Mohsin Hamid’s Empty Parable
The author’s novel about race transformation fails to take an old idea to new places.
A man wakes to find himself transformed. He looks around, seeking his bearings as he tries to come to terms with what has happened to him overnight, perhaps after uneasy dreams. He looks at his hand, which he knows like … well, like the back of his hand. It is unfamiliar, the hand of another. He seeks out his reflection. The man who looks back at him is a stranger.
These are the opening beats of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, The Last White Man: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” These are also the opening beats—albeit about a black man who wakes up white—of A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass (2015), the epigraph of which cites Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” to make the debt explicit. It’s also the premise of a chapter of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016) about a black woman who wakes up white, which, per its title, “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” alludes to Robert Louis Stevenson’s scene from 1886: “The hand of Henry Jekyll … large, firm, white, and comely” appears “in the yellow light of a mid-London morning, lying half shut on the bed-clothes … lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair.” Perhaps Hamid is hoping to make good on a saying from his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000): “Tales with unoriginal beginnings are those most likely later to surprise.”
Like the hero of Herman Raucher’s novelization of Watermelon Man (1970), Anders’s first impulse is to mistake himself for a dark-skinned home intruder. Like the hero of Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Man Who Changed His Skin (1959), Anders soon realizes this isn’t just a tan, either: “He looked like another person, not just another person, but a different kind of person, utterly different.” Like the hero of Mortimer Weisinger’s pulp story, “Pigments Is Pigments” (1935), Anders reacts with shock at his darkening, then falls into a “murderous rage.” As with the more scientifically minded versions of this plot, like Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine (2014) and Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow (2019), we’ll soon find out whether the transformation is explicable or reversible. We’ll discover whether it afflicts just Anders or spreads to others like a fad, as in George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), or like a plague, as in Junot Díaz’s story “Monstro” (2012).
Even if you’re unfamiliar with this tradition of stories about race transformation, you’ll suspect what’s coming. Distinguishing between those born dark and the newly transformed will become fraught. Violence will erupt. Some will come to believe that a genocidal conspiracy is to blame; some will kill themselves; some will kill others. “Militants” will take over, emitting fear and hate like a musk. Love will blossom. Heightened scenes of interracial sex and awkward perusals of genitals will follow. In the end, skin color will be shown to be meaningless for identity, a mere construct. Yet it will prove almost atavistically fascinating as an aesthetic surface and a conductor of feeling.
Tone above all distinguishes Hamid from these precursors. Whereas most of these writers bend race transformation toward satire, offering us topsy-turvy and hysterical tales, Hamid is deeply earnest about his conceit. The novel is that wan 21st-century banality, a “meditation,” and it meditates on how losing whiteness is going to make white people feel. Mostly sad, as it turns out.
Anders is haunted by his entrance into double consciousness, which W. E. B. Du Bois famously first described in The Atlantic as being divided between your sense of yourself and your sense of how others perceive you. Anders obsesses over how white people will treat him now that they have no way “to know he was white,” and seems to sense their “contempt and fascination.” As for his new kind, “all these dark people around, more dark people than white people … made Anders uneasy, even though he was dark too.” He feels he’s been recast as a supporting character in his life; he feels “triply imprisoned, in his skin, in this house, in this town.” He dons a hoodie and sunglasses to hide himself from strangers and family.
Anders feels comfortable enough to reveal his new body only to his sometime lover, a high-school friend named Oona. They smoke some weed and give it a spin:
He started to undress, and then she did the same, warily, and they joined with a degree of caution, almost as though one was stalking the other, which of them stalking and which of them being stalked unclear, maybe both doing both, in a way, and so it was that they came to have that night’s sex.
Anders worked at a gym and Oona taught yoga, and their bodies were youthful and fit, and if we, writing or reading this, were to find ourselves indulging in a kind of voyeuristic pleasure at their coupling, we could perhaps be forgiven, for they too were experiencing something not entirely dissimilar, pale-skinned Oona watching herself performing her grind with a dark-skinned stranger, Anders the stranger watching the same, and the performance was strong for them, visceral, touching them where, unexpectedly, or not so unexpectedly, they discovered a jarring and discomforting satisfaction at being touched.
