; philistines call it entertainment. But Hamid’s earnest pronouncements suggest that he wants a different kind of fiction, without artifice or manipulation — fiction that behaves as straightforwardly as a right-thinking person behaves. Why work up all that pity and fear when they just need to go away?
In his first three novels, though, Hamid played the game like a champ. To our shame, I guess, crime, violence, adultery and general human cussedness hold a reader’s attention; so do idiosyncratic characters, and a narrative in which one event builds up to the next. (Heck, let’s be vulgar: I couldn’t put any of these books down.) And these conventional pleasures come packaged in pleasingly unconventional forms. “Moth Smoke” (2000) has multiple narrators, one of whom directly addresses the judge at the protagonist’s murder trial. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007), entirely spoken by a garrulous man to a shifty stranger in a cafe, gradually shades into a thriller. And “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” (2013), as the title suggests, tells a rags-to-riches-to-downfall story under the guise of a self-help book. A tired device? Not with Hamid’s intrusive and ironic narrator, who mocks both his ostensible genre and what he calls “that much-praised, breathtakingly boring foreign novel” with “page after page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose.” It’s a cheeky manifesto against earnestness.
But with “Exit West” (2017), Hamid chucks such playfulness for flat-footed fabulism: Residents of an unspecified country magically escape civil war through mysterious doors, join migrant communities in London, then in California, where — surprise! — nothing all that bad happens. And now, in “The Last White Man,” his newfound inclination to spare characters any serious trouble rises to an aesthetic principle; the renunciation of the tension that powered his earlier novels seems penitential. In the most dramatic episode, Anders confronts armed men at his door, they leave, he flees and … they’re never seen again. In a more typical scene, Anders drives to visit Oona, feels a sense of menace, “and nothing happened and then he was there.” Oona takes a drive too: A police car pulls up next to her, she smiles and looks away — and again nothing happens. Anders and Oona go for a walk: It’s chilly, “but they were dressed appropriately … and it was not so bad at all.” They talk. Then a truck rumbles over a pothole. (That’s all about the truck.) Then they come upon some schoolboys skipping stones in a stream, “but no stone hit them, or came particularly close … and Anders gazed straight ahead.” (That’s all about the schoolboys. End of episode.) The characters in “The Last White Man” do plenty of “gazing,” along with “wondering” and “realizing,” but they don’t do much doing, nor does anyone do much to them. Toward the end of the novel, we learn that Anders and Oona have had a daughter, that all the white people have turned brown and that life is, you might say, not so bad at all. Granted, this is where we earthlings and organisms might desirably go — it sure beats where we are — but is it what we might desirably read?
Once in a while, Hamid’s people do show a welcome flash of feistiness, as when Oona prepares a breakfast of oats and berries for her skeptical mother. “‘It’s so healthy it could kill a person,’ she said. Oona raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s the plan,’ she replied.” (Purists will have to forgive the raised eyebrow. And the word “replied.”) But these living voices get buried under narration that sometimes sounds archaic — Anders and Oona clink whiskey glasses and sip “the golden liquid therein” — and sometimes like bad Hemingway: “And he thought that possibly they felt the dead as not everyone felt the dead, that some people hid from the dead, and tried not to think of them, but Anders and Oona did not do this, they felt the dead daily, hourly, as they lived their lives, and their feeling of the dead was important to them.” What’s the intended effect? It must be to assure us that this is still Literature.
Not the literature we’re used to, though, with rising and falling action that writers could (and sometimes do) plot on a graph, calibrated tension and release, ginned-up crises, contrived secrets and revelations, characters stitched together, like Frankenstein’s creature, out of bits and pieces of real people: all those overworked tricks that somehow keep working. Of course, novelists have wanted to destabilize these traditions since there were novels; like trying to rewire humanity’s collective imaginings, it’s a radical and hopeful enterprise. But — not to sound crass — once you’ve got the customers into the tent (with a killer first sentence, say), you have to keep them in their seats and send them home satisfied that they’ve been through something. “The Last White Man” wants only the best for them, and for all of us, but such a happy denouement is hard to imagine.
David Gates’s most recent book is “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me.”
THE LAST WHITE MAN, by Mohsin Hamid | 180 pp. | Riverhead Books | $26