Exploring the Ethics of the Second Person with Mohsin Hamid
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
by Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books (2013), 240 pages
To read the Qur’an in English is to encounter the veil, the mystery of the other. As a holy text whose letters proceed from right to left in the original Arabic, the Qur’an offers the initiated a unique experience on the levels of both form and content, particularly if that reader is used to the alphabets of the West. For if that person knows no tongue other than Arabic, then the sense of the unique is mitigated by the absence of comparison. By contrast, the cosmopolitan who possesses dexterity in multiple languages may be inclined to prefer the artistry of the Arabic characters and the novel orientation of those letters. Beyond the fundamental issue of alphabet, many readers attest to the Qur’an’s musicality and intimacy, to the sense of a singular divine chant engaging the reader in a soothing but asymmetrical dialogue of we to you. This consistent use of the second person sets the Qur’an aside in comparison to the heterogeneous orientation of its Abrahamic brethren, the Torah and the Bible, and the effects of this narrative strategy raise a number of questions for scholars. Why does the second person occur so infrequently in Western literature? If, as Northrop Frye suggests, the Bible represents the great code of Western art, to what degree is the West’s discomfort with the second person indicative of a fear of subjectivity—a reluctance to get too close to the voice of the other?
Whether in the context of narrative or personal relationships, one often does not know whether greater distance and detachment is the problem or the solution. “Allegedly,” William S. Burroughs wrote, “what everyone wants is to be closer to other people. If people sometimes seem to want to get further and further apart, it’s because contact is unpleasant. It’s not a question of contact going too far; perhaps it doesn’t go far enough, and perhaps it goes in all the wrong directions.” If Burroughs is right, the question follows: how do we go further and in the right direction, particularly now as so many geopolitical conversations, once again, hinge on what Marc Redfield calls the rhetoric of terror?
Fortunately, we are already in the presence of a guide who has crafted a counternarrative to the rhetoric of terror: Mohsin Hamid. Hamid, as a Princeton educated, Pakistani born novelist who consistently engages the Muslim world may well have a body of literature that is instructive for the scholars of global literature and the kinds of bridge-building they often propose. Hamid’s work goes a long way toward constructing that third space between us and them. His fiction opens up a liminal zone—a borderland—between not just the East and the West, but also between apparently opposed conceptual and formal-generic categories like critique, irony, and satire, on the one hand, and ideology, dogma, belief, and belief of the strongest and extreme variety, fundamentalism, on the other. Is it possible, Hamid asks, to build a bridge between such seemingly disparate poles? In the clash of sensibilities, nations, and religions, is it possible to forge a transnational voice, a global novel whose ontology is simultaneously constructive and transgressive? Such an ethical subversion, I contend, is precisely what Hamid has achieved in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and he could not have done it without the second person narrative strategy he repurposes from the pages of the Qur’an.
The Global Novel
Although originally published in America and written by a Pakistani born author, Filthy Rich is not an American voice, nor is it Pakistani. Filthy Rich is a global novel, and may indeed constitute what Christian Moraru refers to as the planetary turn, a term discussed in greater detail toward the end of this argument. Distinct from national literature and an identity built on a shared past Josesph Darda argues that “the global novel is built on the idea of a shared future and the responsibility that it necessitates.” Like Rebecca Walkowitz, Wai Chee Dimock, Moraru, and other theorists of cosmopolitan and cosmodern literature, Darda emphasizes in his study of Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, that global literature “is less about leading a cosmopolitan lifestyle than thinking as a cosmopolitan,” which is to say: recognizing, utilizing, and transforming the codes of both east and west through modernist stylistic practices such as “wandering consciousness, paratactic syntax, recursive plotting, collage, and portmanteau language.” Indeed, this is the strength of Hamid’s work from his first novel, Moth Smoke, to his most recent, Exit West. In all four, Hamid deploys diverse modernist narrative strategies and demonstrates an uncanny awareness of not just the shared stakes of a global future but the often unrecognized common ground between seemingly disparate categories of individuals and texts, professions, and ideologies. As Hamid’s literature evolves, he begins to show readers a path to a global future in which codes do not have to just collide and defy but can also enter into an intimate, musical conversation, just as the Qur’an encounters and converses with its readers and its forebears: the Bible and the Torah.