The sex improves; the prose does not. A phrase from a later scene, “arousal shadowed by gloom,” captures the general feeling. The novel evinces the worst of Hamid’s style, intensifying his turn in Exit West (2017) toward folksy transitions (“and so it was”), diction that manages to be both officious and purple (“the performance was strong for them, visceral”), and run-ons that feel less breathless than halting, laden as they are with comma-capped redundancies (“maybe both doing both, in a way”) and reversals (“unexpectedly, or not so unexpectedly”). As in his earlier novels about social mobility and immigration, romance supplies the plot and casts an aura of “love” over the politico-speculative gimmick. But Hamid here emphasizes the familial, perhaps as a stand-in for the genetic: The love between generations meets the idea that race is an inherited trait.
The titular last white man is in fact Anders’s widowed father, who responds to his son’s new condition by weeping “like a shudder, like an endless cough, without a sound,” then giving him a gun. Anders feels guilty for his darkness; “just by being here, Anders was taking something from his father, taking his dignity.” But his father makes it his dying task to accept Anders, even though
he could understand those who wanted [his son] gone from town now, who were afraid of him, or threatened by him, by the dark man his boy had become, and they had a right to be, he would have felt the same in their shoes, he liked it no better than they did, and he could see the end his boy signaled, the end of things.
Family blood and racial blood are pitted against each other.
Oona’s mother, who vomits when she catches the interracial couple in flagrante, is also averse to the barbarian transformation, which she predicts: “People are changing,” she warns her daughter early on. “All over. Our people.” Hooked up to an IV of online fearmongering and cable news, she has become a “fantasist”; her belief “that life was fair and would turn out for the best and good people like them got what they deserved” has warped upon the death of her husband into an embittered crouch, a “deep, abiding panic” that springs into a “brittle” joy once the violence begins. Oona, “a realist” unnerved by this nativist zealotry, is inspired by Anders’s transformation to paint herself with brown makeup. But this flirtation with blackface leaves Oona “ashamed,” and though she appreciates her new features when she too turns dark, “a feeling of melancholy” yet touches her, “a sadness at the losing of something.”
Things settle down. Darkness—in the novel’s conception, more a symbolic hue than an ethnicity—sweeps inexorably, beneficently over town. A child’s notion: If everyone is “the same, just dark,” what is there to fight about? Anders’s father dies; the last white man is buried; you might think the newly darkened (the darkies?) will get together for a block party. Instead, they take walks to process their feelings. Oona and Anders fall in love, move in together, have a daughter—she comes out “brown” and “ferocious.” By then, Oona’s mother has lost her whiteness, too. When she waxes nostalgic about the glories of the white past, her brown granddaughter stills her with a word, “stop,” and a kiss. This is the novel’s cure for white despair over the loss of whiteness: Keep calm and carry on.
Never one to let us get away with missing an analogy, Hamid tells us of our baleful lovers:
Sometimes it felt like the town was a town in mourning, and the country a country in mourning, and this suited Anders, and suited Oona, coinciding as it did with their own feelings, but at other times it felt like the opposite, that something new was being born, and strangely enough this suited them too.
What exactly is being mourned? Whiteness in The Last White Man is a dream. It’s the neighborhood watch and home security. It’s weight lifting in an old-school gym, men testing themselves against gravity. It’s yoga in a scentless studio, women “staving off aging through attempts to remain supple.” It’s going out drinking, going out dancing, going out to dinner. It’s the myth that “a gun was a marker on the journey of death, and was to be respected as such, like a coffin or a grave or a meal in winter.” It’s having no vocation and curating yourself online. It’s feeling “cashed out, emotion-wise” but flush enough in cash for provisions to survive a race riot. Primarily, it’s not being “dark.” (The word black is verboten in The Last White Man, appearing only once, to describe iron.)
What exactly is being born—or rather, borne? Darkness in The Last White Man is an ordeal. Those who were already dark have little presence and no internal life in the novel. There is no sense that they have cultures or mores; Anders still sees them, “he could not help it, … like a group of animals.” Darkened Oona comes to notice “finer gradations in the texture of someone’s skin and the shape of their cheekbones and the nature of their hair,” but this somehow leads to a conceit comparing people to trees. Darkness awakens “the ancient horrors … the almost forgotten savagery upon which [the] town was founded.” Anders wonders if “maybe that was the point, the point of it was to break him, to break all of them, all of us, yes us, how strange to be forced into such an us.”
