The Reluctant Wokester

Valerie Stivers

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August 30, 2022

The writer Mohsin Hamid has made a literary career of topical novels addressing elite, liberal preoccupations, often beautifully. He is known for the 9/11 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2008), mock self-help book How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and 2017’s Exit West, about the European migration crisis. His latest, The Last White Man, published this month, takes on white privilege, with the speculative exploration of what would happen if people with white skin started turning dark-skinned. The book has received mixed reviews from the who’s-who of critical venues, which have caught the symptoms, but not the cause of the book’s failure. Hamid, who in the past mostly deserved his accolades, has become a victim of the growing ideological sclerosis of the perspective he represents, and it shows in the novel’s quality.

The Last White Man begins with the speculative premise in the first sentence: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” The change, first glimpsed in the dim morning light as the character reaches for his phone is terrifying and enraging; he isn’t his usual color and also, in some fundamental way, not himself. As the text progresses, Anders’s dark skin and new attributes of feature and voice aren’t described in any detail, nor do they make him a part of any existing dark-skinned community; these are deliberate authorial omissions. The change instead serves to racialize him in the most negative ways: He is constantly aware of his skin color; people treat him with suspicion; he loses his assumptions of safety and neutrality. Metaphorically speaking, he has lost his white privilege. The same thing starts happening to people in Anders’s generic, unnamed working-class town. Soon it happens everywhere, until there are no white people left.

Hamid has his own experiences with racialization. By his own account, he spent the first 30 years of his life living between Pakistan and “liberal enclaves” in the United States. He went to Princeton and Harvard Law School. After graduation, he worked in consulting in New York City. As he told an interviewer recently, he had never encountered discrimination based on his skin color until after 9/11, when suddenly he became an object of suspicion, detained at airports, publicly humiliated on flights. He wrote compellingly about the experience in his breakout novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and it formed, he said, the kernel of the idea for this book.

Creating a clever premise is one of Hamid’s strengths as a writer. Most of his books have sharp setups, which, in the better ones, provide ongoing tools for revelation as the text progresses. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was voiced in the second-person as “you,” a universalizing choice that connected its developing-world characters to its First-World readers. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a single monologue by an unnamed Pakistani speaker in Lahore addressing a silent American, which becomes an elegant commentary on US power abroad and the value of listening to each other in the book’s surprising final pages.

“Hamid . . . has become a victim of the growing ideological sclerosis of the perspective he represents.”

Unfortunately, Hamid’s ability to use his promising mechanism in The Last White Man is constrained, probably by his own predilections, certainly by the extreme orthodoxy of the current discourse on race. The reader knows on the first page that there will be no uncertainty, complexity, or surprise in the protagonist’s transformation. The white skin Anders has lost was bad, interpreted in its metaphorical sense as privilege, which is the only way we will be allowed to interpret it. He will lavishly experience the pain of its loss—and his suffering might even be enjoyable for the reader, an unsavory note we will get to later—but he won’t really be allowed to lament it, which would be both unsympathetic and politically verboten. Any characters opposing the transformation will be dimwitted or evil, and will have no good lines. Only one resolution of the book will be possible: Anders will discover that he is better off without his whiteness.

This is exactly what comes to pass, and even the reader who believes that the story has no further complexity might suffer through the flat voicing of Anders and the plodding inevitability of the plot. Anders is a blue-collar everyman. He didn’t go to college. He isn’t a bad person, but he doesn’t have much going for him beyond his moderate competency at his service job and, Hamid makes clear, his white skin. The author possesses an excellent hand for sociocultural detail and is often humorous in making Anders generic. Like everyone else, Anders smokes weed and likes to play music in his car. He is eventually forced to show his new skin color in public, because he runs out of bland staple-foods: milk, chicken breast, and canned tuna (“…there was only so much protein powder a man could reasonably be expected to consume”). But he isn’t a character we are really supposed to sympathize with, or even very clearly see, and we don’t, which is a problem for narrative tension, among other things.

