Faceless Masses

Mohsin Hamid’s new novel is a missed opportunity to make refugee characters seem vivid, human, and real.

Benjamin Frisch

Whether due to prescience or good fortune, Mohsin Hamid has written a novel eerily in tune with these bleak times. The fraught issue of migration—the book’s central subject—now forms the symbolic centerpiece of two dueling real-life worldviews, one that sees immigrants and refugees as a dangerous threat to Western society and another that views them as an emblem of multicultural coexistence and multiethnic democracy. But both viewpoints—and I intend no equivalence between them—depend on the good fortune of living in countries that offer enough benefits, material and otherwise, that people are willing to uproot their lives to inhabit them. An allegory about the contradictions of a world that is both thoroughly globalized and startlingly unequal, Hamid’s book directs our attention to that question of luck: the degree to which the places where we are born shape our destinies.

Exit West is unfortunately more successful in broaching these subjects than in fully grappling with them. Saeed, who works at an advertising agency in a mostly undefined capacity, and Nadia, who does the same at an insurance company, meet while taking classes in an unnamed country that is wracked by militant violence. The young couple must contend with the country’s general cultural conservatism—Nadia is seen as a renegade because of her outspokenness and proclivity to straddle the motorcycle she rides—which in itself comes to seem mild compared with the sadistic backwardness of the extremists who eventually ascend to de facto power.

Throughout the early chapters, Hamid begins alerting the reader to the existence of strange portals that appear to be no more than doors. Step through any of these doorways, and you’ll magically find yourself in another country. The portals are a worldwide phenomenon, sprouting up seemingly everywhere; not surprisingly, when instant migration becomes a possibility for people across the globe, much of the world is thrown into a state of chaos, replete with desperate scrambles for the portals and inevitably resentful Westerners who find their societies becoming increasingly larger and more diverse.

We learn all this via brief tidbits Hamid offers about global political upheaval or travelers who suddenly find themselves in strange new places. Back home, meanwhile, the possibility that citizens can easily escape the country alarms the militants, who aim to control the use of the portals, although Hamid cleverly hints that the militants themselves are exploiting them to gain recruits from richer countries. Eventually Saeed and Nadia enter one of the doorways, leaving their increasingly precarious existence behind, and heading to Europe and finally America.

If it seems like I have done an insufficient job of describing the two central characters, who dominate nearly every scene and are almost the only people given any dialogue, that is because Hamid defines them as thinly as possible. “He was an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and a good education, and as was the case in those days in his city with most independent-minded, grown men, unmarried, with decent posts and good educations, he lived with parents,” we learn very early on of Saeed. This thumbnail sketch functions more as a substitute—rather than a building block—for actual characterization. Nadia, meanwhile, although more vivid and proactive than Saeed, too often comes across as a rather clichéd “independent spirit” at odds with her society.

Exit West is never boring, but its intriguing premise never really pays off, and too many of the author’s decisions feel arbitrary. This is especially true when it comes to the nameless country of the book’s first half. It is quite obviously Pakistan, which can be gleaned not because Hamid was born in Lahore, nor because he has been hailed as one of the first-rate Pakistani novelists who have found a worldwide audience in recent years. Rather, thanks to Hamid’s subtle tracing of the military’s relationship to society, that same military’s half-hearted struggle with militancy (“the militants were well known to have sympathizers within”), and small details sprinkled throughout, the conclusion is inescapable. As he writes:

Around the same time, a group of militants was taking over the city’s stock exchange. Nadia and her colleagues spent much of that day staring at the television next to their floor’s water cooler, but by afternoon it was over, the army having decided any risk to hostages was less than the risk to national security should this media-savvy and morale-sapping spectacle be allowed to continue, and so the building was stormed with maximum force, and the militants were exterminated, and initial estimates put the number of dead workers at probably less than a hundred.

This is all extremely acute, from the utilitarian calculation about when “morale-sapping” militancy can no longer be allowed to continue, to the harsh way in which civilian lives become unimportant once such a decision has been reached. But this specificity fits poorly with the fact that the setting isn’t identified and in other respects feels isolated from the goings-on elsewhere in the world. (Other cities and countries get labeled throughout.) Perhaps the goal was to make Saeed and Nadia’s circumstances more tragically generic: The damned of the earth are all damned. But it undercuts the emotional authenticity of the story overall and doesn’t jibe with Hamid’s apparent intention to pointedly skewer Pakistan’s military elite.

Hamid’s previous books have more deftly navigated the border between realism and surrealism. Moth Smoke (2000)—still Hamid’s best novel—managed to capture something of Lahore society and read like early Rushdie: often dazzling, sometimes aggravating, always interesting. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) showed a willingness to continue experimenting with form: The book is essentially a long monologue, and with its zeitgeisty portrayal of moral uncertainty and post-9/11 tensions, it felt like a genuine reflection of Bush’s America. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) was written in the second person; that book also took place in an unnamed country that was meant to be Pakistan.

Exit West is more tonally inconsistent, with sometimes jarring results. Despite Hamid’s movingly drawn picture of Saeed’s parents, especially his mother, whose history is powerfully (if succinctly) traced, she disappears almost immediately, and is dispatched with such brevity that it reminded me of the comically callous way in which writers like Evelyn Waugh and Michael Frayn would dispatch their characters: “She might have waited much longer had Saeed’s mother not been killed, a stray heavy-caliber round passing through the windshield of her car, and taking with it a quarter of Saeed’s mother’s head.” And that’s that.

“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” Hamid writes at one point, but outside of Saeed’s father’s few scenes, the momentousness of what Saeed and Nadia have done—and what so many people across the world attempt to do every day—is never really transmitted or explored. Nor is it clear what Hamid is trying to convey about the West, in part because the few people we meet in England and America are so underdeveloped, and in part because the author’s generally admirable unwillingness to tell the reader too much yields basic confusion about what is in fact going on. When someone asked me whether the book was “dystopian fiction,” I didn’t know how to answer, largely because Hamid doesn’t really explain how the world has or has not changed as a result of the momentous occurrence at the center of the plot.

Novels, even those as “relevant” as this one, do not need to have “messages,” but when a writer seems so much more interested in his political premise than his characters, it’s reasonable to expect a stronger sense of what exactly he or she wants to say. And at a time when migrants are seen as dangerous, faceless masses, Hamid’s book is a missed opportunity to provide migrant characters with some substance and distinguishing features. As it is, this imaginative book feels disjointedly stranded in its—in our—very strange present.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books.

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