I read the evolution of Hamid’s fiction as a gradual awakening to the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. It is through his ethically subversive submission to the contemporary fundamentalist call for omission that Hamid’s fiction builds a bridge between the most daring aesthetics of the West and the most radical theological interpretations of the East. Both Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist express a provocative alienation from New York City and its western construction as the center of the world. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, referring to her time in New York City, the character of Mumtaz Kashmiri, whose last name suggests a liminal identity rooted in the contentious geographical territory of Kashmir, describes being “frustrated by people who actually thought the world had a center, and that center was here. 'The world’s a sphere, everyone,' I wanted to say. 'The center of a sphere doesn’t lie on its surface.'”
Likewise, Changez, the protagonist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is ambivalent, to say the least, about the big apple. Like Kashmiri, the name Changez suggests liminality, a labile identity awash between poles—a man inclined to change. Changez, is a kind of banker, an employee at the not so subtly named New York valuation firm: Underwood Samson. Echoing Uncle Sam, but not entirely American, Underwood Samson is a multinational. The firm’s impact on the world beyond New York City is not immediately apparent to Changez, but in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Changez and the reader begin to question Underwood Samson, its host city and, by extension, America: “I wonder now, sir, whether I believed at all in the firmness of the foundations of the new life I was attempting to construct for myself in New York. Certainly I wanted to believe.” Note how Hamid speaks to you as sir in this novel, the formal and gendered exchange perhaps a hedged bet against what might be lost by the use of a universal you. Stabilizing as the sir may be, Hamid’s framing of Changez’s struggle as one of faith destabilizes the category of faith and the way it conventionally privileges religion and excludes secular institutions. Here is Hamid’s ethical subversion in its middle passage, this wise but provocative recognition that the Islamic fundamentalist has a double: Wall Street as the church of the market fundamentalists.
Torn between two lands—Pakistan and America—Changez struggles throughout The Reluctant Fundamentalist to maintain a conventional New York perspective on the attacks of 9/11. He tries to keep his head down, but he hears about Pakistani cabdrivers “being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s houses.” “America was gripped by a growing and self-righteous rage in those weeks of September and October,” Hamid writes, and “clad in my armor of denial I was able to focus—with continuing and noteworthy success—on my job.” Changez ultimately arrives at the conclusion that America’s “war on terror” is problematic; however, Changez’s decisive moment of deterritorialization—his conversion—does not take place in New York or Lahore. It happens in the city of Valparaiso, Chile.
Joseph Darda reads The Reluctant Fundamentalist as "a critical work of global fiction" that "offers a counter-statement to one of the most established ways of understanding the post-9/11 era: Giorgio Agamben’s account of bare life." Utilizing Judith Butler’s notion of “precarity,” Darda takes issue with Agamben’s claim that all life has been rendered “bare” by America’s “war on terror.” Darda claims that this bareness or “precarity,” this absence of protection and recognition for the other, preceded 9/11 and that Hamid’s novel wisely recognizes the attacks on New York as effect, not cause. Thus, Hamid is wise to territorialize Changez’s moment of conversion in Valparaiso, Chile. After all, it was in Chile, on September 11, 1973, that the overthrow of Salvador Allende took place. "The U.S.-backed coup that ushered in one of the worst reigns of terror in the twentieth century," is now, according, to Redfield, considered "the other September 11." If ever there was a country to complicate the notion of an American exceptionalism based on that name-date, it is Chile. By setting the transformative scene of his novel in Chile, Hamid reinforces his argument against a singular national interpretation of history, the notion that only one country has a 9/11.
Changez travels to Chile to assess the prospects of a failing publishing house. It is in Valparaiso that he meets a CEO named Juan-Bautista who seems just as willfully blind to the poverty and fracture all around him as Changez in New York. In Valparaiso Changez experiences a profound disconnect to his life that one could just as easily describe as a profound sense of connection to other lives. “I saw,” Hamid writes, “that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off.” It is through this unveiling of perception that Changez experiences a sense of deterritorialization and, thereafter, transterritorialization, a self beyond money and locale. In his play, Valparaiso, Don DeLillo offers us a character that experiences a similar sense of estrangement as he mistakenly takes a flight to Valparaiso, Chile, instead of Valparaiso, Indiana. DeLillo may well be the godfather of novelists like Hamid and DeLillo’s character, Michael, experiences Valparaiso, Chile, much in the same way as Changez. Michael only realizes his error when he’s halfway there, still in flight. Recalled over and over again in interviews that grow increasingly international in distribution, Michael tells his interviewers that it was on this plane to Valparaiso that he began to feel “out of place, I guess. Displaced or misplaced. Somewhere else.” He goes on to say that “I don’t mean in body only. Somewhere else in a deeper way.” I read Changez as the uncanny evolution of DeLillo’s Michael, a character transformed not so much by place as by the sudden awareness that, in a world of airplanes and global media networks, place no longer exists, or is at least harder to place. Of course, it is in a particular place—or on one’s way to a particular place—Valparaiso—that these characters experience their epiphanies of placelessness, and it is in this liminality that we see the seeds for Hamid’s narrative strategy in Filthy Rich.
