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'The Last White Man' spins a deft, if narrow, fantasy about identity

Penguin Random House

"People are changing," says a character in Mohsin Hamid's new novel, The Last White Man. To fans of weird tales, those are deliciously ominous words, because out-of-control change is at the root of fantasies like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, Dracula and Hamid's most direct inspiration, Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Just as Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant bug, so does Hamid's main character, a white guy with the Nordic name of Anders who "One morning ... woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown." Inexorably, that mysterious darkening begins spreading to white people all around this unnamed country.

As he demonstrated in his 2017 novel, Exit West, Hamid is a chronicler of instability — borders dissolving, beliefs shifting, settled populations suddenly migrating. His surreal narratives are just-the-other-side-of-plausible because they're tethered to once-improbable realities — events like Sept. 11 and the ongoing cataclysm of climate change.

Hamid, who is British Pakistani, has said in interviews that the premise for The Last White Man arose out of his own changing circumstances after 9/11 when, as a self-described highly educated brown man with a Muslim name, he says he "lost [the privilege of his] partial whiteness." The isolation of the pandemic also makes itself felt in this novel: As violence escalates in response to the darkening of the white populace, characters like Anders and his girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor, stay shuttered in their homes while experiencing apocalyptic changes online and on TV.

Hamid writes with on-the-ground immediacy that draws readers in. Anders, who works as a personal trainer, is, for a time, one of only two so-called "dark men" at the gym. (The other guy is the janitor.) As weeks go by, Anders' hyper-consciousness about his new color alters his personality. Here's part of a long sentence where Hamid takes us through Anders' zig-zagging perceptions of himself and others:

At work, Anders had become quieter than he used to be, less sure of how any action of his would be perceived, and it was like he had been recast as a supporting character on the set of the television show where his life was being enacted, but even so he had not yet lost all hope that a return to his old role was possible, to his old centrality, or if not centrality, then at least to a role better than this peripheral one, and so he was almost excited to hear that a long-standing client of the gym had changed, ... excited until the man came at the time he was expected, a dark man recognizable only by his jacket, and he stood there, this man, looking around, looking at those looking at him, and he left without a word, as though he might never, no, would never return.

Most of Hamid's novel consists of extended sentences like that one, whose restlessness mimics the flux of his fictional world. There's a downside, however, to being limited to mostly Anders' self-absorbed view: He's not that thoughtful a guy, so he doesn't offer any deeper thoughts about racism; we also don't hear anything about how Black people feel about their numbers being swelled by all these dazed-and-confused involuntary converts.

Hamid, himself, however, does clearly savor the absurdities generated by the construct of race. For instance, Anders hears a report about a white-man-turned-dark who committed suicide on his front lawn; a neighbor alerted the police, believing the dead Black man was a home invader. After the body is identified, the police determine that "a white man had indeed shot a dark man, but also that the dark man and the white man were the same."

A deft, if narrow, Twilight Zone-type fantasy about identity, The Last White Man only seriously strains credulity at its very end. No doubt, it says something about our own anxious times that the happy ending here seems too far-fetched.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.