THE LAST WHITE MAN, by Mohsin Hamid
The opening sentence of “The Last White Man,” the latest novel by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, may sound overfamiliar — “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown” — but who wouldn’t read on? A protagonist as erudite as his creator might have been grateful not to turn into a giant bug; Anders, who works in a gym and seems as aliterate as he is inarticulate, feels only rage at losing his whiteness: “He wanted to kill the colored man who confronted him here in his home, to extinguish the life animating this other’s body, to leave nothing standing but himself, as he was before.” But the self-divided Anders — could he have a more Nordic name? — calms down when he learns there’s a pandemic of changelings; the formerly white come to include his yoga-teacher girlfriend, Oona; Oona’s racist mother; and, eventually, everybody who was born white. (All except Anders’s dying father, a secondary character who gives the book its catchy, if misleading, title.) By the end, a pulp-magazine premise has metamorphosed into a vision of humanity unvexed by racial animosities.
In a 2017 essay in The Guardian, Hamid called for a “radical, politically engaged fiction” that would “peer with all the madness and insight and unexpectedness and wisdom we can muster into where we might desirably go, as individuals, families, societies, cultures, nations, earthlings, organisms.” Or, as he puts it in a note to readers in the new book’s advance copies, “I believe fiction has a strange power … that enables it to destabilize the collective imaginings we inherit and reproduce.” Our imaginings certainly could use some destabilizing, although literary fiction hardly has the transformative clout its practitioners wish it had. Hamid’s likely readers already know race is a “construct” that we could do nicely without; the unenlightened many (the enlightened too) are streaming movies and TV shows. But whether deliberately or not — and Hamid’s too smart a writer not to know what he’s doing — “The Last White Man” has an additional agenda: to destabilize not just our toxic imaginings but our conventional notions of fiction itself.