Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West begins in an unnamed city fractured by political violence. There, two young people come together as everything around them is breaking apart. Nadia is a cultural rebel who wears a full black robe, “so men don’t fuck with [her]” as she traverses the city on her motorcycle. Saeed is a devoted son who wears “studiously maintained stubble” and passes quiet evenings on the balcony, gazing out at the city rather than immersing himself in it. Before these patient lovers make the exit promised by the novel’s title, and compelled by the tightening grip of civil war, Nadia ventures beyond the city through her phone, which she rides into and over the world, watching “bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, waves tugging at the sand like the rasping licks of so many mortal, temporary, vanishing tongues.” Registering both brutality and beauty, the planetary sight that Nadia simulates here mirrors that aspired to by Hamid’s powerful book.
The novel traces Nadia and Saeed’s journey from their home city to the island of Mykonos, to London, and finally to the hills of California — a route of escape if not liberation enabled by a series of magical doors, portals that highlight through omission the unrepresentable terror of the passages in between. Progress through them — which is “both like dying and like being born” — is attained not just by the novel’s protagonists but by several people its panoramic vision only ephemerally registers: a man with “dark skin and dark, wooly hair” struggles out of a closet door in Sydney; two Filipina women emerge from a disused door at the rear of a bar in Tokyo; a young woman slips out of a black door in a Tijuana cantina; a Tamil family wanders out of an interior service door below a cluster of “blond-and-glass” luxury towers in Dubai.
“The whole planet,” in the near future inhabited by the novel, “was on the move.” Hamid is interested in the conditions of that movement and in its disparate effects. Exit West evinces the stark divisions of wealth and security that provoke migration, the myriad walls that inhibit it, and the nativism to which it gives rise. But the basic fact of movement, if a cause and consequence of profound violence, also signals, in the novel, the more hopeful potentialities of planetary interconnection. This dialectical sensibility is in keeping with Hamid’s broader oeuvre. Centering on Pakistan and its entanglement in global histories of imperialism and capitalism, his fiction and essays — from the novel Moth Smoke, to the recent collection of dispatches Discontent and Its Civilizations — have explored the relationship between here and there, self and other, in a way that holds in tension difference and sameness, contradiction and affiliation. Exit West elaborates this conceptual focus — tracing the fissures in human community and global space, and reflecting on the possibility of their transcendence.
The “dramatic monologue” that comprises Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is staged at an outdoor café in a busy Lahore marketplace. It is delivered by Changez — a young Pakistani university lecturer and possible militant, who formerly held an elite position at an eminent Manhattan financial firm — to a silent and ambiguously motivated American listener. Over a long and increasingly tense meal, Changez instructs his companion in the historical relationship between Pakistan and the United States. He details the continuities between the long history of the British empire in South Asia and the more recent expression of U.S. power in the region under the sign of a “War on Terror.” And he impresses as well the intimate connections, in the current conjuncture, between perpetual war and pervasive neoliberal depredation. Changez’s didactic address, though, is met by his mute guest not with affirmation but with the implied threat of assassination. Whatever its pedagogical impact on the reader, the novel dramatizes empathic failure and the persistence — in the consciousness of the west — of geographic and historical blindness.
Continuing the project of redressing this myopia, Hamid’s third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, illuminates the unevenly borne human and ecological costs of capitalist “development.” Appropriating the form of a self-help book, and joining it to the more traditional apparatus of the bildungsroman, the novel is narrated in the second person. “You” begin the story as a child in a poor South Asian village and end it on your hospital death bed, having accumulated — and then lost — a personal fortune via the purification and commoditization of municipal water. The use of the second person conflates the consumer of the tale and its anonymous hero. But the novel’s periodic shifts in perspective work to refuse any easy sense of identification between reader and protagonist. For the bulk of the narrative, as when you and your family are conveyed by an overcrowded bus “from rural remoteness to urban centrality,” we regard the world through your eyes. In certain moments, though, as when you are stooped in grief at your brother’s funeral, we observe you from above, through the lens of a drone — that essential technology of occupation that not only sees but also delimits and even negates the lives of those below.
