Further Thoughts on The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had a very weird feeling the other day. I realized that for one of the few times in my life I agreed with the New York Times more than with National Review Online! What brought such a weird moment to pass? Reviews of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

In my own review I rather prophetically had this to say:

In today’s often polarized and hyper-partisan environment conservatives will be tempted to simply write off Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist as just another anti-American screed masquerading as fiction. Those on the opposite end may want to label it in a similar fashion but approve of the politics. That would be a mistake. Yes, the book does contain anti-American sentiment and passages that are, to my mind, rather banal leftist complaints about the xenophobic and destructive nature of the American “empire.” But to categorize this book as simply a political rant dressed-up as art is to deny both its aesthetic merit and the cultural insights it might offer.

Ann Marlowe soon took up the challenge at NRO with her Buying Anti-American. Marlowe’s review is one long extended rant; she seems genuinely offended by the book. Here are some representative quotes:

– As a novel, RF is tripe — anti-American agitprop clumsily masquerading as a work of art. People who are buying RF are sending their money to someone who is aggressively anti-American.

– On a purely literary level, RF is a dreadful book.

– But Hamid has obviously seen that there is greater mileage in playing the “Muslim rage” card and donning the mantle of Islamic minstrelism than in becoming a fine novelist. If I had any sympathy for him, I’d mourn his lack of respect for himself. As it is, I’m appalled at his lack of respect for his audience, his narrator, his narrator’s American listener, his co-religionists who suffered under the Taliban and under Saddam, and for the victims of the World Trade Center attack.

Some of Marlowe’s criticism are fair, but I think in many ways she misses the point.

There are two main objections involved here: 1) that the politics are shallow anti-Americanism and 2) that the novel fails aesthetically as well.

I think point one is well take for the most part. As I said in my review:

And of course, as I mentioned above, much of the anti-American sentiment is banal boilerplate. Changez compares the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq; speaks of America being full of “self-righteous” rage; or American’s being unwilling to think of the pain of others; of retreating into “myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority”; describes American foreign policy as “tantrums”; etc. There is nothing here you wouldn’t read in hundreds of blogs and dozens of European newspapers.

In my mind Marlowe makes the mistake of engaging all of the political or cultural issues as if the book was thinly disguised opinion. I don’t think that is the main point. I am sure I disagree with Hamid’s politics, and I am sure those views informed his work, but I don’t think Changez is simply a voice for Hamid. The point, at least as I see it, is to capture the unique perspective, emotions, and ideas of Third World – for want of a better term – immigrants who enter the high powered American corporate world; to portray the complexity of this identity/relationship.

I found this theme to be interesting and worth exploring even if I don’t agree with Changez or Hamid. Relatedly, Marlowe seems unwilling to grant that Hamid could create a character rather than simply a cipher. And she takes everything not merely as descriptive but as a political – or even moral – argument. I think this takes things too far.

On the aesthetic front, again Marlowe seems overly harsh. She uses terms like “tripe”, “dreadful”, etc. As I noted, the novel “isn’t a perfect work by any stretch of the imagination” but I did find it entertaining and thought provoking at times. I am not a novelist, but I wasn’t turned off by Changez’s voice or diction. And I thought Hamid weaved the story in an entertaining way. I find it hard to believe that simple naiveté or latent anti-Americanism is behind the book’s success.

I found myself more in agreement with Karen Olsson’s review in the New York Times. Olsson hit on the issue that I found interesting:

A less sophisticated author might have told a one-note story in which an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid’s novel, while it contains a few such moments, is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspirations and inner struggle. His resentment is at least in part self-loathing, directed at the American he’d been on his way to becoming. For to be an American, he declares, is to view the world in a certain way — a perspective he absorbed in his eagerness to join the country’s elite.

She also found similar flaws:

This part of the story seems a bit too convenient — Erica’s obsession with the past engineered to dovetail with America’s nostalgia and with Changez’s yearning for a lost Lahore — while her disappearance neatly parallels his departure from America. (Our hero’s name gets no points for subtlety either.) Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ethos and hypocrisies of the Ivy League meritocracy, but less so its individual members. Throughout the book, secondary characters are sketched rather than distinctively rendered.

In reading these two reviews it seemed to me that, unlike Olsson, Marlowe become so disgusted with the anti-American sentiment of the novel that she couldn’t step back and enjoy – or at least recognize – the work’s positive qualities. Or maybe Marlowe and I just have completely different taste and thus reactions to the book. Whatever the reason, I think the NYT offers a much more accurate perspective/reaction.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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