Subverting the Voice of the Qur'an in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
The Qur’an describes a God that has "let loose the two oceans" which "meet one another." However, “between them stands a barrier which they cannot overrun.” Like the Qur’an, Hamid calls the reader’s attention to the liminal, but unlike the Qur’an, Hamid’s novel invites transgression, the inhabiting of the liminal. Thus, there is something exceptional and resistant to the notion of the exceptional—the special person and place—in Filthy Rich, an internalization and seamless expression of the transterritorial mind. The voice in Filthy Rich, I contend, represents a planetary turn as defined by Christian Moraru. “[P]lanetarization,” Moraru argues, “works through, brings about, and 'appears' to us phenomenologically as a transterritorialization—dislocation, reallocation, and novel aggregation—of space and its meanings on earth.” Although he does not call attention to Hamid’s ethical subversion of the Qur’an, Moraru notes many of the ways in which Hamid’s novel represents a subversion of other categories such as statality, sovereignty, national citizenship, and capital. “A novelist as Pakistani as he is American,” Moraru claims that “Hamid would be here the perfect case study not only for tracking such imaginary reorientations, but also for tracing the moves planetary reading would have to make in response.” Like Darda, Moraru recognizes in Hamid a counternarrative to the war on terror mentality that so often frames our relationship to the people of certain nations like Pakistan. And like Walkowitz, who sees in Hamid’s use of the second person a voice that seems "translated, written for someone else, from the start," Moraru recognizes in Hamid a shift in narrative orientation. In his careful use of the second person, Hamid subverts a particular voice of faith, transforming its particularity into a universality, a bridge between the East and the West.
It seems crucial to emphasize that Hamid knows what he’s doing in Filthy Rich. As the reader follows an anonymous man through an ostensibly but never named Pakistani landscape, the narrative penetrates a world both haunted and united by Islam. Nowhere is that spectrality more subtly enforced than in the cryptic deployment of the second person. It is in this direct and confrontational dialogic strategy that the Qur’an derives a great deal of its power and, thereby, lends that force to this novel of the future. Arriving as it does in the future—after the separation from its Abrahamic forebears—the Qur’an’s engagement with tradition can be seen as both dialogic and competitive, an attempt at both engagement and evolution: improvement. Style and content merge in the Qur’an. Here the multiplicity of narratives contained in the Torah and the Bible interface with a singular voice, a first person plural we speaking intimately and constantly to you, an intimacy Hamid further refines by turning the first person plural into the first person singular, and thereby equalizing the relationship between narrator and reader.
But to argue that Hamid deliberately enters into a dialogue with the Islamic tradition is to perhaps cast an unwelcome spotlight on the author, for any parody of the Qur’an risks the life of the writer. Take the story of Theo Van Gogh and his murder on the streets of Amsterdam on account of his portrayal of the Qur’an in his film, Submission. Consider the attacks on Charlie Hebdo or the life of Salman Rushdie. When Rushdie cast the prophet Muhammad as “Mahound” in The Satanic Verses, his novel was banned throughout the Muslim world and a fatwa—a death sentence—was issued for the Pakistani author by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. The shooting of Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, the stabbing of his Italian translator, and the murder of his Japanese translator proved the Ayatollah’s threats more than just bluster. Bombs blew up in bookstores in both London and the United States. To enter into a parodic dialogue with the narrative strategies of this book is “serious business,” and to conflate the Qur’an’s voice with the language of business and its tradition of self-help manuals is, certainly, to invite charges of transgression if you are not careful.
But Hamid is careful. Filthy Rich walks the tight rope of codes both eastern and western, secular and religious, and by doing so offers the reader a third path that honors the wisdom of both. Just as the Qur’an advises the reader to “Let not the life of this world deceive you,” so does Hamid begin his novel by calling his reader’s attention to the world of illusions, particularly as they pertain to the operating system of the book. From the first sentences on, a careful reading reveals a voice that is aware of the uncanny echoes it risks by participating in this tradition of “self-help”:
Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You
read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that
someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s
true of how-to-books, for example. And it’s true of personal
improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books.