The unmanned aerial vehicles that hover above the action in How to Get Filthy Rich, surveying and surveilling the world, are ever-present too in Exit West. “Unseen but never far from people’s minds,” they act as a metaphor for the totalizing but often invisible powers that govern us. Like capital or the state, the drone sees but cannot be seen; it is everywhere and nowhere; it generalizes vulnerability but is itself seemingly invulnerable; the “security” it avows obscures the insecurity it produces. When the Tamil family takes their first tentative steps into the Dubai sunlight, they are captured by a “small quadcopter drone hovering fifty meters above,” which alerts security officers to their presence. As the efficient trajectory of the “uniformed men” intersects with their own, the family are “intercepted and led away, apparently bewildered, or overawed, for they held hands and did not resist or scatter or run.”
Passing through one door and then another, alighting in Greece and then England, Nadia and Saeed escape the twinned fates of detention and deportation. But they continue to be tracked by the same “flying robots” that patrolled the city of their birth. As the ubiquity of the drone reveals, the line that marks the boundary between the rich countries—who “were building walls and fences and strengthening their borders” — and the poor ones is redrawn within the societies of the former. On Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed occupy the periphery of one of the migrant camps, which itself lies beyond the outskirts of the island’s old town — a popular tourist attraction that the migrants are discouraged, through the implied threat of police reprisal, from visiting. In London, a combination of government forces and private legions launch a campaign to “reclaim Britain for Britain,” to mend the “black holes in the fabric of the Nation.” Confined to one such black hole, the migrant zone of once-posh Chelsea and Kensington, Nadia and Saeed again feel their world shrinking. Surrounded by “soldiers and armored vehicles,” they are monitored from above by helicopter, drone, and surveillance balloon. When the government cuts the electricity in migrant-occupied neighborhoods, the existence of two Londons — one dark and one light — is clarified. Nadia and Saeed have escaped one civil war, but there is, they increasingly come to appreciate, no exit from the civil war that is also a world war — the essential antagonism between the possessed and the dispossessed, the rights-bearing citizen and the rightless denizen. Nadia wonders “whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.”
The enduring precariousness of the migrants’ lives, though, does not preclude the genesis of new social forms. The camps on Mykonos are inhabited by people “falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea,” who speak “in a cacophony that was the languages of the world.” In this context, “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.” This emergent understanding of difference as sameness is deepened, for Nadia especially, in London. There, she and Saeed find themselves resident in a sprawling house — evidently absent its lawful owners but convivially occupied by Nigerians, Somalis, and others “from as far west as Guatemala and as far east as Indonesia.” The house’s council meetings, while dull, represent “something new in her mind, the birth of something new” — the idea of a polity founded on the exigencies of mutual survival, wherein difference is the source of the universal rather than its violent corollary.
In our own time—of emboldened ethno-nationalisms—the political realization of this demotic cosmopolitanism often feels very far away. But the nativist responds to the migrant with such violence because they see their own insecurity, whether actual or latent, reflected in the presence of those who have already lost so much. And the possibility thus exists that fear will give way to solidaristic recognition. This alternative route is hinted, in Exit West, by the evolving confrontation between dark London and light. As the weeks pass, the “natives and their forces stepped back from the brink”:
Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process.
The enlightened refusal of outright genocide, however, does not preface a radical transformation of London’s social and economic geography. The migrants are not welcomed to light London but corralled in the formerly protected greenbelt around the city, which has been opened up to the construction of new urban settlements and named the “London Halo.” Resident in a worker camp, circled by a security fence, Nadia and Saeed trade their labor — clearing land, assembling prefabricated dwellings — for “a home on forty square meters and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”
This “forty meters and a pipe” is an obvious evocation of the “forty acres and a mule” promised (but never granted) to the formerly enslaved in the closing stages of the U.S. Civil War. It summons, in other words, another deferred emancipation — an extant history that Nadia and Saeed learn more about when they pass through one final door and arrive on the west coast of North America, in the new city of Marin, where they fashion a shanty in the vacant hills above town. As the fog descends and lifts, Nadia and Saeed drift apart, surely but not violently, and toward new companions. Saeed is drawn to the daughter of a local preacher, a woman descended “from the human beings who had been brought from Africa to this continent centuries ago as slaves.” Of that history, Saeed comes to understand that “society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils.” The link Saeed feels to this particular narrative of dislocation, of loss and struggle, is derived in part from a newfound spiritual devotion. In prayer, Saeed “touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss united humanity, every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness.” In such instances — as when Hamid writes that “we are all migrants through time” — the political contradictions Exit West has so vividly rendered are dissolved by the revelation of transcendental humanness. The universality the novel more urgently invokes, though, is grounded in the contingent and contested terrain of social life.
