Mohsin Hamid's eloquent and elegant 2017 novel, "Exit West," imagined a world where magical portals erode the dynamics of nationalism and xenophobia by permitting unfettered travel for refugees. For his latest novel, "The Last White Man," Hamid again imagines a supernatural talisman aimed at the underpinnings of prejudice, as white people begin to have their pale skin turn brown.
The transformations seem to occur only in the United States, and the novel focuses on four interrelated residents of a small unnamed town. The limited scope, as well as inescapable allusions to tumultuous events in recent U.S. history, make the book feel more blunt and reactionary than the almost aspirational panorama of "Exit West." The result is an effective allegory on race and racism in America, but one that can come to its conclusions a bit too easily at times, though that certainly doesn't negate them.
Anders and Oona are healthy, white, college-aged young adults whose high school relationship sparks up again, out of convenience more than passion, when Oona moves back home after the overdose death of her twin brother. Anders works in a "black iron gym" with no "chrome-plated machines" in sight; Oona bicycles to teach her yoga classes. The novel follows their evolving relationships with each other and with their remaining parents — for Anders, his father and for Oona, her mother.
Anders is one of the first to change and has the most acute experience of the novel's main characters, including having his white boss tell him, "I would have killed myself." Anders is wary of how his father, a construction foreman, will react, but those concerns prove largely unfounded.
Oona's mother is a different story, an unsubtle stand-in for those oh-so-aggrieved Americans who — fueled by internet bubbles and talk radio — misguidedly believe that there are various plots "against their kind." She is disturbed by the "weird people" who come when you need a plumber, thinks her daughter needs a gun because she is "so beautiful," and spends lavishly on a big TV despite struggling financially.
The plot develops predictably with the rise of "pale-skinned militants," who the police make "no real effort to stop," followed by riots. More interesting are the philosophical, less ripped-from-the-headlines discussions, as when Anders realizes that "the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are," and a changed Oona wrestles with exhaustion induced by each new interaction with people who all look more similar.
While the messages can be vital, the medium is monotonous, particularly in light of the stylistically lush "Exit West." After the first 30-some pages, "The Last White Man" comprises almost exclusively paragraph-long sentences, clause after clause stitched together comma after comma, droning like background noise, so repetitive as to feel like parody.
Thoughtful writers like Hamid are essential, but their impact is limited by their readership. The surest hope for real societal change lies, as it ultimately does in this insightful novel, with future generations who will simply see the world differently.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
The Last White Man
By: Mohsin Hamid.
Publisher: Riverhead, 192 pages, $26.