The Last White Man
(Riverhead Books, 2022)
Mohsin Hamid has good reason to call himself a “mongrel.” His education was split between Pakistan and the US, he’s had careers in marketing and journalism, yet since studying with Toni Morrison at Princeton, his primary passion has been for fiction. These days, his novels are international best-sellers, with two of them adapted to film, and he divides his time between Lahore, London, and New York. Nevertheless, I’d say Hamid’s true mongrel dwells in the imagination, and with each new title he further dilutes the purity of the breed⎯ and this is a good thing.
The Last White Man is Hamid’s fifth, and the sequence clearly reveals a tilt toward the bizarre. At the level of sentence and scene, to be sure, this author has always elbowed past the norms; working with frame stories, second person, and other trickery. Still, though the reality of a text like The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) was exaggerated, its people improbably kinetic, it remained recognizable. We knew these cities, these histories. With Exit West (2017), however, Hamid’s materials turned considerably stranger. A drama of the worldwide refugee crisis, Exit West doesn’t shy from the ugliness that forces people to flee⎯ a mother gunned down on the street, for one⎯ yet it depends on something out of this world. Protagonists pass through supernatural portals, ducking out of the Middle East, or what seems like the Middle East, and winding up, well, where? Is it Greece? And then where do they get to, via what wormhole?
Overall, Exit West replaces the sharp cross-cultural insights of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (its very title an apercu) with amazement and the surreal. And in his latest, Hamid leans into that curve. Its central premise is hinted at in the title, then spelled out with startling clarity in the first line: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” As quick as that, a vast mystic transformation is underway, and the echo of Gregor Samsa’s bad morning feels appropriate. Like The Metamorphosis, The Last White Man shows us a seismic shift that leaves things relatively unchanged; the whole population goes through an improbable makeover yet winds up in pretty much the same situation as beforehand.
Again, suggestion is key to Hamid’s alchemy. His focus remains limited to a small circle around Anders, but the man’s transformation soon elicits rumors of others: “reports began to emerge from around the country of people changing.” Still the phenomenon is kept at a remove; we view the worst violence on someone’s iPhone (not that this drains the incident of horror). Settings remain unnamed, with scenes opening and closing in blackouts, now on the street and now in some apartment. This makes for swift storytelling, in chapters that stick to one perspective and linked incidents. As for the city in which these unfold, that might be any in the developed world⎯ the white man’s world.
A familiar place, that is, with bicycles and bicycle lanes, handguns and less lethal technology. Oona, the female lead, frets over her mother’s many prescriptions, for all sorts of ailments including “anxiety.” The reader, like the daughter, recognizes a major source of that anxiety, namely, doomscrolling. The internet’s fearful inanity, in Hamid’s alt-reality, is as bad as ours.
Here, the only names we encounter are Anders and Oona. The only other figures developed in depth are her mother and his father. As for the few bright-lit moments, those tend to wander away from the physical. One of the best examples would be the initial sex scene, a day or so after Anders changes colors, as he and his sometime lover Oona try out mixed-race intercourse. The stuff of porn moves swiftly, and with authorial blessing, into realms of spirit:
…if we, writing or reading this, were to find ourselves indulging in a kind of voyeuristic pleasure at their coupling, we could perhaps be forgiven, for they were experiencing something not entirely dissimilar, pale-skinned Oona watching herself performing her grind with a dark-skinned stranger, Anders the stranger watching the same, and the performance was strong for them, visceral, touching them where, unexpectedly, or not so unexpectedly, they discovered a jarring and discomforting satisfaction at being touched.
Now, note the syntax: the full stop after “touched” is the first in a dozen lines, going back to the beginning of the paragraph. The same holds true throughout. The text is all run-ons, though carefully bundled, and on the rare occasions when I spotted a period mid-paragraph, it claimed special justification. Case in point, the novel’s first sentence, like a ceremonial opening gong. Hamid clearly hasn’t tired of tinkering with rhetoric, and more than that, in this novel his way of piling up clauses and phrases, following an assertion with its qualification, takes us into the core of his project. This is a story of careful distinctions, changes of heart registered in their subtlest⎯ pun intended⎯ shade.
Everywhere in Last White, we share the struggle to redefine the place of self and world. Anders works at “a black iron gym, a rough gym,” no place for plumbing the soul. Yet after he’s turned “dark,” his first days back on the job trigger profound reevaluations:
…he tried to engage in his normal banter, to be, as it were, like himself, to act undeniably like himself, but this was more difficult than he imagined, impossible really, for what was more unlike oneself, more awkward, than trying to be oneself…
The plunge into such quandaries, and their eventual acceptance, provides the fundamental plot of The Last White Man. It’s a consequence no one can escape, the natural result of the novel’s other, far more visible consequence. The protagonists’ introspection in time forges a deeper connection, both between them and with their bewildered parents. The older two have such an emotional distance to cover, amid the gunfire and paranoia, they invite even greater sympathy than the lovers. Hamid the mongrel has imagined mongrels taking over, and with that an apocalypse story about a world without end.