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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Yesterday night, after finishing Tales from 1,001 Nights, I picked up Mohsin Hamid's tour-de-force, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I just didn't put it down. Reading for about two, three hours, I was enthralled by the story of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who is the top of his class at Princeton and gets a job at an elite valuation firm: "I was, in my own eyes, a veritable James Bond--only younger, darker, and possibly better paid." (64) The entire novel is told in monologue form, with Changez talking to an American at a café in Lahore. His tale begins at Princeton, but the true heart of the story (what made him who he is today) starts with a smile. He goes on a business trip to Manila in September 2001. He watches the towers fall on his hotel television. “I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” (72) His listener's "disgust is evident" but he goes on to explain himself:
But at that moment, by thoughts were not with the victims of the attack...no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. Ah, I see I am only compounding your displeasure. I understand, of course; it is hateful to hear another person gloat over one's country's misfortune...
And so his true tale begins. He thought he loved America, his new job. But that smile, that pleasure, changed everything. At that time, he was in a semi-relationship with a classmate from Princeton, Erica, who was enveloped in nostalgia of her deceased boyfriend, Chris. America, Changez believed, was "giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia" and he detested it: he believed America was a country that looked forward, but now it had a "determination to look back" (115). He was confused by what "your fellow countrymen longed for...a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty?" all he knew was that he no longer considered himself an American, and was unsure if this new era "contained a part written for someone" like him.
This isn't simply a novel about the competing identities of a Pakistani man in America: it also details his struggles with class in America and Pakistan, and how he ultimately choses one country over the other, even though he belongs in both. Since he is telling this tale to a mystery American (is he CIA? is he just a curious tourist? is he even an American? the ending is extremely open-ended and I don't know what I want to think about what happened) but as the NYT Book Review writes, the interruptions "do lend his tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller." Which is so interesting that I read his story right after finishing the One Thousand and One Nights and there were many parallels, it seemed a natural continuation; as if this story may have been one of those simply set in the modern era. When you have the change, I urge you to read this novel. Its clear storytelling and smart prose are definitely a treat. Rating: ★★★★★

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Nights

Tales from 1,001 Nights