I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t have time for wholeass novels that don’t pass the Bechdel test. I get that you might have a harder time making it happen if you’re writing a first person narrative with a male narrator, but… no, actually that’s not an excuse. Have a scene in which the narrator talks to two women at once about what they’re having for lunch. Done. Don’t have the only two female characters be the love interest and the love interest’s (nameless) mother, and don’t have the only thing that the three of them can talk about be the protagonist. Now that I’ve got that gripe out of the way…
Here we go. Hooooooo boy.
Very brief summary: set in Lahore. Pakistani man meets American man, takes him to a restaurant and talks at him for many hours, whining about the time he spent in America as a golden boy high flyer Princeton scholarship dude, then in a schmancy finance job. Everyone likes him, he’s brilliant, and almost every single interaction he has for the entire book is someone complimenting him. He’s just better than everyone else, at everything, nobody ever takes a dislike to him, and he never finds anything difficult. After 9/11, the atmosphere changes, America invades Afghanistan and starts interfering in Pakistani politics. He gets disillusioned with the American dream and America generally, and moves back to Lahore to be a professor with an outright anti-American outlook. There he meets the American he’s being boring at.
I didn’t like this book. It’s short: only around 220 pages, and thank fuck for that because it felt twice as long. I sat about waiting for something to happen, and then waiting for something to happen, and then waiting… and then the book ended. It included a nice build up of tension at the very end before ending on an AHA I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE choose-your-own-ending. Does the American shoot the protagonist? Does the American get beaten to death by the group of Pakistani men? You’re pushed towards drawing your own conclusions based on your prior beliefs. And then you’re supposed to examine those beliefs.
My chosen ending is that the American DOES kill the protagonist. Not because he’s a CIA agent sent to hunt him down. He’s a garden trellis salesman. He doesn’t even have a gun. He pulls out a folded garden trellis, and expands and expands it, before shoving it over the protagonist’s head and beheading him by folding it back up. And he doesn’t do it because of fears about radicalisation or even because he’s racist or Islamophobic. He does it because he’s had the bollocks bored off him by a stranger for the last five hours. I chose this ending because it’s what I wanted to do by the time I got to the end of the book.
The disillusionment and change in views happens very late in the book. Most of the book is one of two things:
- See how I am the most clever, driven and perceptive man ever to have lived.
- Eriiiiiiica why won’t she love me?
I’m not saying that this character is definitely an author insert… but Hamid did move from Pakistan to the US to study at Princeton and then work in a schmancy finance job. Just saying.
So. In order to do the literary fiction thing, you have to have something a bit DIFFERENT AND CLEVER about your work. Hamid does this with the open ending and the “romance” being an allegory for America and its troubled relationship between past and future. This allegory is not subtle. We have the love interest (Am)Erica, her dead boyfriend Chris(tendom) and the protagonist Changez. Yeah.
But look. Allegory is supposed to work on both levels. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is enough of a story in its own right that generations of children have now read it without a clue that Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus. (It’s better that way, really.) Generations of children have also been woefully misled about how delicious Turkish delight is supposed to be (it’s a lot more like congealed semen from a guy who eats nothing but flowers than the book suggests.) And when allegory and story/character clash, the story/character has to win.
So does this story work as an actual love story? Oh God, it’s the worst.
Erica is grieving her dead boyfriend who died from lung cancer. (I guess he had to be special and die from a disease that kills almost nobody of his age). She’s a sad, damaged, lost girlie who needs someone to love her and give her a reason to live in the present. Personally I read her as someone in need of therapy, but Hamid seems pretty sure that a thirsty 21 year old guy is what she needs. So whatever. Fortunately for our man Changez, Erica is also rich, charming, clever and gorgeous. The charming and clever don’t really come across, but we’re told that so whatever whatever. She has fantastic boobs that bounce when she laughs(1). She’s writing a novel.
Erica has no personality. None. She never expresses an opinion, except to tell Changez how lovely he is one way or another. Or “I saw a pond and it made me think of you.” She never makes a joke or snaps at anyone. She’s a Princeton-bright, aspiring novelist with the world at her feet. If she existed she’d have a personality. As someone who represents America, she should have a personality. She’s got Changez desperately trying to force her into a relationship that she obviously doesn’t want, while she hangs around being tortured by her dead boyfriend’s memory. She is defined 100% in terms of her relationship to men.
I think this is a trope similar to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, except that instead of being bouncy and child-like, these young women are damaged and sad to the point of being ethereal. The male protagonist steps in to “save her from herself.” She thinks he’s wonderful but she’s too damaged to have a relationship with him, which is what he really deserves because he’s so nice. Friendzoning bitches, amirite? Ultimately, as Changez gets more and more desperate, he actually manages to get his dick into her twice. Both times involve extremely dubious levels of consent. The first time, he insists on coming back to her place even when she doesn’t want him to, and then he just goes ahead and has sex with her. She’s very clearly not into it and doesn’t reciprocate his moves on her, but doesn’t resist or tell him to stop. After fucking her for a while, he finally stops. She apologises to him. Erica always apologises to Changez every time he does something shitty. The second time, he tells her to pretend he’s Chris, and she does, and they have more enjoyable sex. The narrator seems to understand that this might have been a step too far. But in general, he doesn’t see it as a problem that he constantly ignores Erica’s boundaries, pursuing her after she’s told him to stop several times. Even when she’s in a psychiatric institution and telling him to go away he’s still trying to manipulate her into a relationship.
So. He gets infatuated with this girl, befriends her, doesn’t ask her out because she’s too damaged or something, but spends his life obsessing over her boobs. He eventually takes advantage of her vulnerability to get his dick into her. Then she gets ill, goes into a psychiatric institution and ultimately dies by suicide. This book has so many parallels with Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood that it almost feels like plagiarism.
I can deal with the idea that this is an unreliable narrator. The trouble is that other stories with unreliable narrators give indications of it in the way that the rest of the world responds. Humbert Humbert might have deluded himself over the nature of his relationship with a vulnerable child, but the rest of the world doesn’t back him up in that delusion. Erica never pushes back, never stands her ground, never shows any interest in anything other than Changez or Chris. No mutual friends step in and tell him to leave her alone. I really don’t think that Hamid (or Murakami) fully grasps how despicable his character is being, and that’s a problem for me. A young woman who’s smart and driven enough to get into Princeton and write a novel? I’m pretty sure that her response to “pretend I’m him” would be much more along the lines of “what the fuck is wrong with you? Leave me alone. I don’t want to sleep with you.” The only other woman in the book, Erica’s mother (I don’t think Hamid ever bothers to give her an actual name), also shows no interest in anything except for Changez. She thinks he’s wonderful and tells him so in every conversation. At one point she goes as far as “I think you’re wonderful but my daughter doesn’t need a boyfriend right now,” but that’s as close as she gets. Maybe she really is that clueless, but if it were my daughter in a severe mental health crisis, I would be a hell of a lot more protective.
Can we also just take a moment to question why these psychiatric institutions are set up so that it’s so easy to wander off and end your life? In real life this kind of hospital doesn’t even have regular door handles because they’re a suicide risk. The nurses don’t talk to you about the patients. They certainly don’t say dumbass things about “she’s in love just like anyone else but unfortunately he’s dead.”
So I get that this book is significant. It tells you stuff about the changing nature of the world, pre- and post-9/11. It’s sort of clever in a very unsubtle way. But either Hamid just can’t write women, or he doesn’t think that women are important. I find that depressing in a book that has been so widely praised.
(1) What’s with the idea that boobs bounce when women laugh? They don’t.