One of the finest facets of Mohsin Hamid’s body of fiction is its exuberant play with form. This experimentation is executed thoughtfully despite his lightness of touch and keen sense of humour. Like a linked chain, in each novel Hamid unobtrusively tries out an unusual technique, which extends in the next piece of writing.
Accordingly, several features from his previous book Exit West are repeated, but developed further, in his new work, The Last White Man, which has just been published to appropriate fanfare.
Hamid continues his discussion of the rise of the global new right, which began with sinister “nativists” in Exit West’s London and Marin sections, to explore elliptically the 21st century’s emboldening of racists.
In form, the unwieldy syntax is bent even further. The majority paragraphs consist of a single sentence, generating a disorienting, hypnotic timbre.
What’s more, he creates an atmosphere of magical realism. Exit West’s doors had disgorged refugees into new worlds; the new book introduces an epidemic of brownness whereby more and more white people find themselves turning dark. Alluding obliquely to the Covid-19 pandemic, he explores the absurdity of racial classification, as in a fever dream pushing towards absurdism.
Exit West contained cut-piece scenes which, at first glance, had little to do with the narrative arc of protagonists Saeed and Nadia. One of these involved a brown man who emerges through a wardrobe door into the room of a sleeping Australian woman.
Similarly, the new novel opens with an image of a brown man out of place in a bedroom. He is our protagonist, an erstwhile white man with the aggressively Nordic name of Anders. Suddenly unmoored even in his own room, Anders is the index case of this epidemic. He has lost his whiteness, crossing over to an unspecified “brown” ethnicity from which he seemingly cannot escape.
Critics are scrambling to compare Anders to Gregor Samsa, Franz Kafka’s hero, who wakes up as a giant insect in Metamorphosis, and to later novels of race metamorphosis. However, a more apt point of reference might come from non-fiction: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Like Fanon, Hamid deconstructs white privilege, violent epidermalisation and the black or brown person being made either invisible or hypervisible in a racist society.
The effect of Hamid’s speculations is to break down the walls dividing brown and white, them and us, self and other. He writes of Anders feeling “triply imprisoned, in his skin, in this house, in his town.” Anders is also, in a way, trapped within the novel’s pages.
Yet in another sense, such characters exceed the confines of fiction as readers take their stories into their own consciousness. Hamid forges connections, blurring the lines that separate us.
Even at the level of the sentence there is a chain technique, too, with a repeating motif being carried forward in a nudge effect. Two critics — David Gates and Namwali Serpell — have already disparaged Hamid’s writing. It is true that the long sentences occasionally feel overwrought, but there is more to it.
For example, Anders’s girlfriend Oona contemplates her relationship with her ageing mother, and language itself:
“Oona was her mother’s mother now, Oona sometimes felt, or maybe mother was not the right word for it, maybe daughter was fine, both words meaning more than she once thought they did, each having two sides to itself, a side of carrying and a side of being carried, each word in the end the same as the other…”
Hamid’s repetitions recall the rhetorical device of the diacope, or the musicality of call and response. The piling up of words piece by piece creates a cumulatively more incantatory tenor. This unsettles and estranges the reader, forcing them to think about the arbitrary and relational nature of both language and constructions of race.
Oona’s name, like Anders’s, is defiantly white, though her moniker has Celtic rather than Scandinavian roots. No other characters are named, just as in Exit West only Nadia and Saeed had appellations. There’s an unnamed country, too, which one critic speculates might be South Africa. Similarly, the home city and country in both Exit West and Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia were unlabelled.
The word ‘pandemic’ is also left unsaid in The Last White Man. Yet from early on, sickness is introduced in relation to the unspecified disease suffered by Anders’s father. Also evoked is the mental ill health of Oona’s “reclusive” and racist mother, with her florid online paranoia.
An important strand concerns ageing, the vulnerability of parents and grief. Indeed, the quote above indicates the porous borders between mothers and daughters, which is adapted elsewhere to fathers and sons.
As well as reflections on mortality, Hamid depicts a broken society. Some businesses are derelict, while the shops that still open lack essential goods. Hordes of shoppers descend on these stores to panic-buy for the “terrible storm” that is “perhaps coming” or may “blow over.” Memories of former “eras of war and plague” fortify Oona as she steels herself for the apocalypse.
One calamity that follows is riots led by white supremacist militants. Ostensibly a mixed-race couple, Oona and Anders attract hostility and witness violence. Prepared to defend themselves, they barricade themselves in their home and order provisions online.
Over time, though, the racial transmogrification comes to be normalised and incurs less ire. Oona’s mother clings to the red pill of digital hatred, but the new chatter is of “the search for a cure.” As with right-wing promotion of ivermectin to treat Covid, “for every story of a miracle drug that made you white again there were three or four of someone who had grown terribly sick from imbibing it.”
Finally, the old world crumbles to irrelevance, people leave their houses to return to work and new conventions emerge for a population changed irrevocably.
In 1952, Fanon had argued that, “For the black man, there is but one destiny. And it is white.” By contrast, The Last White Man suggests that the white man awaits a mixed-race future. Seen through Hamid’s glass, darkly, ideas of racial purity splinter and are rendered absurd, while notes of cautious optimism sound.
The columnist is professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 14th, 2022