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.

The Writer as Truth-Teller

We have seen the tragic event of the past week and events of the recent past and this only emphasizes the importance of the writer as a social figure. It is also crucial that we allow democracy to filter into the classroom, allowing a variety of viewpoints to be read in various texts.

There are a variety of ways in which writers tell the truth. Sometimes, they overtly criticize a political regime or administration. This act seems to be what is most often chastised and severely punished, even by imprisonment or death. At other times writers use satire, a phenomenon which, when done carefully, evades censors and thus the readers (or viewers of theater) are quick to pick up on institution that is being critiqued. Humor can be a tool in doing this: what we know of as, for example, “dark Slavic humor” masks a sarcastic commentary. The twin sister of satire is allegory, in which a fable-like quality is given to the lead characters and narrative, allowing it to be read on one level as simple story (that retells a classic we know), while a more profound subtext is below what we read on the surface.

Politics, religion, social institutions, -isms of various sorts (such as sexism) are all topics that brave writers address through literature whose goal is social commentary. Sometimes, fiction is the best way to make sense of our world and engaging people: think of how many people tune out and stop watching the evening news or reading the (online) newspaper when they are faced with the literal facts and information about what is going on in the world. Fiction allows for a deeper analysis of our current situations, end it often does so in a much more poetic or palatable way.

There are those who will say a writer should write with the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” such as Oscar Wilde did. However, Oscar Wilde himself did comment on society in many of his works, albeit in a highly aesthetic way. Even his own life, as a gay aesthete writer, was an act of rebellion for which he heavily paid the price. The takeaway should be that enjoyable, appealing prose and social commentary are not mutually exclusive.

“The Chair” on Netflix: A Disappointment

I got a sneak preview to watch “The Chair” before it was officially available on Netflix (I guess I am cool enough to have had an ‘in’!) and the premise had really piqued my curiosity: a Korean-American professor is hired to be the chair of a flailing English department which is very much old guard, white male except for one black woman professor and one much older white woman professor. However, I was only able to watch one episode and part of a second before deciding to call it quits. I simply found the show very implausible and cliché-ridden.

What is novel is that the protagonist is an Asian-American woman who is an academic played by the talented Sandra Oh, and we see her speak Korean with her father–it is a rarity on screen to see anyone speaking a native tongue that isn’t Spanish. However, that seems to be one of the only things that really works for me in the show. Pembroke University, where his hired is presumably a top-tier one; sorry for the cultural arrogance, but we don’t see any Indian students in the classroom, which is completely unbelievable.

Also hugely inaccurate is the fact that the English department is all old white male, with the exception of a young black woman and an older white woman (excellently acted by Holland Taylor). No English department since the 70s has had all old white men who teach only Dead White Men; I grew up in a small Midwest college town and even there, the white men were teaching diverse writers and not all the faculty were white. This was what really killed it for me and made the show more of a caricature. This is not to say that there aren’t dinosaurs in departments and a lack of diversity in some (I left a terrible graduate program for this very reason). The one younger white male we see is again a cliché–Professor Dobson is the drunken, reasonably attractive man who is a little too close to his female students and can’t get his act together. English departments have been in the forefront of social progressiveness in the past few decades, both in terms of curriculum and faculty, incorporating multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ writers, and leftist politics. 

Also problematic is the tone, which seems to hover uneasily between comedy and drama. We have moments of tremendous humor, such as when Holland Taylor’s Professor Hambling comments on an employee’s vulgar, scanty clothing, and then moments of seriousness, such as when Professor Kim is saddled with the task of conveying to the old guard that their classes have declining enrollments. There is no subtlety; things are either screwball, slapdash comical, or darkly true. Everything seems pasted together, every trope and issue in an English department or academia thrown together for a half-hour episode.

Perhaps a piece of my disdain is because I have struggled so long for academia to be seen as more than the clichés of professors having affairs or old white men, and have written a story collection with a more accurate depiction of academia and the emotional dilemmas that go on in a cast of diverse characters. I also worked at the English department at Stanford University after college, so I have insider knowledge of how things work. But beyond that, I just found “The Chair” to be rather a mess, which is sad because it really had so much potential. It was really exciting to see that there was going to be a series with an Asian-American woman as the lead, and who knows, maybe the writers and creators will do what is necessary in the field of English: revise.