Our contemporary moment is marked by a crisis of futurity — a collective inability to imagine any alternative to the supposed “end of history,” the eternal neoliberal present. But by the final pages of Exit West, in the wake of an apocalypse that “was not apocalyptic,” this malaise is yielding to “plausible desirable futures…unimaginable previously, but imaginable now.” These other worlds are made audible, in Marin, by the flourishing of new musical ensembles — “humans with humans, humans with electronics, dark skin with light with gleaming metal with matte plastic” — and given a concrete political shape by nascent regional assemblies, experimental democratic formations that exist in opposition to “those other entities for which some humans were not human enough to exercise suffrage.”
The polyglot soundscape of the migrant camps on Mykonos is “what one might hear if they were a communications satellite” — a planetary perspective that recalls the one Nadia first realizes virtually on her phone, and that Exit West itself claims. Orbiting earth, Hamid’s novel maps the divides that structure the current global order. But it also charts one necessary future, the advent of what Aimé Césaire called a “humanism made to the measure of the world.”
At the Edinburgh Festival in 2001, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff grew so frustrated by the interruptions of cellphones and coughing that he left the stage, suggesting the audience use the break to finish making noise. A reviewer for called it, “Fantasia in C Minor with mobile phone, beeping watches and coughing and sneezing accompaniment,” which sounds like an enjoyable evening of John Cage but not, apparently, what Schiff intended.
A decade later in Presov, Slovakia, a solo viola performance by Lukas Kmit was interrupted by the ubiquitous Nokia ringtone. Kmit paused, casting a frustrated eye on the audience — toward the guilty party, presumably, who isn’t visible in this viral video of the event. But rather than stop his performance or abandon the stage, he played the ringtone back on his instrument, adding an improvisational touch and incorporating the moment into his concert in a spontaneous acknowledgement — despite the frustration and rudeness — of the human nature of live performance. The disruption of art became art.
Which isn’t to suggest Schiff was wrong to get angry. Neither were the players and listeners at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert brought to a halt by an iPhone’s marimba ringtone, or any number of similar interruptions of music, theater, public speaking, and (I can attest) teaching in recent years. Such interruptions are by now a fact of public life, regrettable as that may be, just as the industrial and mechanized sounds of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique” — so shocking in 1926 that they sparked a riot among concertgoers — have faded into the background of our aural lives.
Because when wild birds, usually part of that background sound themselves, take to singing our ringtones back to us, what chance do even the most austere of classical musicians have to resist? We become like the lyrebird faithfully mimicking not only phones and car alarms but the sound of chainsaws felling the very trees where it lives. It’s hard not to hear cultural ruin, melodramatic as that may be, in every interrupting chirp and chime of a phone receiving a text or a call or blasting a video through its speakers on a packed subway train. The citizen in me, greedy for chances at quiet reflection and, frankly, to be left in peace from unwelcome noises, shudders and laments.
But the artist in me, the writer, asks a more probing question, if not necessarily more optimistic: what might I do with all this? Because whether we lament the disruption or not, Kmit’s incorporation of the ringtone into his concert acknowledges that art is made in the world as we find it, not the world as we wish it was.
Authors of literary fiction often seem to take pride in their avoidance of networked tools from cell phones to Wikipedia. In 2009, under the headline “If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone,” The New York Times shared examples of what author Matt Richtel called, “a brewing antagonism toward today’s communication gadgets,” i.e., writers lamenting the inconvenience of cell phones and other tools rendering moot (and mute) any number of familiar, time-worn storytelling devices from getting lost to missing a romantic connection. Two years later, Ann Patchett told The Washington Post,
And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.
