When I opened a copy of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) I received as a gift a few years ago, the white spaces between lines of prose printed in large fonts first drew my attention—at the time I thought, I must be reading too many Norton anthologies, where the real estate of the page is at such a premium that the condensed fonts and spaces most closely resemble crawling ants—but even as I began reading Hamid’s novel, the spaces between the lines did not recede from the horizon of my consciousness, physically lingering in my peripheral vision and bleeding into my experience of the language, which was not particularly dense, and I remember wondering why and how are these physical gaps on the page assuming significance and contributing to my sensual saturation. Then I read Moth Smoke (2000), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and now that I’ve read Exit West (2017), I know that in Hamid’s novels physical and figurative gaps always replenish the spare prose.
The question underlying Exit West seems to be how do we form connections across spaces?
Hamid’s novels are poets’ novels—that is, they are narrative poetry in prose. Poet Rachel DuPlessis says that poetry “is the kind of writing that is articulated in sequenced, gapped lines and whose meanings are created by occurring in bounded units . . . operating in relation to . . . pause or silence.” As such, one of the hallmarks of narrative poetry in print (think of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986)) is the material gaps on the page (spaces between lines or stanzas) that momentarily thwart the story’s progress. The eyes of the reader come to tarry at the end of a line of verse, often enjambed, or the end of a stanza, before moving onward in search of the answer to what-happened-next. Hamid’s paragraphs frequently operate as stanzas do in narrative poetry and toward the end of How to Get Filthy Rich and in Exit West—especially, the latter half of this recent novel—a paragraph/stanza is composed of one sentence that, to use DuPlessis’s phrase again, is “draped…across several lines.”
It is worth noting that gaps, silences, pauses, and paragraphs do not function as bounded units in narrative poetry alone—they work in the same way in all kinds of writings to some degree—but in narrative poetry these units hold our attention, prompting us to recognize the formal artifice and the fact that the language has been molded to serve an aesthetic end, the syntax has been stylized, and what we have before us is not an imitation of everyday speech or a reflection of life as it occurs every day. Nonetheless the formal artifice at its best also manages to affect and seduce us in ways only aesthetic objects can. Hamid’s novels with their multiple (somewhat fantastic) frames and lingering gaps are unabashed in their celebration of artifice—their own literariness—as they explore political possibilities of form.
The question underlying Exit West seems to be how do we form connections across spaces? The novel traces the entwined journeys of Saeed and Nadia, lovers from an unnamed city in the East that is on the brink of destruction, where young men play soccer with severed heads of corpses. They escape the city where war has warped daily life through magical doors that take them to Greece, England, the US, and so on. Of course, this makes the novel timely—especially for a Western audience (who are arguably still the ones sitting across the table from Hamid’s narrators), who in the aftermath of Brexit and the US Presidential election seem to have discovered anew the treachery of borders, the meaning of closing doors; scenarios with which audiences in the East (or to use another transnational term, those in the Global South) have been more intimately acquainted for a longer span of time.
As in his previous novels, Hamid uses strategies to specifically locate the identities and experiences of some characters and places while several other elements and entities in the novel remain indeterminate and fuzzy. Most characters in Exit West are anonymous, and apart from the protagonists Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s parents, the characters are etched with minimal details such that the reader must fill the contours with their own knowledge, which also tests the readers’ ability to resist stereotyping when extrapolating from sparse details about ethnicities and backgrounds. So, we are told that Saeed works at an advertising agency at the outset and that Nadia, for their date in the city under siege, happens to choose a Chinese restaurant, which used to be run by a family that had settled there after the Second World War but has recently emigrated to Canada. Such details while rounding off Saeed’s and Nadia’s characters also gesture toward lives that ultimately lie outside the scope of the novel.
…Even though Hamid writes, “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” his overall attitude to migration is optimistic and this optimism is a double-edged sword.
Saeed and Nadia’s journey through the doors is not free of hardship and pain. They struggle to make both ends meet in Mykonos, London, and later in the Bay area. They are also swindled by agents from their own country on the way. Even when they have a roof over their head they live with the constant fear of eviction given that militants are always inching closer, using the same doors that the refugees are taking, and the law enforcement forces in the West, which generally support the nativists, are coming to clear migrant ghettos. Migrants with more money and resources live close to the center of the cities whereas the ones with depleted resources are desperate enough to take chances that lead them to their doom. In addition, Saeed never completely comes to terms with their leaving of the city and his father.
However, even though Hamid writes, “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” his overall attitude to migration is optimistic and this optimism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can perhaps mitigate pangs of xenophobia, especially among the Western population given that the journeys of the migrants in the novel are usually directed westward—the novel seems to suggest, look ye nationalists/nativists, refugees and migrants are harmless; remember, large communities of people—even those from your race or nationality—have been on the move. On the other hand, this optimism might reek of naïve humanism as migrations caused by different reasons are tangled together and the forced movements of the persecuted and the mobility of the privileged are not always clearly distinguished. For instance, while the protagonists travel to escape a falling city, we are also told of well-to-do old California families who have moved or are moving, and the novel arrives at the maxim, “We are all migrants through time.” Yet, the porosity of Hamid’s prose and his novel’s form manages to substantiate his approach to migration.
…(Hamid) frustrates the readers’ desire for clear causal connections and closure. He refuses to let readers assume that the characters can permanently settle down—Exit West implies that stories and journeys never end.
Hamid strings long tortuous sentences where his “ands” and “buts” hold in balance fates of myriad characters. His novel sprawls. The narrative following Saeed and Nadia is interspersed with tangential stories about other people in other places with little to no causal connection, based on temporal concurrence and tonal or thematic resonances with the primary narrative. Simply put, this is a novel that intentionally digresses, taking readers to a variety of locales across the globe. The digressive form in turn reflects the meandering journeys of the protagonists. Hamid uses the digressions as gaps to play with the fundamental onward drive of the story and by doing so, he frustrates the readers’ desire for clear causal connections and closure. He refuses to let readers assume that the characters can permanently settle down—Exit West implies that stories and journeys never end.
And thus, the novel’s unabashed emphasis on its own formal artifice comes into the picture: the connections forged among the characters by series of conjunctions are not organic, universal connections but wishfully and intentionally contrived. The contrived porosity of borders represented by the fictional doors in the novel and the language that brings into proximity geospatially separated characters make it evident that Hamid is speculating and writing against dystopian fictions, a popular genre of contemporary literature. Writing off dystopias is no small feat given that imagination operates within political-cultural constraints and a world where migration is normalized and is neither the result of persecution nor perceived as a threat is difficult to imagine at present. With Exit West, Hamid wants his readers to entertain the possibility that one day in the distant future we might be able to look back to the catastrophic present and say “it was not apocalyptic…people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now.” In this sense, Hamid’s novel is romantic but it is also earnest.
Torsa Ghosal is the author of the novel Open Couplets (Yoda Press, 2017), the Associate Editor of Papercuts magazine, and a PhD candidate in English at Ohio State University.