”…when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book…”
One feels a part of this story, the way Mohsin Hamid tells it. There is an immediacy and directness to his second-person narrative that entirely works in involving the reader. This book began to get widespread attention before it was even published, but not one of the reviews and interviews gave me a sense of the exhilaration I felt while reading. For one thing, I had the sense that the author threw out more than he put in—it is not a big book in terms of words. But the author’s daring use of language, structure, second-person narrative, character and plot involved the reader to a great extent, and we are complicit in outcomes. We recognize and validate the characters.
Spare and propulsive, this is the story of a young man growing up in a large South Asian city:
”Your city is enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached tropical island republic…A limited access road is under construction around the place, forming a belt past which its urban belly is already beginning to bulge…Your bus barrels along in the shadow of these monuments, dusty new arteries feeding this city, which despite its immensity is only one among many such organs quivering in the torso of rising Asia.”The young man in our narrative has the wild uninhibited entrepreneurial energy that is forced upon bright young things struggling to find a way to live in a place of too many with too little. Innovate, or die.
“You have used the contacts with retailers you forged during your years as a non-expired-labeled expired-goods salesman to enter the bottled-water trade. Your city’s neglected pipes are cracking, the contents of underground water mains and sewers mingling, with the result that taps in locales rich and poor alike disgorge liquids that, while for the most part clear and often odorless, reliably contain trace levels of feces and microorganisms capable of causing diarrhea, hepatitis, dysentery, and typhoid. Those less well-off among the citizenry harden their immune systems by drinking freely, sometimes suffering losses in the process, especially of their young and their frail. Those more well-off have switched to bottled water, which you and your two employees are eager to provide.”We watch as our entrepreneur grows his business, losing members of his family along the way, all the while we are keenly aware of the language that carries a lilt even in its exquisite fluency: “…emotionally you stagger about this new reality like a sailor returned to land after decades at sea.”
Moments of business success are punctuated with reminders of its mixed blessings: “As you drive off under a beautiful, orange, polluted sky, riding high in your SUV above lesser hatchbacks and motorcycles, you start to hum…Below your feet is the ever-dropping aquifer, punctured by thousands upon thousands of greedily sipping machine-powered steel straws.”
This book thrilled and energized me, and gives me infinite hope for the future while at the same time giving pause:
“…Meeting with a keen young repairman arrived to fix your telephone connection, or speaking with a knowledgeable young woman behind the counter of a pharmacy, you are pricked by a lingering optimism, and you marvel at the resilience and potential of those around you, particularly of the youth in this city, in this, the era of cities, bound by its airport and fiber-optic cables to every great metropolis, collectively forming, even if tenuously, a change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet…But what you [also] sense, what is unmistakable, is a rising tide of frustration and anger and violence, born partly of the greater familiarity the poor today have with the rich, their faces pressed to that clear window on wealth afforded by ubiquitous television, and partly the change in mentality that results from the outward shift in the supply curve for firearms.”I really loved this book. I loved its humanity and I loved its involving me in the human drama unfolding, for I am involved, I am responsible, this is my world, too, and Hamid made me feel these are people just like me who live elsewhere in different conditions. I thank the author for bringing this home with such sophistication and style.
“As you create this story and I create this story, I would like to ask you how things were. I would like to ask you about the person who held your hand when dust entered your eye or ran with you from the rain. I would like to tarry here awhile with you, or if tarrying is impossible, to transcend my here, with your permission, in your creation, so tantalizing to me, and so unknown. That I can do this doesn’t stop me from imagining it. And how strange that when I imagine, I feel. The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.”
A word must really be said about the hardcover production of this book by Riverhead Publishing, a division of Penguin: it is a very beautiful book. I wonder if, in this age of digital publishing, publishers are taking more time to create exquisite paper objects or if I am just noticing now after a few years of wrangling with digital readers. But I submit that some books are more gorgeous than others, and this particular hardcover has clear type with plenty of white space marching over creamy pages. It is a Rolls Royce reading experience. Thanks to Riverhead for showing me that there really is a difference in print copies.
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