Ever discovered a book that dramatized a world you thought only you noticed? Last week I was unpacking boxes sent to us American military members deployed in the Middle East. Nothing unusual about that for me. But then I noticed a novel that was literary fiction, not the pulp fiction that most groups send. Exit West was the novel. It was written by Pakistani novelist and essayist Mohsi Hamid. Something about it intrigued me. I read the back cover whereon one reviewer commented: “Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines.”
Oftentimes I have wondered if reviewers have a shallow well from which they draw platitudes to serve as book reviews, but this reviewer nailed it when he wrote that Hamid captured “the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines.”
I’m not one who has a high view of modern news media. It has degenerated into name-calling, sound bites, and showmanship. It’s entertainment designed to appeal to the lowest common denominators and/or logical flaws—stereotyping, red herrings, and ad hominem attacks. The West has almost completely replaced reasoned and respectful debate with inanity and invective. I prefer to read. There at least one may weigh arguments writers have put forth, and evaluate ideas. Instead of yelling at each other, often mischaracterizing each other’s views, etc. Reading thoughtfully engenders—hopefully—discernment.
So after I read the reviews on the back cover of Hamid’s novel, I put the Vietnam memoir I had been reading this week aside, and started on Exit West. That was three days ago. Now I’m done with the novel. Not done in a cynical sense, but done reading it through for the first time. It was that readable. To be a novel with relatively little dialogue, it moved quickly. Why? Below are some of my thoughts as to why it succeeded as a story and why I concur with the reviewer I cited, and why you might want to read it.
Our world in 2018 is characterized by the constant deluge of information; cultural flotsam pervades most people’s lives more than wisdom does. Novel reading is out (except, perhaps, by some introverts, intellectuals, and retirees). If you want to be a 21st century man, just post, tweet, and emote via social media; that’s where the bang is.
Think of these things for a moment: we can purchase drones online; smart phones put the world in our palms (if you imagine it, you can browse for it); cross-cultural pollination is a reality of 21st century life (homogeneity is largely receding in many parts of the world); terrorism is not localized to the Islamic Middle East but it is likely in your zip code; we are networked through smart phones but are falling apart at the spiritual seams.
The 25-year-old in 2018 lives in a very different world than a 25-year-old lived in during 1948 or even 1988. He texts more than he converses face-to-face. She may have 2,000 Facebook friends but no one with whom she spends a Friday evening with at a coffee shop or café. The world, in short, has changed.
Technology has shrunk the globe and brought us both closer together and farther apart. We’ve constant information but little wisdom.
Hamid has captured this conglomeration in his novel. Listen to the following episode. The main characters, Pakistani lovers Saeed and Nadia, are urged by Saeed’s father to flee Pakistan, which is being destroyed by Islamic terrorists:
SAEED’S FATHER then summoned Nadia into his room and spoke to her without Saeed and said that he was entrusting her with his son’s life, and she, whom he called daughter, must, like a daughter, not fail him, whom, she called father, and she must see Saeed through to safety, and he hoped she would one day marry his son and be called mother by his grandchildren, but this was up to them to decide, and all he asked was that she remain by Saeed’s side until Saeed was out of danger, and he asked her to promise this to him, and she said she would promise only if Saeed’s father came with them, and he said again that he could not, but that they must go, he said it softly, like a prayer, and she sat there with him in silence and the minutes passed, and in the end she promised, and it was an easy promise to make because she had at that time no thoughts of leaving Saeed, but it was also a difficult one because in making it she felt she was abandoning the old man, and even if he did have his siblings and his cousins, and might now go live with them or have them come live with him, they could not protect him as Saeed and Nadia could, and so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” (p. 98)
What do you see here? In short, here is a family in crisis. Terrorism is destroying a nation (sound familiar?). The father figure, sacrificial and loving, seeks to send off those whom he loves so that they may find a better life. (It’s somewhat akin to Naomi telling Ruth and Orpah to go back to their people in Moab, if you know the reference.) Terror. Cross-cultural pollination. And yet the three people in this scene from Hamid’s novel are almost completely alone. The father is a recent widower, and his only life, really, is trying to protect his son and the son’s girlfriend, Nadia. The young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, have smart phones, which bring the terror of the world to their palms, but the irony is that the human connection is being severed because of terror and sin.
This is a different world. We have become numb, I think Hamid suggests, to the human … because the human looks more like the bestial.
The two protagonists flee terror looking for connection—human connection, love, trust, etc. in a world bedraggled by information deluges, rapacity, and murder. They are both types of the “everyman,” if you will.
I won’t spoil the novel for you. Read it yourself. Think about the issues Hamid raised. Ask yourself if he has not captured accurately our world. Brace yourself: there are some unpleasant scenes in the book. But they are necessary to portray modern life as it is. Ask yourself if the ending gives you reason to hope. I appreciate very much writers who spur us to explore difficult questions, and Hamid has succeeded in doing that in Exit West.