I’ve now read three September 11th novels, by which I mean novelistic responses to the issues raised by the attacks. The first was ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan. I usually feel somewhat cheated by McEwan’s novels, and this was no exception. He goes to such trouble to develop characters, setting and plot, raising your expectations to such a pitch that you feel you’re about to learn something unforgettable about life and human beings, and then it all fizzles out. ‘Saturday’ covers a day in the life of a London doctor called Henry Perowne. The day begins with Perowne worrying over a mysterious plane in the sky, wondering if it’s going to fly into a London landmark. Later he avoids the huge demonstration against the approaching invasion of Iraq. Perowne wonders how he feels about it all, comes to no conclusion, goes to play squash. He has an altercation with a thuggish person who scratches the paint from his car, and in the evening the same thug breaks into his house like a symbol of the intrusive messy world. I’ve forgotten how it ends. McEwan has been attacked for being a neo-conservative, or a liberal interventionist, or just as hopelessly complacent and bourgeois as his protagonist, but he has defended himself by pointing out that McEwan is not Perowne – an obvious truth. If we start blaming authors for what their characters say we end up like the fools in Egypt who demonstrated against Haider Haider’s novel ‘A Banquet of Seaweed’ (waleema li-‘ashaab al-bahr) because one of Haider’s characters – who later commits suicide – expresses atheistic beliefs. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that McEwan’s treatment of the post-September 11th world focusses only on Western self-absorption. What the events require is a new engagement with the darknesses and resentments of the world beyond our narrow conception of it, a new sense of the interconnections of the West and elsewhere, for better and for worse.
Then I read John Updike’s ‘Terrorist’, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog (http://qunfuz.blogspot.com/2006/11/updikes-terrorist.html ). My great respect for Updike as a writer perhaps made me too charitable in that evaluation. If anybody hasn’t read his series of ‘Rabbit’ novels, I strongly recommend them, for their wonderful style, their tragi-comedy, and for their vast scale which encompasses key moments in American history as well as in Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s life. In these books Updike is clearly writing about what he knows and understands. In “Terrorist”, he clearly isn’t. His main protagonist, despite being mixed-race and mixed-up, is a stereotype, and so are all the Arabs and Muslims in the book – either dirty and threatening, or ‘good niggers’ who ardently support the attack on Iraq and report to the CIA. Nothing new is said about the motivations of anti-American terrorism or about the effect of the American empire on the world. Updike’s analysis goes no further than Martin Amis’s. He sees the causes of conflict to be sexual, not political, and believes that America is targetted as a result of its supposed moral degeneracy. But Muslims haven’t attacked the bikini beaches of Brazil, and such ‘analysis’ is as self-congratulatory as Henry Perowne’s bourgeois complacency.
Last night I finished ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid. This is a simpler novel than the two described above, and is stylistically unremarkable. It is, however, a genuine consideration of real issues raised by September 11th. In its organisation and the cumulative metaphorical power of its subplots it is much more than competent. It is a confessional narrative, told by a Pakistani to an American in a restaurant in Lahore. The anguished first-person self-revelation is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes From Underground’, but Hamid’s Changez is a fundamentally balanced character. It’s the times, and the empire, that are out of joint, and Changez’s story is of righting himself by retreating from America. Educated at Princeton and working for a company which values businesses due to be sold off and stripped, Changez finds himself smiling when he sees TV reportage of the twin towers falling. This prompts a deepening examination of his identity, his allegiances, and his relationship with America. Parallels are implied between Muslim countries and the doomed employees of the companies Changez evaluates. The key here is not religion, but corporate capitalism and traumatic economic change. Changez’s boss Jim says, “We came from places that were wasting away.” He means, on the one hand, Pakistan, and on the other, old industrial America. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a catchy but not very apt title. There is very little theology in the book. By the end of the story Changez is not at all an Islamist, but discovers he has to oppose the corporate American empire in order to remain mentally and morally healthy.
There’s plenty of on-target comment about American reaction to September 11th. Like this: “I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolour but in grainy black and white. What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me – a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know – but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether – if it could indeed be animated – it contained a part written for someone like me.”
The attack on the empire makes Changez aware of America as an empire. The final straw for him is when he hears someone describing the Janissaries, the Christian slaves taken as boys from their parents by the Ottoman empire and turned into an elite warrior class to defend the sultan. Is Changez a latter-day reversed Janissary?
In an effective subplot, Changez has an almost-girlfriend who is obsessed by the memory of her dead boyfriend. In her depression, “She glowed with something not unlike the fervour of the devout.” Themes of nostalgia and commingled, confused identities seep into other parts of the novel, where they are relevant to Changez, Pakistan, and America. These are the correspondences and suggested patterns that novel writing is all about. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ deals profoundly with politics without needing to limit itself to political discourse, and so succeeds as a novel. The novel is the most holistic form there is, in that it treats spirituality, identity, sex, politics, and so on, without drawing ideological lines between them. In that respect, the novel is a specimen of life.
Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani who studied and worked in America and now lives in London. He has the cross-cultural experience to write a novel like this. But is it ridiculous to expect a more monocultural Anglo-Saxon writer to approach similar themes – of empire and resistance, of defensive nostalgia and confident self-reinvention – without resorting to stereotype and media cliché? Is a broader perspective really so difficult?