“People change,” says a character in Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, The last white man. For fans of weird tales, these are deliciously ominous words, as uncontrollable change is the source of fantasies like Invasion of the Body Thieves, Dracula and Hamid’s most direct inspiration, that of Kafka Metamorphosis.
Just as Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant insect, so too does the main character of Hamid, a white man by the Norse name of Anders who “One morning… woke up to discovering that it had turned into a deep, unmistakable brown.” Inexorably, this mysterious darkening begins to spread to white people all over this unnamed country.
As he demonstrated in his 2017 novel, West exit, Hamid is a chronicler of instability – borders dissolve, beliefs shift, sedentary populations suddenly migrate. His surreal tales are just the other side of plausible because they are tied to once improbable realities – events like 9/11 and the ongoing climate change cataclysm.
Hamid, who is of British Pakistani descent, has said in interviews that the premise of The Last White Man was born out of his own changing circumstances after 9/11 when, as a self-proclaimed highly educated dark-haired man with a Muslim name, he says he “lost [the privilege of his] partial whiteness.” The isolation of the pandemic is also felt in this novel: as violence escalates in response to the darkening white population, characters like Anders and his girlfriend, Oona, a professor of yoga, stay locked up in their homes while experiencing apocalyptic shifts online and on TV.
Hamid writes with an on-the-pitch immediacy that draws readers in. Anders, who works as a personal trainer, was, for a time, one of only two so-called “black men” at the gym. (The other guy is the janitor.) Over the weeks, Anders’ hyper-awareness about his new color changes his personality. Here is part of a long sentence where Hamid takes us through Anders’ zigzagging perceptions of himself and others:
At work, Anders had become quieter than before, less sure of how his actions would be perceived, and it was as if he had been recast as a secondary character on the set of the television show where his life was unfolding. , but he had not yet given up hope that a return to his old role was possible, to his old centrality, or if not to centrality, at least to a role better than this peripheral role, and so he was almost excited to hear that a longtime gym client had changed,…excited until the man arrived when he was expected, a black man recognizable only by his jacket, and he was standing there , this man, looking around, looking at those who were looking at him, and he left without a word, as if he could never, no, never come back.
Most of Hamid’s novel consists of long sentences like this, the bustle of which mimics the flow of his fictional world. There is a downside to sticking to Anders’ egocentric view, however: he’s not such a thoughtful guy, so he doesn’t offer deeper thoughts on racism; nor do we hear anything about how black people think their numbers are inflated by all these dazed and confused involuntary converts.
Hamid himself, however, clearly relishes the nonsense generated by the construction of the race. For example, Anders hears a report about a white man turned black who committed suicide on his lawn; a neighbor alerted the police, believing the dead black man to be a home invader. Once the body is identified, the police determine that “a white man did indeed shoot a black man, but also that the black man and the white man were the same”.
A skillful, so narrow, blurred area-type fantasy about identity, The Last White Man does not seriously test credulity until its very end. Without a doubt, it says a lot about our own anxious times that the happy ending here seems too far-fetched.