American Optimism: Our Country’s Most Distinguishing Characteristic

There is much to criticize about America; have no doubt about that. I cannot solve all of society’s ills, nor even begin to comment on all of them. I cannot address them all in my lifetime. I cannot express everything that needs to be said about a nation that is part superpower, part developing country. America is indeed fraught with problems.

To name but a paltry few: the wrong industries are privatized (healthcare for one, and that will merit a separate post); lawyers have too much power and therefore create a culture of fear that affects our economics; middlemen, such as stockbrokers or any sort of financial agents feed off of necessary transactions and therefore charge exorbitant fees to customers; access to healthcare and quality education is still tragically unequal; the right wing controls religion, patriotism, and social issues; “family values” is a joke, for adequate maternity/paternity leave, affordable childcare, and child-friendly facilities are virtually nonexistent; civil liberties go to such extremes that our government and social institutions are often prevented from being able to care for people’s well-being; corporate culture dominates so much of the business world; developers have all too much power and get away with all sorts of environmental and urban atrocities; unions, though begun with noble goals, get out of hand and create unreasonable demands on any given financial system; ridiculous Puritanism coupled with excessive lechery prohibit a healthy expression and understanding of sensuality and sexuality in American culture; an obsession with money and work clashes with basic fundamentals of health (how many sick people or injured have to drag themselves to work out of fear?); racism still exists on subtle levels; the sexual revolution has been just that—-sexual—-and women still in many cases do not get equal rights or at least respect from men outside of the bedroom.

That take away all of these negatives in American society, strip all of these extremes and unethical behaviors away, and at the bottom of it, there exists a wonderful culture and people. Gloria Steinem once made a remark that America was the greatest living social experiment, or something to that effect, and one cannot help but feel that she had a good point. Ours is a country with an arguably unparalleled diversity, diversity that often shocks visitors from other countries and, inadvertently, biases our minds when we visit homogenous countries that seem “racist.” A Jew might live across the street from Hindus whose neighbors are Polish Catholics and whose friends down the block are a secular Turkish Muslim married to an atheist (my childhood). Those fortunate enough to live in urban areas might eat cereal for breakfast, pad thai for lunch, and gnocchi from the trattoria for dinner.

We have a genuine openness that stuns foreigners, trusting optimism that says “yes” rather than “no.” Our society is built on the premise that mobility and self-betterment are okay, that there is no shame in these things. (Recall the scorn heaped by the British upper classes on the self-made, enterprising Middletons). The American spirit is a can-do one, a spirit with a minimum of suspicion. Yes, in certain areas of the country—-usually regions with strong community ties in the interior, or in small towns—-there is a sense of jealousy against those who try to get ahead. But generally speaking, success is greeted positively in America, especially when compared with how it is viewed in other parts of the world.

Even romantically, as Americans, we want a happy ending. We want the guy to get the girl at the end of the movie. We women want to have the career *and* the husband. We want the nice wedding reception at the vineyard. We have a certain “teleology” (as a friend of mine put it) with romantic relationships. This is often in stark contrast to the very rationalistic, social welfare cultures of Northern and Western Europe where many couples don’t feel the impetus to have their relationship recognized by the state, and don’t need marriage as a means of economic fulfillment since one’s needs are taken care of by the government. “We are happy as we are” many of them might say, and there is no arguing with that. A number of Americans feel the same way as well. But romance is one of the oldest, and most fundamental human impulses and marriage one of the oldest institutions—-why shouldn’t it “lead somewhere”??

We want to move forward as a culture, we are always moving forward, and certainly sometimes this can be less than a positive. Look at the stress levels of Americans compared to those of people in other developed nations. Look at the waste we create in our highly consumerist society. Look at the shallowness of our popular media in the age of Kardashian Kulture. Again, we have to add these things to the list of our society’s ills. There are many countries that come out ahead of the United States on indices of quality of life, and it’s not often hard to see why.

But our optimism will always include awareness; there are always those who want things in our country to grow sustainably, so to speak. We don’t have stigmas against trying. Our educational system fosters an openness of thought even from an early age, and the older I get, the more I realize how special this is. Criticize what you will about the United States, but you cannot justifiably criticize her optimism. Those who don’t believe it can only be considered the worst kind of skeptics.

Happy 237th Birthday, America!