But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to
the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their
throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that
subcategory and move swiftly on.
To name or to graphically represent the holy is to idolize or confuse a portion with the whole. It minimizes the mysterious, the boundless, the cloud of unknowing that some call God, Jehovah or Allah. In other words: it is not good business. Filthy Rich is putatively concerned with instructing its anonymous reader in the art of making good business decisions, but the dialogue uses business as a veil. A literalist reading of Hamid’s novel will leave the reader as confused about good practices in business as he or she might be upon seeking clear ethical guidance from the New Testament while still trying to juggle the dictates of the Old. To be clear and fair, such confusion will likely also befall any literalist reader of the Qur’an who tries to reconcile the tone of that book with its companion, the Hadiths. Put simply, Hamid’s voice possesses an ironic tone that does not simply permit interpretation and ambiguity, but encourages it. But his mystery is not there to demand unquestioning obedience. On the contrary, Hamid’s narrator comes out from behind the curtain just enough so that a perceptive reader will see the wink and feel the nudge away from literalism, fundamentalism and selfishness. By joining these categories together, I mean to suggest a relationship I suspect Hamid recognizes: a fundamentalist interpretation of God lacks generosity toward both God and others.
When we literalize any construction or creation, we rob these constructions or creations of their ability to be seen as a construction or a creation, an artifice, a thing that might be called any one of these words—or others. Hamid’s slippery voice, thus, repurposes the mysterious voice of the Qur’an as a way of establishing a winking rapport with the reader, a conversation about reading itself. “Readers don’t work for writers. They work for themselves,” Hamid writes in the sixth section of the novel, “Work for Yourself.” Here we see the writer addressing the reader directly about reading, bringing up the subtle topic of tone:
Therein, if you’ll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of
reading. And therein, as well, lies a pointer to richness elsewhere. Because
if you truly want to become filthy rich in rising Asia, as we appear to have
established that you do, then sooner or later you must work for yourself. The
fruits of labor are delicious, but individually they’re not particularly
fattening. So don’t share yours, and munch on those of others whenever you
Notice the sleight of hand. By appealing to the reader’s value of independence and individuality, Hamid coaxes the reader to recognize the desolation of individual labor, the absence of flavor and fat when we deny the work and presence of the other. By the end of the passage, the irony is apparent to the attentive reader, the one who is, of course, working with the words of the writer. When Hamid instructs us not to share our labors, but to "munch on those of others," he achieves, in a sentence, what he accomplishes throughout this novel: a convergence of the voices of the market fundamentalist and the religious fundamentalist to serve the higher purpose of secular sharing: shared labor: a shared experience between writer and reader.
Hamid owes a good deal to the Qur’an insofar as the Qur’an shows readers around the world how to deal with neophyte readers, how to accomplish intimacy through elusion. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an does not tell us the story of the word made flesh, the obvious child. “Nothing can be compared with Him,” we read in Sura 42. There is no objective correlative for the God of the Qur’an. There is a Jesus, but there is no son, no visual embodiment of the mystery. And although the Qur’an gestures toward convergence, the purpose of the Qur’an is surrender and obedience. What Hamid accomplishes in Filthy Rich is a deft counternarrative, a voice that does not seek to foster a servant, but a friend, a reader. His novel plays with the Qur’anic voice to cultivate a secular companion he goads toward questioning and interpretation, a wealth founded on a rapport with the other. This rapport—this intimacy—may be what Hamid means when he writes about love. Tip three, in Filthy Rich, is “Don’t Fall in Love.” But beneath the veil of this clear corporate bullet point with its message of independence and lovelessness, Hamid urges you in the opposite direction: toward love.
Character, Language, and Intimacy with the Other
There are quite a few characters in Filthy Rich, but ultimately the story comes down to “you” and “the pretty girl.” The pretty girl is someone you have known for nearly your entire life, but do you really know the pretty girl? You defer your attraction to the pretty girl for the majority of the text, or maybe the pretty girl does the deferring, or, of course, we must consider the possibility that the author is truly the one responsible for the game of deference. By deference I do not mean the delay of sexual congress, for that happens early in the novel. What takes nearly a lifetime—if it happens at all—is you living with the other, the pretty girl as an old woman. This, ultimately, is Hamid’s challenge to the reader: shedding one’s fears of intimacy and developing a relationship with the other. Both you and the pretty girl choose work over love, and thus love becomes a spectral presence in Filthy Rich. It haunts. Instead of marrying the pretty girl whom you came across through chance, you arrange to marry a beautiful younger woman who “is a little less than half your age,” which is to say, Hamid frames love as a choice between two attractive young women, but beneath the dilemma of alluring surfaces is the choice between something transactional and traditional versus another we may pursue but never control like property. How we engage the protean possibilities of the other is at the root of the divide between so many of Hamid’s characters, and in Filthy Rich this struggle manifests as the archetypal problem of civilization itself. Just as the second person narrator depends on you and must forego control of the narrative in light of the reader’s large stake in the game, so must Hamid’s protagonist learn, over and over, that there are costs to choosing control and objectification over subjectivity and intimacy.
