Book Review: The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

This is a brief review of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel. I am a fan of Hamid, because I admire how he accomplishes so much in a short space in his novels. This book is, in a word, clever. The premise, execution, the subject matter and how it is handled is truly intelligent, insightful, and wry. Hamid manages to get a lot of social commentary in without hitting the reader over the head with it. (SOME SPOILERS BELOW.) It is a brilliant book that is absolutely worth reading.

Well-read people will immediately know that this novel alludes to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” where Gregor Samsa wakes up and is transformed into a giant beetle. However, in this case, Anders (one of two protagonists) wakes up and find that his skin has darkened. Anders goes through various stages of understanding, first experiencing shock but then eventually experiencing fright, as he sees how dark-skinned people are treated differently. His good friend Oona, who soon becomes lover, seems fairly accepting of the change, but not everyone else is as open-minded. Anders’s father, for example, is drawn as a classic, working-class white male who values whiteness, but still cares for his son. Likewise, Oona’s mother, takes comfort in her connection to and white pride groups online. 

As members of the town become dark-skinned one by one, and as violence increases, Anders and Oona deepen their connection, going from casual sex to a relationship and eventually to love. Oona also becomes permanently dark-skinned. Hamid skillfully juxtaposes this intimate relationship against the backdrop of riots and violence against dark-skinned people by those who hang onto their white identity till the last, who try to maintain white supremacy until they too succumb to the fate of turning dark. There is also the shadow of Anders’s father’s illness, which is terminal, along with the recent death of Oona’s brother.

What is interesting, and shocking, perhaps, is that the reader would expect the novel to be more about the realization and acceptance of not being white in society. Instead, Hamid shows us the struggle that white people have with both dark skin as well as becoming a minority. He gets inside the mindset of white people who feel threatened by black or brown people, and in playing this “reverse psychology” trick, illustrates how racism develops and is quite pervasive in American society. Hamid turns the tables on us, because he has crafted a narrative about how racism develops from white fragility and shows us the fearful white’s POV—all quite clever, given that Hamid is of Pakistani origin.

The main criticism I have of the novel is that the paragraphs are constructed by very long, run-on sentences. Conventional punctuation, such as semicolons and periods do not break up the paragraphs, so it requires the reader to pay close attention, making it difficult to read. There is very little dialogue, with Hamid focusing instead on interiority. At times, the novel can feel a little “thin,” as it stays very focused on a few characters’ experiences. My other chief criticism is that the ending feels abrupt, time is summed up too quickly, and it doesn’t quite give us a satisfying resolution. However, this novel is still quite intriguing and really one of a kind, reflecting the events of the past couple of years (a pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, white supremacy riots, etc.) that are transformed into a dystopian world that will appeal to readers of speculative fiction as well as fans of multicultural literature. Hamid always has something interesting to say, and a very engaging way of saying it. I look forward to his next novel, as he is one of the most insightful, thought-provoking writers around.

What Makes for Good Writing (Part I?)

This post may have to be written in installments, as there are so many things to discuss about the subject. And of course, tastes will vary greatly — anyone in the arts knows that tastes are quite subjective. That said, if we look at certain elements of technique and craft, I think there are some constants or things that everybody would agree upon. Let us have a look.

-The prose. The use of language that makes us see things in a different way, or a more specific or creative way. Toni Morrison is a master of this: she phrases things uniquely, but her prose is always accessible and readable. Salman Rushdie creates his own lexicon and own language in his novels, a very florid, convoluted style to be sure, but he has such fun playing with the language that we cannot help but enjoy the ride. And then there are the Zen like, minimalist writers like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver, who are able to create full pictures with a minimum of words. And let us not forget the inimitable Oscar Wilde
– the unparalleled wit masks a lot of wisdom!

-Metaphor. Consider Nabokov’s stunning line in The Gift, in describing a street where the protagonist lives, “… It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.” Upon reading the sentence, I put the book down and shut it, simply blown away by the brilliance of the metaphor, sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. Toni Morrison’s work is rife with metaphor, as we can see many times in The Bluest Eye. Symbolism, metaphor, allegory – these larger themes enhance a work of literature, expanding it beyond what is merely on the page.

-Omniscient narration. This has largely fallen out of vogue in modern fiction, but omniscience truly gives us an understanding of the overarching picture of various things in a way that only omniscience can. Tolstoy is the first writer that comes to mind for most people, his penetrating insight into characters and the human condition and social mores is astounding. Willa Cather gives us this, as does Jane Austen. It suggests a certain wisdom on the part of the author, an understanding of human nature that, as above, expands beyond the words on the page. It can make sweeping generalizations and sum up grand truths that are part of why we need literature.

-Sort of on the flipside, intimacy. Edith Pearlman’s stories are warmly intimate; we truly feel we are with the characters. Philip Roth hilariously and disgustingly pushes the limits of intimacy in his brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a case of Too Much Information. Even the popularity of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary show the human need for confiding in a literary friend who is full of foibles and wants to share it with the reader.

-Unique subject matter. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is brilliant: the retelling of Hamlet from the womb is unlike anything else. James Baldwin’s stories in Going to Meet the Man show a fresh perspective on Black life at a time when Blacks were still seen as the “House N—–” or The Other, only beginning to be integrated into American society. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World are still appealing because they are stories like nothing else. And even the success of the Harry Potter books shows that readers love a fantastical world where there is magic, villains, heroes, and an underdog hero. J.K. Rowling created a world of her own, and in doing so, her work developed a universal appeal.

These are but a few things that make for good writing. Perhaps this post shall be continued in the future.