As Patchett acknowledges, it takes work — contrivances and contortions — to write fiction that presents itself as contemporary but avoids the inclusion of contemporary devices. Consider how long you might be able to walk down a street without spotting a smartphone, versus how many pages of characters existing in public you might be able read without seeing one mentioned. The avoidance of cell phones, in particular, gives rise to its own set of clichés, already as familiar and, perhaps, already as frayed as the ill-fated timing and last minute arrivals of older stories. And, the more we expect to always have a signal, the harder it is to conceive a convincing situation in which a character does not, as a popular supercut of horror film moments makes clear.
In literary fiction, the more popular solution seems to be relying on settings close to the present, but far enough back to avoid such inconvenience. Granted, the popularity of the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s as settings also owes plenty to generational shifts in literary production as people write about formative periods and the years they remember. But it also avoids any number of narrative problems and allows writers to go on telling stories in the way they are used to, rather than incorporating the present in ways that are difficult and disruptive. When I recently wondered on Twitter — one of those very disruptions — if we’ve reached the point of needing a term for this kind of setting, author Jared Yates Sexton suggested “the nostalgic present.” And while it’s easy enough to incorporate mention of that into this essay, where might a tweet fit into a novel? As dialogue, formatted like any other character’s utterance? Or embedded with timestamp and retweet count and all? What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays? It’s a hard question, but not one that gets answered when writers aspire to be more like Andras Schiff than Lukas Kmit.
I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other “found texts” in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now, for better or worse, as unexpected yet instantly familiar as a ringtone played on a viola or sung by a bird.
In their article “If Romeo and Juliet Had Mobile Phones,” Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie explore not only how William Shakespeare’s young lovers would see their play’s plot devices undone by cell phones, but also how the presence of such devices would necessarily alter the characters and their world psychologically, socially, and romantically to create not a “failed” version of the story as we know it but a new story with its own possibilities. The original story would be made impossible not by the inconvenience of Romeo texting Juliet to let her know he’s only asleep, but because the ubiquity of networks would make everything different from their sense of public versus private space, the possibility for unsupervised conversation, and their identities hinging on broader social networks than only their families. That’s what undermines so much fiction set in the “nostalgic present,” an unsettling, uncanny valley-esque sense that apart from pretending cell phones don’t exist, the story is set in our time. Because the authors are writing from a networked world and seeing life through that lens whether they allow it to their characters or not. So why not embrace it? Why not make it matter, because it already does however much we doth protest?
It’s not as if cell phones and networks get rid of the loneliness and misunderstanding upon which so much fiction depends. The Pew Research Center’s report “Social Isolation and the New Technology” demonstrates that handily enough, and as Wellman and Rainie put it in their book Networked, we’re experiencing “the weakening — but not the death — of distance.” As long as there’s distance between people and places, between intention and action and understanding, there’s plenty of room to tell stories.
And not only in simple ways like rethinking plot twists, so that instead of arriving too late to spot one another, our characters arrive on time but neither looks up from their phone to notice the other. Or someone pretends to be someone else via text message or email, or steals an identity leading to a chain of dramatic events. A character might miss crucial information because she is distracted from listening to someone in front of her, physically, while more engrossed in what a second disembodied person is telling her on a screen in her hand. Or hears noises in the background while on the phone with his wife, and paranoia sets in about who she was with and to what end. Plot twists are hardly ruined by technology, merely changed, because those mechanical problems are easily solved; it’s the other possibilities that prove more interesting.
For instance, in his novel Running Away (translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith), Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s narrator is aboard a night train in China. While he rides, he talks on the phone to his partner, Marie, back in Paris on a daylight visit to the Louvre. The narrator experiences and describes his own present vividly, while also imagining or reconstructing Marie’s movement through the museum, all of which is entwined in important personal news she is sharing. It’s a scene remarked on and discussed by a number of critics, and by the author himself on KCRW’s Bookworm, because in the collapse of time, space, and physical but not, crucially, emotional distance, the moment demonstrates the potential for loneliness and separation to be deepened rather than assuaged by our devices. It is a kind of contradictory distance possible only in the present, when we have the expectation of always being in touch, but as in Jacques Lacan’s mirror, we are troubled by not touching or being touched as our full selves.