Despite its conciliatory tone, this echoes the narratives that Oona’s mother reads online about
the savagery, the savagery of the dark people, how it had been in them from the beginning, and had manifested itself again and again throughout history, and could not be denied, and she read the examples, the examples of when groups of whites had fallen, and the rapes and slaughters and tortures we had been subjected to, and how that was their way, the way of the dark people, whenever they seized the upper hand.
The Last White Man in this way dramatizes the inane, paranoiac interpretation of migration known as the “Great Replacement,” which was just condemned in a 2022 resolution by the U.S. House of Representatives.
This conspiracy theory claims that the West is being colonized in reverse by the global South, and has inspired a string of white-supremacist terrorist attacks in places such as Christchurch, New Zealand, and, most recently, Buffalo, New York. The trope of “colored hordes” overwhelming white nationhood is an old and eugenicist idea. The French author Renaud Camus gave it new life when he named it the “Great Replacement” in a short book he published on the subject in 2011. That same year, Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb that killed eight people, then went on to hunt down and murder 69 members of the Norwegian Workers’ Youth League, mostly teenagers. What are we meant to make of Hamid’s giving his latest hero the name of the man who applied the logic of “the last white man” so horrifically?
If Hamid’s novel were a self-aware satire of this ideology of whiteness and its violent effects, it would be pitch-perfect. But The Last White Man’s structure affords us no way to know if this is what Hamid intends: It includes no higher judgment, no specific history, no novelistic frame against which to measure the reliability of the narration, no backdrop across which irony can dance.
The characters are mostly presented as your basic good white people, trying their best to deal with the coming darkness: “Oona wondered … if her mother was always going to find a way to carry on, and had simply been mourning, or not simply, there was nothing simple about it, but mainly, mainly been mourning, as a woman who had lost her husband and her son was entitled to do.” Hamid lets them grieve for what is posited as a genuine loss of whiteness, with no compulsive melancholy, no unhealthy attachments, no obsessive shrines left over. Just mementos and a brown child who symbolizes a race-blind future. The Last White Man feels like a primer for mourning whiteness, not a critique of it.
To accede to the idea that whiteness can be lost, albeit in the name of open-endedness and open-mindedness, is to exculpate the capitalist imperialism that invented race in the first place. Whiteness isn’t monolithic any more than darkness is—remember the Irish, the Jews? Nor is it a dream for everyone. Remember James Joyce’s line? “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Hamid’s commitment to a liberal literary ethos veers close to a vague both-sides-ism:
Online you could form your own opinion of what was going on and your opinion was, likely as not, different from the next person’s, and there was no real way to determine which of you was right, and the boundary between what was in your mind and what was in the world beyond was blurry, so blurry there was almost no boundary at all.
It’s one thing for a character to be afflicted with blurred vision or the race “blindness” that grants Oona a “new kind of sight”; it’s another for the novel to suffer the same confusion of perspective.
There are two cracks in the humanist glaze, patches of clarity in the blur. A dark man follows Oona and Anders on a walk, scares them with a shout, then walks off, laughing at their hysterical reaction. And a dark-from-the-start, nameless “cleaning guy” at the gym where Anders works declines Anders’s belated offer to train him. “What I would like,” the man adds, “is a raise.” Both of these fleeting scenes are genuinely funny. Why don’t we follow these dark men home? Or any of the other people born dark, who must surely be annoyed as well as amused by these confused, deracinated, sad-sack interlopers? Wouldn’t their lives offer an interesting foil or counterpoint?
An earlier novel by the same author might have pursued this tack. Hamid’s characters sometimes offer scathing indictments of racial capitalism, like this one from a rapscallion in Moth Smoke:
Well, what about the guys who give out the Nobel Prize? What are they? They’re money launderers. They take the fortunes made out of dynamite, out of blowing people into bits, and make the family name of Nobel noble. The Rhodes Scholarship folks? They do the same thing: dry-clean our memories of one of the great white colonialists, of the men who didn’t let niggers like us into their clubs or their parliaments, who gunned us down in gardens when we tried to protest.
