March 27, 2013
In the summer of 2011, for a review marking the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I read thirteen novels with 9/11 plots, from Jonathan Safran Foer to Julia Glass, from Jess Walter to Claire Messud. My favorite was Mohsin Hamid’s Booker-nominated contribution, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a slim, clever allegory with a large ambition — it wants to make you understand something about the experience of Islamic people in the Middle East and in the United States. Like Hamid, its narrator is a Pakistani who has lived in the U.S. but is now back in Lahore. This speaker delivers the entire story as a monologue over dinner to an American visitor whose voice is never heard but who may have a gun.
A film based on the book directed by Mira Nair, with Liev Schreiber, Kate Hudson and Kiefer Sutherland, premieres in late April. It will be very interesting to see how this story is treated and how it is received.
Hamid’s current novel, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, could be described as a mash-up of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and Behind the Beautiful Forevers — a fake self-help book addressed to a wretched, diseased, yet ambitious child of the Indian subcontinent, picking him up by the scruff of his neck and advising him in the brisk, imperious tones of a self-help manual on how to improve his lot. The invisible mentor follows this unnamed boy up the ladder of success with new admonishments for each rung: “Learn from A Master,” “Don’t Fall in Love,” “Be Prepared to Use Violence,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat,” and “Dance with Debt” are some of the chapter titles. Though the ending does contain one sweet surprise, it is no spoiler to reveal that How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia does not wind up as swimmingly as the musical comedy it resembles.
We spoke to Hamid as he rested in his room at the Algonquin Hotel, on the eighth city of his ten-city tour. Though ready to get home to his wife and children, aged 3 and 10 months, in Pakistan, he has been pleased with the response to Filthy Rich. Here’s our discussion.
Have you ever even seen How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying? The structure of the book, with its sprightly address to the protagonist at each level of his climb up the ladder of commerce, reminded me of it. Was that in your head at all? What were your inspirations?
Well, actually I haven’t seen the play, though I’ve heard of it. I think influences get to us through the culture without our having actually to encounter them. For example, when my first novel was published in the States, I was asked about the influence of Chandler and Hammett. I hadn’t read them. But noir had found me through films of their work, and all the other writers and films influenced by them. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a self-help book but it’s so pervasive in our culture – you can’t open the newspaper without learning how to avoid heart attack, how to have six-pack abs, how to have the perfect orgasm – it was easy to adopt.
And how did you come to use it as you do in Filthy Rich?
Well, I was in New York several years ago talking to a friend about how reading fiction is difficult, but it’s good for us, and we joked that perhaps we should switch to self-help for a while. After I got home and started thinking about this, I started to take it more seriously, thinking that both writing and reading novels are forms of self-help.
And that’s a subject you address explicitly in the book. You gave your main character a lot of advice about business, but you didn’t give him much advice about love — he seemed to need that, too.
Yes, because he falls in love as a boy with the character called the “pretty girl,” who is out of his reach, but who is the love of his life in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way. When his wife comes into the picture, a young woman who is prepared to love him, he is emotionally absent. So over time her feelings toward him change, and she pours herself into religiously-motivated women’s rights activism, then eventually leaves him for a different life. By then, he is ready to love her, but it’s too late.
So much of love is about timing.
You have used second person in all your books to some extent, and I read in another interview that this fits into your idea of the novel as a co-creation or dance between writer and reader. Are there other works in second person you consider particularly influential or interesting?
Well, The Fall, by Albert Camus is the iconic second-person novel. I always thought it was interesting. After all, we know there’s a writer writing and a reader reading and I wanted to go all the way with explicitly acknowledging that. In this book, “you” is both you the reader and you the main character.
And this voice has access to omniscient narration as well!
Yes, it’s very versatile. It’s only when you start playing with it that you see what it can do.
I urged The Reluctant Fundamentalist on both of my sons, in their early twenties, because I felt it offered a necessary perspective adjustment on 9/11. Neither of them are huge readers and both really loved it. Do you think of your work as political?
I do think of it as political. I write op-eds and essays and those are straightforward assertions of my political position. In fiction, the objective is to have the reader explore their own positions. So for example, in Reluctant Fundamentalist, you only hear half the story. The way the reader reacts to that ambiguity — tension, anxiety, what suspicions arise, what conclusions are drawn — is the other half.
I am so excited about the Mira Nair movie of Fundamentalist. Did you have a role in that? Do you think it will be controversial?
Yes, I collaborated on the screenplay and Mira, who’s a very collaborative director, reached out to me during the filming and would ask me questions. It’s not exactly like the book, though — I don’t think that movies are really adaptations of novels, they are simply inspired by them. As for controversy, the story’s not intended to mock anyone — it’s not one-sided.
Well in the U.S., it’s pretty controversial to imply that there even is more than one side to 9/11.
(Laughs. Says nothing.)
Okay… well, who else should we be reading from Pakistan?
Daniyal Mueenuddin has gorgeous book of short stories…. Mohammed Hamif does biting, edgy satire…. Kamila Shamsie, whose novels are set in Pakistan and abroad.
Have you ever thought of writing a memoir? Bits of your life are in your novels but it would be fascinating to hear the whole story.
Someday, perhaps. My favorite memoirs are literary memoirs, like Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, Garcia-Marquez, Calvino. I’ve done a few memoiristic essays, but haven’t attempted anything longer at this stage. I might try it at some point.
I look forward to it.