The Last White Man
By Mohsin Hamid
On Aug 4, I participated in a ticketed book launch of Mohsin Hamid’s freshly released novel The Last White Man. The event was held at an 1850s’ synagogue on the corner of Sixth and I streets, in downtown Washington DC. A mixed crowd of about 150 young and old literati filled this old Jewish cultural centre, situated only two blocks from the White House. Here, Hamid and columnist Wajahat Ali, two brown Muslims, discussed race and identity in America.
As they say, only in America.
Hamid’s new novel is a fantasy and a love story, but also about grief, loss and transformation. It is a tragic tale of whiteness, particularly of the white working class in America.
The book opens: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” This very first line in the fable of racial transformation is a deliberate echo of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Also note, Anders is a very common name among white people of Viking descent. Although Hamid does not name the city in which the story unfolds, it is quite clear that the novel is describing a small town in Trump-leaning America, somewhere in the Midwest.
At first, Anders tells of this nightmare event to Oona, his white girlfriend from his high school days. Soon, reports of similar surreal events spread across the country. It seems that the established order is being overturned.
Mohsin Hamid’s new novel is a fantasy and a love story, but also about grief, loss and transformation and a tragic tale of the white working class in America
Anders, being the first of the main characters to change, has a harrowing experience when — thinking that a black person has broken into his studio apartment, located in the poorer part of town — he tries to kill himself. He avoids work at his “black iron gym” for several days by calling in sick. “He waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come,” writes Hamid. Finally, when he does show up at his workplace, his white boss tells him, “I would have killed myself.”
Anders realises that, with him turning brown, the world around him has changed — “People who knew him no longer knew him.” In the parking lot of the supermarket, he sees someone look at him, then look away, and it happens again in the dairy aisle. He muses that “the way people act around you changes what you are and who you are.” He feels triply imprisoned, in his skin, in his house, in his town.
On the other hand, Oona, who teaches yoga, is more physically attracted than shocked by Anders’s change. She also finds this shift a diversion from grieving for her twin brother who died of drug addiction, and the endless effort she must make in caring for her depressed, diabetes-stricken, racist mother who is obsessed with social media and conspiracy theories.
Hamid delineates the character of Oona’s mother very well. A typical follower of Donald Trump, unemployed and living on the money her late husband left her, she buys a large, expensive television on which to watch Fox News.
Glued to the conservative news channel and the social media outlet Twitter, she is worried about white genocide in America. When she accidentally sees the brown-skinned Anders making love to her white daughter, she cannot bear the sight and ends up vomiting. “You’re so beautiful,” she says to Oona, “you must get a gun.”
Oona’s mother is deeply influenced by conspiracy theories put forth by the extreme right-wing QAnon movement — such as the ‘Great Replacement’, which purports that non-white immigrants to the United States are intended to replace the culture and political power of the white West — and wants to protect “our people.” She is, therefore, beyond horrified when her own skin turns dark.
Unlike Oona’s mother, Anders’s father — a construction foreman dying of cancer — reacts very differently. When Anders tells him over the phone that he has turned brown, the father asks if his son is high. Eventually, writes Hamid, “the father, a cigarette in his mouth, one hand holding to the fabric of his son’s sleeve, the other rigid at his side weeps … He wept like a shudder, like an endless cough, without a sound, staring at the man who had been Anders, until his son took him inside and they both at last sat down.”
One parent is bewildered, the other is deep in the thralls of suspicion. But Anders’s father and Oona’s mother — both unnamed, both white, both widowed — experience the same profound loss of white privilege and suffer from deep anxiety about the erasure of their identity.
Hamid, a consummate novelist twice shortlisted for the Man Booker prize — in 2007 and 2017 for The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West respectively — captures the different reactions of these working-class white characters brilliantly, writing his new book from their perspective, unlike the last, which was written from the coloured immigrants’ point of view.
His depiction of the chaos of race transformation, with militant white rioters in the streets, reminds us of protests such as the Charlottesville riots of 2017 and, above all, of the Jan 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC. “They had nothing left,” writes Hamid, “just their whiteness. All else was lost.”
The Last White Man is a thought-provoking, enjoyable read which uses fiction to explore race and racism in America — a far cry from the stale and toxic propaganda of Fox News and, to a lesser extent, MSNBC cable networks in the US. I suspect the theme of this novel, and the fragility of our civilisation it evokes, will resonate with its readers for a long time.
The fable of race transformation has been used before by many black writers, such as Percival Everett in his 2001 novel Erasure and George Schuyler in his 1931 satire Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940. The whole idea of these works is that race is an artificial construct.
And, as the Human Genome Project — in which scientists from the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and China spent 13 years mapping human DNA — has made clear, race is a biological fiction.
Hamid agrees with this point of view and insists that the superficiality of one’s skin colour should not hold the power that it does. The obsession with whiteness, which is at the centre of American life, is what he challenges in The Last White Man.
Some Western critics have questioned the immediate introduction of the Kafkaesque fantasy device in the very first line — a sharp departure from the mysterious, mid-story, Narnia-style of opening doors in Exit West. According to these critics, it makes the novel lose momentum towards the end.
I agree; from chapter 15 onwards, the novel does meander a bit. But it is rescued by a distinctive style of writing, much like Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, which is both lyrical and, at other times, almost mundane. Hamid writes: “Behind Oona’s house the moon was visible … a little less than full, pregnant belly moon, that was what her father used to call it, and stars were scattered across the sky… and then a ringing, a ringing that stopped, and Anders answered her.”
The novel ends on an optimistic note. Things gradually return to normal. “Winter would soon be over, and spring was on its way.” It looks like a certain plague has ended.
Hamid, the great believer in hope, thinks the future generations will be colour-blind and see the world differently. Perhaps he envisions a genetic melting pot, where races will mix with each other and realise a long-lost dream of American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in 1845: “In this continent — asylum of all nations — we will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the dark ages.”
The reviewer is a retired diplomat and author of five literary books including a novel. His latest book is titled A Wanderer Between the Worlds. His writings can be accessed on www.javedamir.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 28th, 2022