You know that moment when you pick up a book, read a page, and feel the thrill of discovery? “I’ve got a live one here!”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist came into the bookstore in some bag or box, and because it was close to Christmas we were slower than usual triaging the collection for shelving. Jack and I agreed to close the store Christmas Eve Day and flee our responsibilities for an extended holiday, and as part of a last-minute packing job that covered twenty minutes from bag to door, I snatched Fundamentalist off the top of a pile as a “this looks good enough” book during our three days at the cabin.
The cabin is a deliberately isolated place, no phone, no Internet, no TV, in consequence of which we usually bring a book for each day. It was on day two, just after the morning news had ended on the radio, that I opened Hamid’s novel and began reading.
And reading. And savoring, and laughing, and drawing in a sharp breath, and diving headlong into a scary world of subtly-drawn tensions, coiled tight and ready to spring.
Hamid’s novel is about a Princeton graduate (Changez, and if one is prone to find meaning in character names, yes, it sounds like what he goes through) and Lahore native–a city of about 8 million, basically the NYC of Pakistan–who hits the good life in America at age 22, working high finance for a big investment firm. Think guys who do unspeakable things with computers that result in lots of money for a few, big bad changes for the rest.
But Changez begins to come unglued because of a few key forces. Chief among these is his tormented girlfriend, who as the novel progresses becomes a symbol of the two cities that dominate the book, Lahore and NYC; she cannot move past her own losses, and sinks into herself, a self-indulgent poor little rich girl incapable of coping with what’s happened to her. Did I mention the book is also about 9/11? At the same time, Erica (the girlfriend) could be Lahore, a city of ancient splendor reduced to the pale shadow of its former self, wasting with quiet dignity away into nostalgia for a life no longer possible.
Behind this love story going so sweetly, poetically, horribly bad is the tense political thriller of two men seated at a restaurant. The entire story is in fact Changez’s monologue to an unidentified American. The reader never hears the other man’s voice, but hints and innuendos undergirding the developing relationship mirror what’s happening inside Changez in his narrated biography.
Hamid writes with the delicacy of a world-class figure skater on thin ice, executing moves a lesser artist would fear to try on solid ground. At one point, as the Towers fall, a character, alone in his hotel room, smiles. That’s all; he just smiles, but the book pivots on this like a 200-pound muscle man who becomes poetry in motion, expressing things people just don’t say out loud. Ever.
It’s not a book everyone will like; it asks too many questions, suggests too many ambiguities. The very nature of its lady-or-the-tiger ending will bring some readers to their feet, shrieking in protest (sorry, very small spoiler there). But it is awesome, in the sense of inspiring something between fear and admiration for its unflinching, brutal understatement.