Having just finished Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it was a pleasure to stumble upon an interview with the author (on his site, via Powells.com) where he discussed the process that led him to choose the narrative voice of the novel.
I had tried variations of minimalism in the third person, with voices ranging fable to noir. I had tried the comforting oral cadences of an American accented first person. But there was not enough of Pakistan in my novel, and it felt wrong somehow both to my ear, in its sound, and to my eye, in its architecture.
But I was energized by this near miss, and I soon had my answers: the frame of a dramatic monologue in which the Pakistani protagonist speaks to an American listener, and a voice born of the British colonial inflections taught in elite Pakistani schools and colored by an anachronistic, courtly menace that resonates well with popular western preconceptions of Islam. Even as I wrote it I knew it would be the final draft. I was done a year later, in February 2006, and it sold almost immediately.
A pleasure, because it dealt precisely with the thing that is most striking about the book – its use of a one-sided conversation spread out over an evening in Lahore.
For me, though, the narrative voice was the downfall to an interesting but over-rated novel. Not because the idea wasn’t sound, but rather because the execution was flawed.
Hamid’s concentration on the Pakistani narrator allows for mystery to surround the person being addressed – is he a CIA agent, a journalist (it’s hard not to imagine Daniel Pearl as one reads the book), or the western reader of the novel? The absence of rejoinders, the one-sided argument allows, strangely, for more ambiguity to surround the narrator, and indeed by the end of the novel it’s not entirely clear what his actual role in events is.
So where’s the gripe? Well, becaues Hamid repeatedly draws attention to his narrative choice, and in a manner that quickly irritates. An example:
Observe, Sir: Bats have begun to appear in the air above this square. Creepy, you say? What a delightfully American expression – one I have not heard in many years!”
That ‘creepy you say?’ is clumsy, and mirrored by countless other little touches, that all point to the author’s constant need to remind us that there’s a conversation, rather than monologue going on here. It’s as if he’s afraid that his hard-won narrative voice won’t work, and puts in these constant safety valves which merely distract and irritate, being so far from real conversation.
For my money Lydia Davis pulls off a similar narrative with more grace in her mysterious short story Jury Duty. In interview with Three Monkeys, Davis said of the form:
In this case the form was provided by David Foster Wallace’s Brief Lives of Hideous Men: a Q. and A. with the questions left blank. I had not liked his story – it was rather hideous – but the form was a good one for this, since jury selection involves so many questions, and there is also the suggestion, in the story, that the narrator is being uncomfortably ‘grilled’ by the questioner, at times.
I don’t have a copy of Davis’s story to hand (when I do, I’ll post an example), but there are no ‘I see that you have noticed the scar on my forearm’ moments, that’s for sure. Hamid’s novel is more straightforward as a result – as he reduces the possibilities for misunderstanding to the bare minimum, but less satisfying. It’s as if he’s sabotaging himself, filling in the blanks he’s so keenly brought into the story.
All of which is not to dismiss the book. A friend said of it, without malice, ‘at least it’s short’, and this is one of its saving graces. It tells an intriguing and exciting story, however flawed, in a clear, concise, and punchy manner.
No small feat, as someone might mention to the author of Shalimar the Clown