I first read The Reluctant Fundamentalist three years ago for a seminar on literature and terrorism for my MA in English. It’s a beautifully rendered novel with a frame narrative, not unlike Marlow’s rendering of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. And really, there are more than a few analogies one could make with Conrad’s novella.
Changez, the narrator of the novel, is living in Pakistan where he encounters an American stranger who appears to be more than just someone on a pleasure tour of Pakistan–post 9/11–so we know that there is a lot of untold story potential waiting to happen. Changez convinces the man to join him at a restaurant, and it is there where his own story unwinds. Having graduated from Princeton University, he is headhunted by a financial assessment firm, Sampson Underwood, to value companies or businesses. Changez has the chance to taste the American Dream. He also falls in love with the beautiful, privileged Erica, a woman who appears confident and affluent, but ultimately holds a secret that makes her fragile and vulnerable. Everything seems to hold promise for Changez, until 9/11 hits, and he finds himself conflicted to draw loyalties, even as suspicion draws on him for simply being Middle Eastern.
The novel ends on an indeterminate note, which could yield several different interpretations. I won’t go into those here, because you’ll want to read them for yourself. But I can say that while it’s deceptively short, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is challenging and thought-provoking. Mohsin Hamid is a masterful writer, and he asks a lot of important questions from different worldviews. If I was teaching a class on the American Dream, I would certainly pair this along with the likes of The Great Gatsby or A Raisin in the Sun, simply because it forces us to question the setup and actual *success* of the American Dream itself. Does it do more harm than good? That’s one of the questions Hamid decides to leave us with. And that’s something I suspect we’ll be asking ourselves for years to come.