September 12, 2007

Book review: "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," by Mohsin Hamid

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist
By Mohsin Hamid
Harcourt, Inc. / ISBN: 978-0-151-01304-3

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

So, continuing CCLaP's look this month at the 2007 Booker Prize nominees (both short-list and long), today's review is of the blackly humorous The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which along with Darkmans by Nicola Barker and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan are definitely the three most commercially popular titles of all the ones chosen this year by the Booker nominating committee. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that today's review is going to be shorter than normal, because of the book itself being shorter than most that I review here -- it's barely 180 pages long, with a whole lot of space between each line of text, and with the story itself being more of a "bildungsroman" (that is, a detailed character study) than a traditional three-act plot-based novel.

The central character being examined, in fact, is a young Pakistani male named Changez, who is using a dinner with an American at a cafe in his native Lahore as an excuse to tell us all about his own experiences in America, in the years both immediately preceding and immediately following September 11th. And in fact this is pretty much the entire reason this wisp of a novel even exists, as a character study of Changez himself, and to show how ultimately he doesn't want anything different than any other twentysomething middle-class yearner out there in the world -- a good job, a little savings, a loving spouse, lots of crap to impress the neighbors. A quiet, unabashed nerd while growing up in the Middle East, Changez ends up receiving a scholarship to attend Princeton; while there he becomes the exact overachiever that so many international students do at American universities; this leads him to an entry-level job at financial firm Underwood Sampson & Co., becoming the latest in a long line of employees whose job is to determine the economic value of the various businesses who hire them on for insurance and liquidation purposes.

And, you know, for the most part I just described the entire plot of this novel, which is why I think today's review is probably going to be shorter than usual; because frankly there's just not that much more to say about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, besides that it's well-written and will produce a chuckle every so often, and can be read by most people from cover to cover in only half a day or so. I mean, it's not bad, that's not the point I'm trying to make; in fact, several elements of the story are very good indeed, such as the extremely dry and formal humor on display, kinda like watching George Bernard Shaw reincarnated as an Arabic geek who happens to also be a middle-class New Yorker. It's just that it's all so...oh, I don't know, just so inconsequential, I guess. It's just one of those books that I suspect three months from now I will have forgotten I ever read in the first place; a story much better suited for reading in The New Yorker during a particularly long bathroom session on a Sunday afternoon, not as a standalone book for 22 freaking dollars that's been nominated for what many consider the most prestigious literary award on the planet.

And then there's that ending, which I didn't care for at all, because it feels just as short and rushed as the rest of the book -- a ten-page coda that basically says, "And then 9/11 happened and Americans became a bunch of a--holes and I decided to move back home and become a terrorist. Um, the end." That, plus the way this information is actually relayed to the audience, feels like a sitcommy gimmick on Hamid's part, the literary equivalent of a pie in the face, a plot twist that is broadcast so far in advance by the author that I was seriously on the lookout for a rimshot when the reveal was finally made. As mentioned, I don't really have too much else to say today about The Reluctant Fundamentalist; it's one of those books perfect for checking out at a library or borrowing from a friend, if one even wants to deal with it at all, certainly not something you want to be blowing 22 bucks on, for as little entertainment as it actually affords. It baffles me, in fact, how such a non-excuse for a book could get nominated for the Booker; but then again, most things about precious academic literary awards baffle me, and I learned a long time ago not to try to make sense of them.

Out of 10:
Story: 3.4
Characters: 8.1
Style: 5.3
Overall: 6.6

Read even more about The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:24 PM, September 12, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |