Review: ‘The Last White Man,’ by Mohsin Hamid

In his first three novels, though, Hamid played the game like a champ. To our shame, I guess, crime, violence, adultery and general human cussedness hold a reader’s attention; so do idiosyncratic characters, and a narrative in which one event builds up to the next. (Heck, let’s be vulgar: I couldn’t put any of these books down.) And these conventional pleasures come packaged in pleasingly unconventional forms. “Moth Smoke” (2000) has multiple narrators, one of whom directly addresses the judge at the protagonist’s murder trial. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007), entirely spoken by a garrulous man to a shifty stranger in a cafe, gradually shades into a thriller. And “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” (2013), as the title suggests, tells a rags-to-riches-to-downfall story under the guise of a self-help book. A tired device? Not with Hamid’s intrusive and ironic narrator, who mocks both his ostensible genre and what he calls “that much-praised, breathtakingly boring foreign novel” with “page after page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose.” It’s a cheeky manifesto against earnestness.

But with “Exit West” (2017), Hamid chucks such playfulness for flat-footed fabulism: Residents of an unspecified country magically escape civil war through mysterious doors, join migrant communities in London, then in California, where — surprise! — nothing all that bad happens. And now, in “The Last White Man,” his newfound inclination to spare characters any serious trouble rises to an aesthetic principle; the renunciation of the tension that powered his earlier novels seems penitential. In the most dramatic episode, Anders confronts armed men at his door, they leave, he flees and … they’re never seen again. In a more typical scene, Anders drives to visit Oona, feels a sense of menace, “and nothing happened and then he was there.” Oona takes a drive too: A police car pulls up next to her, she smiles and looks away — and again nothing happens. Anders and Oona go for a walk: It’s chilly, “but they were dressed appropriately … and it was not so bad at all.” They talk. Then a truck rumbles over a pothole. (That’s all about the truck.) Then they come upon some schoolboys skipping stones in a stream, “but no stone hit them, or came particularly close … and Anders gazed straight ahead.” (That’s all about the schoolboys. End of episode.) The characters in “The Last White Man” do plenty of “gazing,” along with “wondering” and “realizing,” but they don’t do much doing, nor does anyone do much to them. Toward the end of the novel, we learn that Anders and Oona have had a daughter, that all the white people have turned brown and that life is, you might say, not so bad at all. Granted, this is where we earthlings and organisms might desirably go — it sure beats where we are — but is it what we might desirably read?

Once in a while, Hamid’s people do show a welcome flash of feistiness, as when Oona prepares a breakfast of oats and berries for her skeptical mother. “‘It’s so healthy it could kill a person,’ she said. Oona raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s the plan,’ she replied.” (Purists will have to forgive the raised eyebrow. And the word “replied.”) But these living voices get buried under narration that sometimes sounds archaic — Anders and Oona clink whiskey glasses and sip “the golden liquid therein” — and sometimes like bad Hemingway: “And he thought that possibly they felt the dead as not everyone felt the dead, that some people hid from the dead, and tried not to think of them, but Anders and Oona did not do this, they felt the dead daily, hourly, as they lived their lives, and their feeling of the dead was important to them.” What’s the intended effect? It must be to assure us that this is still Literature.

Not the literature we’re used to, though, with rising and falling action that writers could (and sometimes do) plot on a graph, calibrated tension and release, ginned-up crises, contrived secrets and revelations, characters stitched together, like Frankenstein’s creature, out of bits and pieces of real people: all those overworked tricks that somehow keep working. Of course, novelists have wanted to destabilize these traditions since there were novels; like trying to rewire humanity’s collective imaginings, it’s a radical and hopeful enterprise. But — not to sound crass — once you’ve got the customers into the tent (with a killer first sentence, say), you have to keep them in their seats and send them home satisfied that they’ve been through something. “The Last White Man” wants only the best for them, and for all of us, but such a happy denouement is hard to imagine.