The Other of Invention

Exit West: A Novel BY Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books. . .

Early in his remarkable How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Mohsin Hamid advanced an idea familiar to readers of nineteenth-century fiction: Novels should teach readers how to dress, address a member of the opposite sex, and elevate one's standing in society. In other words, the novel could function not only as entertainment but also as self-help. Things haven't changed too much. We still read to improve ourselves. But there's one significant difference: Where the imagined reader of earlier times might have read books in order to learn how to behave in a civilized way, we now read to gain understanding of, if not intimacy with, civilization itself. Here is Hamid in Filthy Rich:

Why, for example, do you persist in reading that much-praised, breathtakingly boring foreign novel, slogging through page after page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose and blush-inducing formal conceit, if not out of an impulse to understand distant lands that because of globalization are increasingly affecting life in your own?

The above words came back to me while reading Hamid's latest work, Exit West. The description of the "foreign novel" applies to it in one particular sense. Mohsin Hamid, born in Lahore, Pakistan, but very much a citizen of the world, or at least a person with the experience of long habitation in the West, has been a reliable narrator of global change and conflict. Like his compatriot Mohammed Hanif, another Pakistani writer equally adept at writing op-eds and inventive fiction, Hamid brings lucidity and drama to his reports about life on the subcontinent. I'm tempted to say he is the go-to man on globalization, except that he is not interested in selling the view that the world is flat. Rather, he seeks to represent the voice of the other. Compare, for example, Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) with Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007). Both are about 9/11, but where DeLillo explores the aftermath through the eyes of an adulterous couple and the alienation of a performer, Hamid allows us to see the same events through the eyes of an outsider. Hamid's protagonist, Changez, a young man from Lahore, educated at Princeton and employed by an elite financial firm in New York when the attacks take place, has an eloquent, anguished sense of what it means to be on either side of the global divide. The Reluctant Fundamentalist also conforms to the above quote's statement that the "foreign novel" satisfies an "impulse to understand distant lands," at least in the sense that it dramatically collapses the distance dividing places on opposite sides of the planet.

But How to Get Filthy Rich and The Reluctant Fundamentalist cannot be mistaken for the kind of novel he is mocking. True, they rely on elaborate formal conceits—the idea of the self-help book, for instance—but these conceits are quite brilliant and sustained over many pages. The prose is never turgid or pedantic or boring; even the sentences that could be lifted from op-eds have about them an easy fluency and enviable economy. All these strengths are again visible in Hamid's new novel, but not always or adequately, and a pall of passivity settles over the narrative. The conceits feel feeble. This makes Exit West a puzzling, and even unsatisfying, "foreign novel."

"In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her." That is the opening line of Exit West. The young man, Saeed, is drawn to the young woman, Nadia, and the story gathers swift momentum as they begin to fall in love. We are told that Saeed is "an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education," who, like other men with similar traits, still lives with his parents. Nadia's independence and strength, as is usual with Hamid's heroines, is of a different and more admirable sort. Nadia rebels against her religious parents, living alone as a single woman, and rides a motorcycle. She wears her "conservative and virtually all-concealing black robe" only so that, as she puts it, "men don't fuck with me."

Saeed and Nadia are finding love in an unnamed city in an unnamed country that resembles Pakistan—in a recent interview, Hamid said that he couldn't bear to do to Lahore what happens to the city in his story. The ominous changes that occur in that city in the book's opening pages—beheadings and bombings, even the appearance of large numbers of refugees who erect makeshift shelters—no longer pose the main threat. Instead, the catastrophe that overtakes Saeed and Nadia's lives is war. The country is at war with itself, its army engaged in a battle against fanatical militants that it is going to lose. Hamid's language is brisk and visual: "The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot." But even in that moment, equally characteristically, Hamid is alert to status. All good stories are seeded in the fertile soil of inequality—recall his riff in his debut novel, Moth Smoke (2000), on access to air-conditioning as the only real marker of social difference in Pakistan—and Hamid's fiction finds its richest yield in the exposure of conflicting points of view. This democratic impulse gives a keen edge to his stories. As we read further about the helicopters, within the menacing machine we encounter the vulnerable human:

Through an open door, a young soldier looked down upon their city, a city not overly familiar to him, for he had grown up in the countryside, and was struck by how big it was, how grand its towers and lush its parks. The din around him was incredible, and his belly lurched as he swerved.

Civil war makes demands on the patience and ingenuity that Saeed and Nadia bring to their love. Street battles and curfew, the disruption of municipal services, also take their expected toll on civic life. Saeed's father, an academic, regrets that he didn't choose another profession—it would have allowed him to fund Saeed's passage abroad. People dream of leaving. And more than a few succeed. The international TV channels report that the war is going badly and leading to "an unprecedented flow of migrants" to the rich countries that are "building walls and fences and strengthening their borders, but seemingly to unsatisfactory effect." With this observation, we have arrived on the shores of current Western discourse about refugees. Exit West might bring to mind Donald Trump's loud claim, during the campaign, that he wanted to ban Muslims from coming to America. But Hamid, once again, approaches this topic from the viewpoint of the Other: Reading him, you identify with the struggles and sorrows of the migrants; you understand, at least a little bit, the conditions that refugees are trying to escape. Most powerfully, we are encouraged to imagine the characters' painful choices—why they might subject their families to incredibly risky boat voyages, and why they might leave other family members behind to die. As Nadia thinks when bidding good-bye to Saeed's old father, "She was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind." If refugees are murderers, their crimes are generally based on impossible decisions about family, love, and memory—crimes that are very, very different from what Trump would want you to believe.

It is thrilling to read fiction that provides a report on the world and on how people live today. Hamid is often good at delivering this pleasure. But in Exit West, somewhat inexplicably, he adopts a narrative voice that I can only call biblical. Here's a part of a sentence about Saeed and Nadia:

. . . and when they held hands it was facing each other, sitting, their wrists resting on their knees, their knees almost touching, and then he leaned forward and she leaned forward, and she smiled, and they kissed, and they realized that it was dawn, and they were no longer hidden by darkness, and they might be seen from some other rooftop, so they went inside and ate the cold food, not much but some, and it was strong in flavor.

Hamid is usually a wonderful stylist, but this is mannered and jarring, and the awkward syntax and style are deployed repeatedly in Exit West. Also repeated is another device: The refugees here do not undertake a journey over land or sea, but merely step through doors and magically appear in another land. Hamid repeatedly describes such appearances in affluent metropolises—Sydney, Tokyo, San Diego, Vienna, you get the picture—and while this points to the imaginative possibilities of fiction, it also makes the actual experience of such journeys appear insubstantial, nearly weightless. Saeed and Nadia themselves step through such a portal, making their way into the urban wilderness of the West. Mass migration has rendered the West nearly unrecognizable, and the biblical syntax is perhaps there to evoke the sense of a fallen world. We are inhabiting a dystopia that seemsfamiliar, and yet can be located only in the future. We see things that are set at a distance. This narrative distance, as well as the rhythm of the language, gives the rest of the novel the feel of a fable. The excitement in the opening pages of the novel wears off.

And yet, such is the intelligence of Hamid's craft that he is able to offer many small, engaging essays, even amid a faltering plot. Near the book's conclusion, we come across a disquisition on prayer. The narrative is ostensibly about why Saeed finds comfort when he prays, but this brief section also serves as a rebuke to those who see in the figure of a religious Muslim, or in a Muslim prostrate in prayer on a mat, a frightening and apocalyptic symbol. Hamid's insistence is on worldly or secular truth, on small quotidian realities rather than large ideological determinations. A passage like the one on prayer makes us see Exit West as an imaginative attempt to tell the story of refugees by employing a rather simple and unexceptionable framing device—the device that insists on the individual's ineradicable humanity.

Amitava Kumar's most recent book is Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in the World (Duke University Press, 2015).