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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A Glimpse of a Future Without White People

Whiteness is a seduction. Whiteness is also an illusion. These are the twin motifs on which Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid props up The Last White Man, his new novel about race metamorphosis and human morality. Anchored in the bare and elegiac prose Hamid has made his trademark style, the book springboards from a single unexplained incident. Anders, a white man, awakens one morning to a new reality: his skin has “turned a deep and undeniable brown.”

The transformation, of which Anders’ is the first—but not the only, and certainly not the last—elicits worthy exploration. What if whiteness were suddenly gone? Would the social order of life come undone? Would anything change? Where Hamid lands doesn’t exactly persuade.

The sequence of events that follows plays into an ancient fear, that of The Other. (One’s need to estrange, Toni Morrison has said, is “a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal.”) For Anders, confusion bubbles. Panic swells. Initially, he flirts with thoughts of violence after realizing the transformation is irreversible. “He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home,” Hamid writes, “to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.”

It’s understandable why those who benefit from a particular standing would do anything to preserve it. The conscious seduction of power, of understanding the privileges from which one benefits and the life it affords, is, in part, about the necessity of control. I’d probably be upset and a little sad if I lost all of that, too.

But there isn’t a before Anders can return to. More and more, residents transform from white to varying shades of brown, at first causing uproar, until one person—from which the novel draws its seemingly doom-laden title—is the remaining reservoir of whiteness (In a surprising twist, it turns out to be Anders’ father) .

At this point, the novel’s questions shift. What is left to hold on to after such a life-altering occurrence? What remains paramount? Hamid answers: Love.

The great staging of Hamid’s work is intimacy; the grooves of human attachment his sole preoccupation. He is among the foremost diviners of partnership: of friendships, lifetime loves, and shattered marriages. Of how love is crystalized, of everything love can hold, what it can and will withstand across time. He understands—and in return makes us understand—our cavernous need for another, that somewhere bone-deep we cannot make it alone.

Hamid cycles into and out of the rotating threads—joy, loss, grief, anger, pleasure, birth, and rebirth—that animate the fabric of his storytelling, using Anders and his girlfriend Oona to stitch everything together. Eventually, having made peace with the tide of change and all that it has upended, the pair venture back into the world. “No one there at the bar looked entirely comfortable, not the bartender, and not the men huddled in the only occupied booth … not any of these dark people bathed in the bar-colored light, trying to find their footing in a situation so familiar and yet so strange,” Oona observes. Or “maybe everyone looked the same as they always did,” she thought. It is only after “the whiskey settles into her belly” that she realizes that “the difference was gone.”

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It’s possible that this is exactly how a global metamorphosis along racial lines would unfold. Hamid is graceful in sewing empathy in the book’s closing pages; I’m much more cynical on the matter, much less hopeful that everything, in the end, would play out in such an unceremoniously tame manner.

Lest we forget, identity is more than a badge of flesh. Whiteness physically recedes but it never vanishes completely. It has a psychological grip. The newly “dark people” of Hamid’s epic appear to embrace different outlooks but, really, what has happened is more of a costume swap than an adjustment of the soul. The transformation is a mirage, a device for the characters to speak through but one they never really accept. They operate in a kind of cultural drag, entombed in an unrecognizable self, a sort of living elegy of their former whiteness. What was once marked as difference is not understood anew; instead, they continue to see through white eyes, in spite of their brown skin.

It’s all a bit of a puzzle, really. The aggressions of otherness linger; Anders and Oona are startled by a man one night as they leave dinner, succumbing to the very stereotype they seemingly project. What’s more, people of color are never afforded the privilege of insight at length. The janitor at Anders’ gym is Black but Hamid forgoes the opportunity to let us know what he is actually thinking, to peek into his world, and show us how the consequences of mass racial transformation ricochet into the lives of the already marginalized.

That is primarily where the novel falls short: in what it chooses to catch sight of. Or rather, what it doesn’t. There are minimal shifting points of view; it is motored by a monologue that, over time, suffers from claustrophobia, a confined and occasionally naive thought experiment. The historian Nell Irvin Painter has written that “race is an idea, not a fact.” Maybe that is why the novel appears the way it does: victim to the cage of its imagination.

Genre-wise, race parables have historically used satire to exhume problems of class mobility or social exclusion; there was Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s fantastic We Cast a Shadow (2019), and Jess Row’s even more fantastic Your Face in Mine (2014), which poked fun at the trickster chameleons among us, the Rachel Dolezals of the world. Instead, Hamid conveys his story with a sort of cerebral seriousness. It’s a shame, given the daredevil brilliance he flexed in previous books; 2017’s Exit West was a symphony of skill and technical virtuosity about portal-hopping lovers caught in the cyclone of displacement, the kind of game-winning Michael Jordan performance readers live for.

Hamid wants to believe that people can be better than they once were, that they can adapt to a world that has made more room for others. I’m less inclined to believe so. The framing for The Last White Man came to him in the months following September 11, in the wake of being racially profiled, during a moment of strident division. Change isn’t impossible. That much is true. But the nature of societies and those who sit at the top, of people who hoard power and will do anything to protect it, even if they share the same complexion, seldom do.

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