The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mohsin Hamid, 2007
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to beon a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services as a bridge.
From the author of the award-winning Moth Smoke comes a perspective on love, prejudice, and the war on terror that has never been seen in North American literature.
At a café table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with a suspicious, and possibly armed, American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful meeting.
Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by Underwood Samson, an elite firm that specializes in the “valuation” of companies ripe for acquisition. He thrives on the energy of New York and the intensity of his work, and his infatuation with regal Erica promises entrée into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.
For a time, it seems as though nothing will stand in the way of Changez’s meteoric rise to personal and professional success. But in the wake of September 11, he finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and perhaps even love.
Elegant and compelling, Mohsin Hamid’s second novel is a devastating exploration of our divided and yet ultimately indivisible world. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Lahore, Pakistan
• Education—A.B., Princeton Univer.; J.D., Harvard Univer.
• Awards—Betty Trask Award; South Bank Show Award
• Currently—lives in London, England, UK
Although he was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, award-winning novelist Mohsin Hamid spent part of his childhood in California while his father attended grad school at Stanford. Returning to the U.S. to complete his own education, Hamid graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. He worked for a while as a management consultant in New York, then moved to London, where he continues to work and write.
Hamid made his literary debut in 2000 with Moth Smoke, a noir-inflected story about a young banker living on the fringes of Lahore society who plummets into an underworld of drugs and crime when he is fired from his job. Providing a rare glimpse into the complexities of the Pakistani class system, the book was called "a brisk, absorbing novel" (New York Times Book Review), "a hip page-turner" (Los Angeles Times), and "a first novel of remarkable wit, poise, profundity, and strangeness" (Esquire). Moth Smoke received a Betty Trask Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
In 2007, Hamid added luster to his reputation with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Written as a single, sustained monolog, this "elegant and chilling little novel" (New York Times) is an electrifying psychological thriller that puts a dazzling new spin on culture, success, and loyalty in the post-9/11 world. The book became an international bestseller; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Decibel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and went on to win the South Bank Show Award for Literature. 2013 saw the publication of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia to both public and critical acclaim.
2013 saw the publication of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia to both public and critical acclaim. The New York Time's Michiko Kakutani called it "deeply moving," writing that How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia "reaffirms [Hamid's] place as one of his generation's most inventive and gifted writers."
There is no question that Hamid's unusual life experience, a cross-cultural stew of influences and perspectives, has informed his fiction. In addition to consulting and writing novels, he remains a much-in-demand freelance journalist, contributing articles and op-ed pieces — often with a Pakistani slant — to publications like Time magazine, The Guardian, New York Times, Independent, and Washington Post. He holds dual citizenship in the U.K. and Pakistan.
From a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:
• When I was three years old I spoke no English, but fluent Urdu. We moved from Pakistan to America for a few years. I got lost in the backyard because all the townhouses were identical. I was knocking on the door of the townhouse next to ours by mistake, and some kids gathered around, making fun of me. For a month after that I didn't say a word. When I started speaking again, it was entirely, and fluently, in English.
• I once woke up in Pakistan and found a bullet in the bonnet of my car. Someone had fired it into the air, probably to celebrate a wedding, and it had hit on the way down. That incident set in motion an entire line of the plot of my first novel, Moth Smoke. Without it, the protagonist would not have been an orphan.
• My wife was born four houses from the house in which I had been born in Lahore, Pakistan. But we met for the first time by chance in a bar in London, thirty-two years later. It's a small world.
•When asked what book most influenced his career as a writer, here is his response:
Toni Morrison's Jazz. Not because it is her best book, nor because it is my favorite book, but because it was the first book of hers I read and also the book I was reading when she read me. I wrote the first draft of my first novel, Moth Smoke, for a creative writing class with her in my final semester at Princeton. When she read my words aloud I understood something about writing, about the power of orality, of cadence and rhythm and the spoken word, that unlocked my own potential for finding voices and shaped everything I have written since. This book opened a door that I walked through without ever, in fourteen years, looking back.
(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tells him the story of his life in the months just before and after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid's elegant and chilling little novel.... A less sophisticated author might have told a one-note story in which an immigrant's experiences of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid's novel, while it contains a few such moments, is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez's class aspirations and inner struggle. His resentment is at least in part self-loathing, directed at the American he'd been on his way to becoming. For to be an American, he declares, is to view the world in a certain way—a perspective he absorbed in his eagerness to join the country's elite.
Karen Olsson - New York Times Book Review
The courage of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in the telling of a story about a Pakistani man who makes it and then throws it away because he doesn't want it anymore, because he realizes that making it in America is not what he thought it was or what it used to be. The monologue form allows for an intimate conversation, as the reader and the American listener become one. Are we sitting across from Changez at a table in Lahore, joining him in a sumptuous dinner? Do his comments cause us to bristle, making us more and more uncomfortable? Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel, and for those who want a different voice, a different view of the aftermath of 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well worth reading.
