Review: The Last White Man
The Last White Man, by Mohsin Hamid
I'm having a really hard time writing about this one. I finished it almost 2 weeks ago and keep coming back to the review and then giving up. I can't even decide on how many stars... 2 or 3? Anyway, for now, this is what I've got...
The Last White Man is sort of a mixture of Kafka's Metamorphosis, José Saramago's Blindness, present-day racial tensions, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anders, a white man, wakes up one day to discover that he is now brown-skinned. Horrified and disgusted, he calls Oona, the woman he's been seeing off and on. Besides her, he tells no one and lets no one see him for many days. When he finally tells his boss on the phone, the boss says, "I’d kill myself if it happened to me." When Anders does go out he tries to shrink and hide himself, hunched over with sunglasses and a hoodie. People avoid him - either because they see what's happened to him and want no part in it, or because they no longer recognize him.
As far we know, Anders is the first person this happens to. but soon the whole town (Maybe the whole world? Unclear.) begins to "turn." No ones know why or how exactly it happens, nor why it happens to some and not others. Groups of armed white men begin to patrol the streets, hunting down "dark" people. Riots break out across the city. Electricity and cell service go down occasionally, as gunfire rings through the streets. But soon, calm and civility are restored, as more and more people change from white to brown-skinned. I saw someone liken this to "Tucker Carlson’s worst nightmare - a racist fever dream of 'the great replacement theory'" (a timely comparison given his recent ousting from Fox).
Here are a few passages I found especially poignant (before I talk about what I didn't like about the book):
Anders said that he was not sure he was the same person, he had begun by feeling that under the surface it was still him, who else could it be, but it was not that simple, and the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are...
Anders went to see his father on a day with some chill in it, using the back roads, processing hesitantly, pausing and observing at intersections, like a herbivore, out of an instinct for self-preservation, ascertaining what was ahead before he moved... it was not that he had been threatened, for he had not been, not yet, but just that he felt threatened, and so he was taking no chances, or none that he could avoid.
...he wondered if people who had been born dark could tell the difference, could tell who had always been this way and who had become dark only recently, and Anders tried to guess as he drove... and he did not know if those who seemed most hidden in themselves, their postures turned inwards, their faces shrouded, if that was a dark-person thing, what dark people had long done, or if it was a sign instead of a person who had become dark, and was concealing themselves...
As much as this seems, at first glance, to be a book about race, I don't think it really was. The majority of the narrative is actually spent examining individual relationships - Anders and Oona, Anders and his father, Oona and her mother - some of which, yes, does relate to the changes occurring in the town &/or with these individuals. But most of it is working through past trauma, finding ways to live together, and finding ways to let your loved ones die with dignity. It's a book about complicated familial relationships, made slightly more complicated as some family members transform. And there's nothing wrong with that. But the title, description, and advertising purport it to be something else entirely.
There's actually very little that deals with the overall societal reaction to the change. Exploring that would have been really, really interesting. Instead, we hear about riots from afar, then they're over because most people have changed, and everything's... back to normal, I guess? Racism is treated as entirely skin-deep, erasing class differences, language/dialectical differences, nationality, and, most importantly cultural differences. It was all just too easy to get over, and in the end, it left me unsure as to what Hamid was trying to say.
Hamid's own description of what led him to write this book didn't give me a whole lot of clarity either...
"This sense that whiteness itself was worth thinking about from within, and my need to write this novel grew during the aughts, when I lived in London, encountering more of a threatened whiteness during the unease that morphed into Brexit. I wanted to explore whiteness as honestly and sympathetically but also unsparingly and brutally as possible... I watch parallels between Muslim-majority societies and white-majority societies, and I participate in an acknowledgment of a sense of loss. I don’t regard whiteness as a monolithic thing. All of my characters are experiencing the loss of whiteness in different ways. For this handful of characters, whiteness dies as a mutual participatory category."
Ah well. I don't know. My book club meets to discuss the book this week, so maybe I will gain some additional insight and update my review! For now, I will just end by sharing a quote that really spoke to me. Nothing to do with race, but about Oona's relationship with her aging mother. Very applicable to my own life these days.
Oona was her mother's mother now, Oona sometimes felt, or maybe mother was not the right word for it, maybe daughter was fine, both words meaning more than she once thought they did, each having two sides to itself, a side carrying and a side of being carried, each word in the end the same as the other, like a coin, differing only in the order of what face came up first on a toss.
UP NEXT: Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stevenson