Confronted in the groggy dawn hours with his altered appearance, Anders panics. His first instinct is to assume that someone else is in his bed. But, no, he is the dark-skinned man he sees in his phone’s selfie. “He was overtaken by emotion,” Hamid writes, “not so much shock, or sorrow, though those things were there too, but above all the face replacing his filled him with anger, or rather, more than anger, and unexpected, murderous rage. He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his house, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.”
‘Exit West,’ by Mohsin Hamid, is a tale of love in the time of migration
Rage at his new situation, twinned with nostalgia for his lost identity, sends Anders back to bed. “He realized that he had been robbed,” Hamid writes, “that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him, that had taken him from him.” In such moments, which lurk all over this novel, one feels the fierce sting of Hamid’s insight, his ability to articulate the cherished premises of White superiority.
Hoping against hope that his condition might spontaneously reverse itself, Anders tells his manager he’s too sick to come into work. Only hunger forces him outside, eventually back into the company of others. No one at the grocery store seems to notice his transformation from him — or seems to notice him at all, in fact — but Anders suspects “flickers of hostility or distaste” from White people. And he quickly understands the social requirements of his revised appearance. He instinctively knows that “it was essential not to be seen as a threat, for to be seen as a threat, as dark as he was, was to risk one day being obliterated.”
Despite its Kafkaesque opening, “The Last White Man” plays closer to the register of José Saramago. The novel’s existential absurdity quickly gives way to a parable of what might be called racial mourning. The darkening that befalls Anders is happening all over this unnamed town. Everywhere, formerly White people are waking up with skin “a deep and undeniable brown.”
To the conspiracy minded, hypnotized by incendiary websites and radio shows, this skin-deep change is a calamity, the horrifying culmination of a diabolical “plot against their kind.” Violence flares. “Pale-skinned militants, some dressed almost like soldiers in combat uniform,” take to the streets. Social media lights up with frantic talk of “a miracle drug … to undo the horror.” In despair, some newly darkened people kill themselves.
“The Last White Man” is a discomfiting little book, which I suspect resists what some readers would like it to be. It’s too sincere for dystopian satire, too earnest for cultural parody. It describes the apocalypse long feared by white supremacists by subjecting that paranoia to blistering attention. Even the book’s style reflects the agility of its racial reflection. Hamid’s extravagantly extended sentences feel driven by an indefatigable impulse to refine and qualify his thoughts as they arise across the page. To quote a passage from this novel is to do violence to its tightly laced phrases of reconsideration. In an age aflame with strident tweets, Hamid offers swelling remorse and expansive empathy.
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Such a story could be written only by an author who is entirely candid about his awkward journey along the racial spectrum. In an essay published recently in the Guardian, Hamid explained that “The Last White Man” evolved from his sudden loss of White privilege after 9/11. “I had always been a brown man with a Muslim name,” he writes. “But I had been white enough — as a relatively well-paid, university-educated inhabitant of cosmopolitan cities — to partake in many of the benefits of whiteness. And now my partial membership was being revoked.” In the anxious days and months after al-Qaeda’s surprise attack on the United States, Hamid found himself detained for questioning at airports and eyed with fear by fellow passengers on buses and trains. In a moment, it seemed, his skin had turned dark and suspicious.
The tone of “The Last White Man” echoes that complicated, shameful grief. Contemplating “the odd wrapper he was wrapped in,” Anders mourns the loss of his Whiteness and the advantages with which it once endowed him — even as he comes to realize the artificiality and cruelty of the vanishing system that held him aloft.
For a novel that explores the functions and presumptions of racism, “The Last White Man” is a peculiarly hopeful story. Its method may be fantastical speculation, but its faith eventually leads to the inevitability of social enlightenment. It anticipates that sweet day — not forever deferred, surely — when we finally close the casket on the whole horrific construct of racial hierarchies and see each other for what we are.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
On Aug. 4 at 7 pm, Mohsin Hamid will be reading at Sixth & I, 600 I St. NW, Washington, D.C.
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