Reading Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, The Last White Man (Penguin, 2022), I instantly remember an almost forgotten novel by Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett, titled Blackass (Chatto Windus, 2015). The story revolves around a black man who wakes up one day to realize he has turned white. In Hamid’s novel, the opposite happens: it takes place in a small town with a white majority where the inhabitants are slowly browning. At the time, Igoni Barrett’s novel seemed like an interesting, Kafkaesque way to respond to the politics of the day. Now in the hands of Mohsin Hamid, he feels a little behind, a little stale.
Mohsin Hamid arrived on the literary scene at the start of the new millennium, promising to be the Pakistani successor to the biting wit and casual brilliance of Hanif Kureishi and perhaps the great Upamanyu Chatterjee. In this respect, his first novel, and still his best novel, Moth Smoke (Picador, 2000), is a beautiful story of infidelities, crimes and losses, centered on the character of Darashikoh Shezad, a banker and former college boxer with anger. problems.
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In The Last White Man, Hamid uses an innocuous, clinical voice to create an atmosphere of unease. The unease of a white society panicking inside, as a wave of darkness washes over their skin, making them impure, perhaps savage. The imagery of small town racism should, in theory, serve as the backdrop for Hamid’s Kafkaesque turn, which could have been used to weave a comedy that pierces racism into a sort of “South Asian immigrant” version of The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
But Hamid’s novel is none of that. Its main characters, Anders and his girlfriend, Oona, are mere vehicles used to document the reactions of this small town coming to terms with their predicament. That they – former white people – are so uncomfortable is proof that people of color have been a part of their existence.
But Hamid makes little, if any, mention of it. Other than a housekeeper at Anders’ workplace, of whom one thinks maybe a page or two, I don’t recall anyone else who wasn’t originally white. The lack of how they reacted to this phenomenon is surely a missed opportunity.
Also, the writer really seems to be behind the curve in our conversation regarding the internet. He starts off a chapter by talking about the subjectivity of online truth in the most basic sense and expects us to think that’s interesting.
Even the voice he uses gets sickening at some point. He does too much. As Anders offers to train the cleaner on the job, the man responds, “…no, and then he added, less abruptly, and not with a smile, or not with a smile on his face, but maybe with a in the eyes it was hard to tell, honestly it could have been the opposite of a smile, and with that particular expression the cleaning guy added, what I would like is a raise.”
If a weak punchline like this requires such a convoluted and unattractive sequence; maybe it’s not worth it.
Essentially, it is complacency that taints the novel. Otherwise, no editor would let a line like that remain. There comes a time in the career of every great successful writer when they have to recognize the crisis and, in my opinion, fall back on the beauty that made them who they are. They must return to comedy, to Third World cynicism, to the quivering of satire under the threat of military boots, to save themselves from irrelevant writing. For Mohsin Hamid, I believe the time has come.
Shahriar Shaams has written and translated for SUSPECT, Adda, Six Seasons Review, Arts & Letters and Jamini. Find him on Twitter @shahriarshaams.