We’re also able — and our characters, too — to remain “in touch” with people no longer accessible to us. There’s a particular sadness to annual Facebook reminders of the birthday of a friend (or Friend, perhaps one we’ve never actually met and years ago accepted an anonymous request from out of an unclear sense of online politeness or blasé unwillingness to rock the social networking boat) after that person has passed away. How long do we leave them among our Friends? Do we reply with birthday wishes and memories? More awkwardly, but with so much potential for fiction, do we respond to their automated natal reminder without realizing they’re dead, as someone inevitably does on Facebook?
In Johanna Sinisalo’s novel The Blood of Angels, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, a grieving father reads the blog of his recently dead activist son, seeing the vitriol directed at him for his politics from anonymous strangers. This isn’t the spark for a revenge story, though it could be (and has been, somewhat, in Will Ferguson’s novel 419). It’s more akin to what remains the saddest, loneliest passage I’ve ever read, a moment in Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific when the author, adrift among distant islands, dreams of one of his children writing,
Long after he died — for weeks, for months — we kept receiving postcards from Dad, because he had traveled so far and to such small and insignificant places.
It’s all the more heartbreaking now that I’m a father myself, as I wasn’t 20 years ago at first reading. And Sinisalo’s grieving father is heartbreaking, too, because not only is he reading these post-mortem political missives from his lost child, but is seeing a conversation continue around them knowing his son can’t respond despite the blog format anticipating that response inherently — to look at a blog entry is to expect another, or to be curious, perhaps pessimistically saddened, by the long time passed since the last post. Grief, of course, is familiar, and so is loss. But there’s something distinctly modern about a loss that refuses to be made final thanks to our digital ghosts.
It’s those moments, the ones that could only happen now in a networked era, that I’m most interested in as a reader and writer. And my favorite of these, a passage that sings to me as impossible to write in the past, even a few years ago, comes from Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia
On the outskirts of the city over which this drone is today validating its performance parameters, a crowd is gathering at a graveyard. Two vehicles stand out among those parked nearby. One is a van, emblazoned with the name and phone number of a commercial spray painter, possibly even belonging to the deceased, for it is being used as a hearse to transport his white-shrouded body. The other is a luxury automobile from which emerges a pale of male figures in suits, a man in his sixties and a slender, teenage boy, perhaps his grandson. These two are conspicuously well dressed, contrasting with most of the other mourners, yet they must be closely related to the fellow who has died, since they lend their shoulders to the task of bearing his corpse to the fresh-dug pit. The elder of them now commences to sob, his torso flexing spasmodically, as though wracked by a series of coughs. He looks up to the heavens.
The drone circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on.
It isn’t just the novelty of the drone’s-eye view, of which this may be the first instance in literature (and if it isn’t, I’d love to know about others). It’s the juxtaposition of a deeply human moment — perhaps the most human, a funeral — with a deeply inhuman, or at least disembodied, observer. We readers only witness this moment because of a drone passing over and presumably that happens by chance as there’s no reason this particular funeral might be a priority target. And yet, who knows, because the mere presence of a drone suggests we are all possible targets, all the time, and that even in our most intimate, emotional moments of grief and loss, our experiences are consumed by and bound up in global networks of technology and power. The drone is unblinking, it flies on unaffected, but we who gaze through its eye hang onto the image of life even after whatever agency operates the craft might reject the funeral as useless data, and delete it make room for another day’s record. It’s a god’s-eye view without any god, only the eye of some pilot many miles away, implicating the reader and the states and systems we are willing or willfully blinded participants in.
I want to discover such moments more often in fiction as a reader and, if I’m able, as a writer. Not to deny the frustrations of cell phones, or because I’m any less anxious about surveillance and corporatization and the commodification of social life. Those things terrify me, obsessively so, but they also fascinate me, and as an artist I want to engage them rather than pretend they aren’t part of how we live now and — it’s hard to imagine otherwise — how we will live the rest of our lives. Pretending otherwise in our stories will only make them appear ossified and exacerbate complaints that literature has nothing left for today’s readers, never mind tomorrow’s who might someday ask how we made sense of ourselves.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.