Those obsessively poring over emerging news about the Boston bombers should take a break from their iPhones and laptops and newspapers and read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, (and see Mira Nair’s film version out later this week). The novel will go further in answering the general bewilderment about the Tsarnaev brothers than the little snippets of their lives we have so far, in answering the bigger mystery: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?” as Obama put it.
There was, as always, a scramble of people who knew them who are “shocked.” The slivers of their pasts seem to place them in the position of children of opportunity, the younger one, Dzhokhar, went to Cambridge Ringe and Latin with a scholarship. Photos show Dzhokhar in his prom clothes, in a red satin vest in a tumble of other boys in a goofy ordinary American high school moment. How does he go in a couple of years from this moment to the one in which he puts nails and ball bearings in a pressure cooker to injure and maim innocent strangers, including children?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of a Pakistani kid, Changez, who comes to Princeton University on financial aid and then gets a job at an exclusive McKinsey-like firm where he rises quickly to the very top and then begins to question his new American life. The book points out that the experience of many people who come to America and think of staying is not straightforwardly one of success, or even aspiration or desire. The immigration story, which is in many ways a beautiful one, and is central to America’s idea of itself, is also one of violence. There is a rage involved in assimilation, a radical, dangerous rift in identity that we don’t usually like to think about or reckon with. This is what Hamid writes about, the minor shames, the small denouncements of the past, the sharp conflict between an old identity and a new one, the collision of comfort and discomfort in an adopted country that add up to something troubling and volatile (Though Changez does not turn to violence, he does turn into a vehemently anti-American professor back in Lahore, Pakistan.)
Before he abandons his American aspirations, Changez visits his family’s house in Pakistan: “I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered them in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite.”
Hamid’s story is so intriguing because it is a success story, a boy who goes to Princeton, has a stellar rise, friends, a girlfriend, and then runs for his life in the other direction. The seduction of immigrating to America is the idea of absolute acceptance, the pure, inclusive dream itself, the heady mixture of materialism and desire, the frank fluidity of class, and yet, the idea of “us” and “them” replicates itself on very sophisticated levels, in even the most enlightened, educated circles, and casts people out while simultaneously taking them in. It goes without saying that most immigration stories are happier than The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but they are not necessarily simpler.
Changez begins to wear a beard, after one trip home. “I do not now recall my precise motivations. I know only that I did not wish to blend in with the army of clean shaven youngsters who were my co-workers and that inside me for multiple reasons, I was deeply angry.”
Changez says to an American, “I am a lover of your country.” This is a resonant centrally important statement because it is both true and not true; it is a love charged with anger, tainted with humiliation, a love so complicated and fraught that it resembles hatred. The assimilation is not easy, the adoption of American ways is not without cost, without loss, without a very dangerous kind of displacement of self.
One can read glimmers of the radical ambivalence Hamid charts in Dzhokhar’s twitter feed: “A decade in America already, want out.” “Gain knowledge, get women, acquire currency, # live strong.” “I am the best beer bong player in Cambridge I am # the truth.” Does he love America or hate it? Or is the edge right between the two, the hungry, angry border worst of all?
Tamerlan said that he had no American friends, but then it turns out that he has had close American friends. This sort of double experience, fitting in but being alienated, having friends but feeling critical, is also part of the experience Hamid describes. He shows us a life with close friends and passionate mentors, who Changez doesn’t ultimately accept as friends and mentors, the state of radically standing outside.
The novel (and the film version perhaps even more directly) challenges American culture to take a careful look at itself. One of the issues raised by the novel is that the acceptance we think we have for people of other cultures, the warm embrace that liberals, at least feel that they are giving, is not as absolute, as untroubled, as blanketly wonderful, as we think. After Changez grows a beard to connect, in some way, to Pakistan and goes back to his office, a black co-worker says to him, “you need to be careful. This whole corporate collegiality veneer only goes so deep. Believe me.”
The novel is important not for any single message it has to offer, but for a clarity that could be useful in an emotionally fraught conversation, a careful reckoning of the particular variety of welcome we offer to children from abroad. The issue of immigration, or of our relation to foreigners living here, is too subtle, too nuanced, too delicate for newspapers, which is why we need to look to novelists. To understand the Boston bombers, we need also to understand and be honest about ourselves, the ways in which we both take in and don’t take in people from other countries, the trickier side of the American dream.