How does one handle that moment when one knows, without a doubt, that one has lost control? Whether in love or in violence, or the violence one may encounter in the throes of love, this fundamental question haunts the narrative. Hamid executes his pursuit of this problem by separating love and violence and then showing the troublesome the way they are braided together like a double-helix, like the fundament of life. On your way home from work, under a crescent moon, “[Y]ou drive along your customary route,” but are pulled over by a “boyish motorcyclist” who “tells you to lie facedown in the dirt.” This liminal figure (part man, part boy) brandishes a gun and “places the muzzle against your neck,” and refers to you as a “stupid mother’s cock.” You have been taken off your “customary route.” You have lost control. And this is not a radical Islamic fundamentalist who has threatened your life. “The ultimatum you have just received comes from a wealthy businessman,” which is to say, part of the world of established control: the market. “[S]eethingly furious,” Hamid’s protagonist drives home to his wife. When she asks him “what on earth happened,” “You say it is nothing, perhaps something you’ve eaten.”
Here the reader encounters the domestic dissimulation—the fiction—the lie—as his or her own, but also as something beyond. The reader experiences the consequences of the protagonist’s lie as a simultaneous loss and gain of intimacy, for the lost intimacy of the couple is cut with a dose of dramatic irony, for the reader, unlike the wife, is intimate with “you” and perhaps hopes that the lie will lead to the truth, the eventual union with “the pretty girl.” But will the sophisticated reader be satisfied with such a predictable sentimental conclusion? Is this happy ending what the reader means by intimacy or “the truth”?
Hamid seems to anticipate this problem. The fear and alienation his protagonist experiences in the moment of violence transfers to the encounter with his wife from his brokered marriage, but rather than simply showing this alienation functioning as a widening gap between husband and wife and a foreshadowing bridge between you and the pretty girl, Hamid does something else. The unsatisfied wife, unable to find intimacy with her husband, turns on the television. Here she finds the pretty girl—the first love of her husband’s life—and the pretty girl is at work on her popular cooking show, and so the wife connects to her adversary in the same way a reader might connect to a character in a novel. Thus, “you often come home to discover the pretty girl talking to your wife in your living room, their eyes locked across the ether, and when you inevitably ask your wife in a brusque tone to change the channel, she does so with a smile, assuming it is because you, a typically macho man, are uninterested in the wonders of the culinary arts.” This is the transterritorial narrative landscape where there is no Qur’anic barrier between oceans and where we are all connected. Here is what Paul Giles describes as “Television’s capacity to scramble the familiar lineaments of space.” Hamid’s narrator is talking to you and the television is talking to you even as it simultaneously talks to the other, the message being: there is no other when we are all connected. In the planetary context, there is only “you,” a dialogue both internal and external, a meeting that we can try to control, but often at the risk of alienation both social and psychological.
No matter how far away the pretty girl gets, she serves as a constant inescapable reminder of an alternative path, a true intimacy. In a global milieu where everyone is connected through electronic media, the pretty girl is more than just a specter. The pretty girl both is and is not present. She is liminal—a voice both inside and outside the room. She may be a thousand miles away, but “even unconnected in this way, the pretty girl does interfere, for you are unable to open yourself to your wife fully, seeing reminders of the pretty girl in her, as though the pretty girl has become your archetypal woman, of which your wife can only be a copy.” In this way, again, Hamid shows the porousness of identity in the planetary context. In this new world, permeability is increasingly impossible to deny. The more we ignore each other, the more we haunt and inhabit each other.