Laila Halaby - Washington Post
It's a testament to author Mohsin Hamid's skill that Changez, despite this cold-blooded admission, remains a partly sympathetic character.... Everything we know comes to us by his voice, by turns emotionally raw, teasingly ambiguous, fawning and tinged with menace. We read on to see what he will reveal, increasingly certain that he will also conceal.
Dallas Morning News
Hamid's second book (after Moth Smoke) is an intelligent and absorbing 9/11 novel, written from the perspective of Changez, a young Pakistani whose sympathies, despite his fervid immigrant embrace of America, lie with the attackers. The book unfolds as a monologue that Changez delivers to a mysterious American operative over dinner at a Lahore, Pakistan, cafe. Pre-9/11, Princeton graduate Changez is on top of the world: recruited by an elite New York financial company, the 22-year-old quickly earns accolades from his hard-charging supervisor, plunges into Manhattan's hip social whirl and becomes infatuated with Erica, a fellow Princeton graduate pining for her dead boyfriend. But after the towers fall, Changez is subject to intensified scrutiny and physical threats, and his co-workers become markedly less affable as his beard grows in ("a form of protest," he says). Erica is committed to a mental institution, and Changez, upset by his adopted country's "growing and self-righteous rage," slacks off at work and is fired. Despite his off-putting commentary, the damaged Changez comes off as honest and thoughtful, and his creator handles him with a sympathetic grace.
A Princeton degree, a high-class job, a well-connected girlfriend: immigrant Changez would seem to have it all, until the tumbling of the Twin Towers realigns his thinking.
A young Muslim's American experience raises his consciousness and shapes his future in this terse, disturbing successor to the London-based Pakistani author's first novel, Moth Smoke (2000). It's presented as a "conversation," of which we hear only the voice of protagonist Changez, speaking to the unnamed American stranger he encounters in a cafe in the former's native city of Lahore. Changez describes in eloquent detail his arrival in America as a scholarship student at Princeton, his academic success and lucrative employment at Underwood Samson, a "valuation firm" that analyzes its clients' businesses and counsels improvement via trimming expenses and abandoning inefficient practices-i.e., going back to "fundamentals." Changez's success story is crowned by his semi-romantic friendship with beautiful, rich classmate Erica, to whom he draws close during a summer vacation in Greece shared by several fellow students. But the idyll is marred by Erica's distracted love for a former boyfriend who died young and by the events of 9/11, which simultaneously make all "foreigners" objects of suspicion. Changez reacts in a manner sure to exacerbate such suspicions ("I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees"). A visit home to a country virtually under siege, a breakdown that removes the fragile Erica yet further from him and the increasing enmity toward "non-whites" all take their toll: Changez withdraws from his cocoon of career and financial security ("...my days of focusing on fundamentals were done") and exits the country that had promised so much, becoming himself the bearded, vaguely menacing "stranger" who accompanies his increasingly worried listener to the latter's hotel. The climax builds with masterfully controlled irony and suspense. A superb cautionary tale, and a grim reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, miscommunication and confrontation.
1. At the beginning of the book, Changez says that his companion's "bearing" gives him away as an American. What does Changez mean by this? What are his deeper implications?
2. What do we learn about the American who sits across the table from Changez? How does Hamid convey this information? What do we never learn about the American? Consider how what we don't know about him influences our understanding of both Changez's monologue and the author's intent.
3. Who is Jim, and why does he take such a liking to Changez? What do they have in common? Is his sympathy for Changez genuine?
4. In Chapter 5, Changez is in a hotel in Manila, packing his suitcase and watching television, when he sees the towers of the World Trade Center collapse. "And then I smiled," he confesses. Explore this scene as the turning point of the novel — in terms of plot, character, scope, and tone.
5. In Chile, Changez befriends the head of the publishing company his firm is there to value. Why are the two men drawn to each other? Why has Changez suddenly become so disinterested in his work? Who were the janissaries? Why does their history resonate so strongly with Changez?
6. Discuss the two meanings of "fundamentalist" Hamid's title plays on — the first religious, the second suggested by Underwood Samson's business commitment to "Focus on the fundamentals." What do the different meanings suggest about the novel's themes?
7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist turns out to be quite a page-turner — a political thriller that builds to a memorable conclusion. What exactly happens at the end of the novel? What clues or foreshadowings tipped you off as to how the book would end? Why does Changez tell this stranger his story?
8. Since 9/11, there has been a growing trend in contemporary fiction to write about the tragedy of that day and its aftermath. Compare The Reluctant Fundamentalist with some other "9/11 novels" you have read. What sets it apart or makes it unique?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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