The drama, such as it is, comes from Anders’ response to his new condition, and in the responses of the people around him, primarily Anders’s father, his girlfriend, Oona, and Oona’s mother. Oona is as vaguely drawn as Anders himself, but her signifiers are more liberal: She once lived in the larger city, and she teaches yoga. Predictably, she is open-minded about the skin-color change, and even welcomes the transformation when it happens to her. The larger conflict is generational. The father is a construction foreman with “steel” in his voice and corded forearms (possibly the world’s most overused descriptors for a working-class man), who weeps when he sees Anders’s dark skin. Oona’s mother is overweight and Trumpy in all but name and vomits when she catches Oona and Anders having sex. Both characters are lifeless clichés. Anders’s father, especially, elicits eye rolls. The way he thinks of his son as “his boy” seems like a regional tic from the American South, which is out of place in the surrounding text; his “steely” focus on duty and allegiance is more Greatest Generation than Boomer. One might wonder whether the writer has much experience with the outside-the-enclaves, lower-middle-class Americans he is struggling to put on the page.

That the characters are flat and incoherent might have been a caution to Hamid as he propelled them toward their foregone conclusion. He has said in interviews that his goal was to imagine a better world where “the fantasy of race” is no longer operative, and no one has to be subjected to “the violence of racialization,” because “you can’t tell who is what” anymore. I will skip most of the questions this raises—including the important one about what happens to original people of color (mostly absent from this book, with one cringeworthy exception), the disturbing one about the genocidal creepiness of vanishing a group of people based on skin color, and the smaller but equally creepy one about the desirability of being all the same—to stick to what I think Hamid was trying to do: vanish white privilege. Surely, if privilege functions the way Hamid thinks it does, he could have put convincing, fleshed-out characters on stage, shown us the vanishing, and demonstrated how much better everything would be.

He doesn’t do it. To let the blue-collar people who are the targets of this book have voices would be to look honestly at their lives. We might find that they wield dangerous privilege, but we might also discover sympathetic qualities, or complications with the narrative. And such complications aren’t allowed by the dominant ideologies of our time—a state of affairs that makes for neither a pleasant society nor a good novel.

“People with white privilege being exaggeratedly nice to people with dark skin in janitorial jobs is no improvement on the status quo.”

Without multidimensional characters on the page, Hamid also can’t demonstrate that the skin-color changes improve Anders’s life in any concrete way. The closest we get are rambling, misty passages that should have been another warning sign to the author that he was veering off-track; in no previous book has his prose been repetitive or mushy. The following, about Oona’s skin-color change, is representative: “Though she did feel lighter in a way, darker, yes, but also lighter, less weighty, and not thinner, the weight departing not from her flesh but from something else, somewhere else, a weight from outside her, from above her maybe…” We understand that her whiteness was a burden Oona is relieved to be rid of, but do all those words say anything else? Here is another non-conclusion: “Sometimes it felt like the town was a town in mourning, and the country a country in mourning, and this suited Anders and it suited Oona, coinciding as it did with their own feelings, but at other times it felt like the opposite, that something new was being born, and strangely enough this suited them too.” A “something new” being born is a cliché and hopelessly vague; the whole thing is wordy and repetitive.

In terms of real events that address Hamid’s ultimate goal of better conditions for people with dark skin—which is the heart of the matter, or should be—there is one. The single originally dark-skinned character in the book is an unnamed “cleaning guy” at the gym Anders works for. In the penultimate chapter, Anders offers to train this character, so he can “work out here sometimes, like the rest of us do.” The cleaning guy says what he would really like is a raise, which is funny and to the point. But shouldn’t Anders have progressed further than this by the end of his journey? People with white privilege being exaggeratedly nice to people with dark skin in janitorial jobs is no improvement on the status quo.

The absence of a positive vision of the future leaves Hamid open to an ugly supposition. By his own account, he considers himself a writer of “politically engaged” fiction that asks how we can all live together peacefully and well on our small planet. His answer, in The Last White Man, is that it would be desirable to eradicate white privilege. And though the book’s mechanism is magical—the transformation is an act of God, neither investigated nor explained—it is clearly by force, which is very close to a process that is either going on in the culture today, or which people on the left wish were going on and those on the right fear is going on. Through this lens, the novel can be viewed as an enjoyable meditation on what it would be like if we could force people—the undesirable people, who don’t share the upscale background of the author or the book’s likely readers—to get with the program. And it calls for homogeneity instead of harmony. It’s a solution, but not one of his better ones, which makes it not one of his better books.