Hamid’s narrators often refer matter-of-factly, sometimes with delight, to the variety of darker complexions, to the difference between being a brown Muslim and a black Muslim, to the internal diversity within Pakistani or Nigerian culture. It is taken for granted that “darkness” is not just half of a simplistic racial binary, but rather a pluriform, diasporic, and syncretic cultural phenomenon.
Hamid seems to have sacrificed this sort of specificity in favor of a polished brand of globalish allegory. If in this latest work his characters grow black, over his career, they seem to have grown ever more blank. The primary political dialectic of Moth Smoke is rich Lahore and poor Lahore; in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), it’s New York City and Lahore. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) never names the Asian country where it’s set; the protagonists of Exit West leave an unnamed, presumably Muslim, country in the putative East and move steadily West. And in the unnamed, probably European country of The Last White Man, we have shifted to an even larger-scale paradigm: the dark and the white. This drift toward the general is also a drift toward the didactic, one that is only nominally secular insofar as it amounts to a righteous liberalism that promises us a peek, as Oona says, into “a mystical truth, a terrible mystical truth” about humanity. Hamid’s work is starting to look a lot like high-flown self-help, Paulo Coelho or Robin DiAngelo for the jet-setting smart set.
Hamid has always tended to map the rising tensions of romance onto the movements of social mobility onto metafictional asides about the relations between authors and readers—as if love, politics, and literature were all simply different ways to negotiate intimacy. The absurdity of these equivalences becomes clear in the closing lines of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:
You have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you, though not in a creepy way, and so may you, may I, may we, so may all of us confront the end.
Beyond the creepiness, this pablum presumes reversibility. Yes, the political affects the personal, and both affect the literary. But having sex with the right person won’t change the world; reading the right book won’t either. Dark-washing characters won’t disappear race, nor will believing that brown kids are our future.
Yet this kind of magical thinking will no doubt continue to meet with success in an era obsessed with the conviction that we are all in a moment of racial reckoning. What Hamid’s novels actually offer isn’t education but recognition, a self-congratulatory reconfirmation of ideas like “migration is a death” and “race is a construct,” which are true enough but also truisms by now. Despite the horrors it has conjured, “the end of whiteness” is just another mantra of our current discourse; whether you are troubled by it or merely curious, Hamid is here to talk you through it.
But who is you? Whom is this novel for? Hamid has never shied from connecting his characters’ identity crises to his own. “I was not certain where I belonged,” the narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist says, “in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither.” In a recent New Yorker interview, Hamid explains the origin and intent of The Last White Man:
After 9/11, I experienced a profound sense of loss. I was constantly stopped at immigration, held for hours at the airport, once pulled off a flight that was already on the tarmac. I had become an object of suspicion, even fear. I had lost something. And, over the years, I began to realize that I had lost my partial whiteness. Not that I had been white before: I am brown-skinned, with a Muslim name. But I had been able to partake in many of the benefits of whiteness. And I had been complicit in that system …
So we have to imagine our way out of it, excavate our way out of it, and over generations grow our way out of it … As a writer, I build environments out of words that readers enter and make their own—and in that process puzzle out a bit of what it is they think. What might it feel like to live in a town that undergoes the transformation that Anders’s town undergoes?
This way of putting it hums with the soothing privilege of the elite. Apparently, the solutions to the problem—to the violence—of the color line were with us all along: Fiction! Imagination! Empathy!
The Last White Man offers no news for the nonwhite among us. Maybe Hamid wants it that way. This is unfortunate, because now is a good time to remind ourselves that “dark” people, despite our erasure from national narratives, have been in the West for centuries. We have our own perspectives; we have said and written and done many things—and not just about whiteness, or race, or racism. We are not, and have never been, mere symbols or surfaces for melancholy reflection. You might even say that we have tended on the whole to add some color to things, with our highly particular food, fashion, words, music, art—with that stuff of life that usually goes by the name of culture.
This article appears in the September 2022 print edition with the headline “A World Without White People”
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