And so the protagonist labors on in the hopes that the old national solutions of control and violence will solve the new planetary problems of porous borders both at home and in the market. Then, in the end, the reader is teased with the possibility of a new kind of resolution. Just as Changez recognized he had neglected the emotional present and was thus without a foundation or a “stable core,” Filthy Rich now instructs you in tip eleven to “Focus on the Fundamentals.” Again, this is Hamid reorienting our notion of fundamentalism. After years of obsessing over control and expansion and cut-throat practices, you are now advised to “Blow through the fluff, see the forest for the trees, prioritize what’s core to your operation.”
Like the Qur’an, Hamid’s novel offers advice on love and money, flesh and spirit, as if it were all one. Like Hamid, the Qur’an speaks in two voices. The Qur’an says “God speaks in parables to mankind,” but that same voice also offers direct advice and meta-commentary. In Sura 25, the Qur’an states: “The unbelievers ask: ‘Why was the Qur’an not revealed to him entire in a single revelation?’ We have revealed it thus so that We may sustain your heart. We have imparted it to you by gradual revelation.” Both of these texts, through their dialogic style, violate the code of detachment—the division of author and reader—subject and object—so sacred to the Western aesthetic. As you ostensibly choose to move in with the pretty girl” in the final chapter, you are not just in a fictional relationship with the pretty girl who is now an old woman. You are also now finally encountering the implications of your intimate relationship with your interlocutor, the double-helix of author and reader. As the novel concludes, the illusion of independence and exceptionality reveal themselves to be precisely that: an illusion. There is no one without the other.
But, of course, there is. The individual is an idea. It exists. Hamid fundamentally expands our notion of the reading experience through his simultaneous engagement with and dissolution of “the individual.” Just as the Qur’an and Filthy Rich share their consistent use of the second person, so does Hamid’s novel share an exceptional quality with the code of the West, which is to say, the code of the individual. Unlike the Qur’an which addresses “you” from the asymmetric vantage of “We,” Hamid’s author/God is an “I,” a putative individual, and, thus, his dialogue is an I/Thou pairing/paring like that prescribed by prominent philosophers such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. There is an egalitarian quality in Hamid’s dialogue that places it in an exceptional but liminal zone, a shared but singular space like the one occupied by his characters. In Sovereignties in Question, Derrida explores the poetic possibilities available to writers who circumcise the shibboleth, which is the French/Algerian philosopher’s way of describing the act of excepting, the cutting out of a customary name:
A name given to the moment of covenant or alliance and of legitimate
entry into the community: a shibboleth that cuts and partitions, then
distinguishes, for example, by virtue of the language and the name
given to each of them, one circumcision from another, the Jewish operation
from the Egyptian operation from which it is said to derive, or, indeed, the
Muslim operation that resembles it, or many others.
In other words, customary names have a way of dividing us. They build walls. They create binaries. The act of naming “you” as, “Mahound” or “Kashmiri” has a way of creating partitions between you and potential/fictional readers/believers. When Hamid elides certain nomenclature like “your” name, he counters both the terra and the terror of the other and opens up a space for a transterritorial imaginary, a universal discourse between the Jewish and Muslim communities, to say nothing of the others beyond and within, that curiosity of the one, in the end, that must encounter itself. “All words,” Derrida writes, “from their first emergence, partake of revenance.” To say that words have a revenant quality is to say that they return and haunt us, and this haunting quality is never more poignant than when the writer engages in a deliberate act of omission/exception. This saying of you instead of he or she or some proper name is the “primary fact of Saying [Dire],” according to Levinas in his engagement with Buber. This act of ethical/aesthetic erasure is Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in practice: the hiding of 7/8’s of the story’s significance beneath the surface of the text. This is the Qur’an demanding believers to never represent God as an image/text/idol. This is Hamid refusing to name “you” or the hidden text on which he models and evolves his own style.
And so now, in the end, like the tip of an iceberg, a fundamental question arises out of this conversation: how do we name things in this new world we are creating? How do we change our relationship to pronouns? When do those of us who wish to argue for a more planetary narrative use we or you? When do we say conspiracy and when do we say collusion or treason? When is a revolutionary a terrorist and when is it okay to invoke the name of a holy book or a prophet? There is a great deal of useful conversation about the semantics concerning words like these in our emergent literatures. Although this essay does not seek to resolve the debates over whether the fiction of authors like Hamid should be referred to in terms of the world, the globe, or the planet, I do read such debates as evidence in support of Hamid’s fundamental argument: language matters. As the poet, Solmaz Sharif writes, “It matters what you call a thing.” Everything human is a language matter, game, struggle, challenge, or act. The novelist who challenges the reader to struggle and play with the actions of language invites that reader into a serious game, an act that matters, a conversation with the world.
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