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'The American,' The Reluctant Fundamentalist

In Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, one of the book’s most important characters never really appears on stage or speaks. ‘The American,’ as I will call this character—for he is never named—is essentially an implied person, whose characteristics and motives must be derived from the statements of Hamid’s narrator, Changez, a professor in Economics who has expressed anti-American viewpoints.

The narrative conceit of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is critical to how the American’s character is portrayed. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is built upon a frame-story, in which Changez, the novel’s narrator and principal character, is having an extended conversation one evening with an American visitor to Pakistan. Importantly, however, the reader receives only one side of the conversation, and no third-person description of the action. Instead, the frame is executed as a direct-address monologue to the unnamed American, whose unstated actions and statements must therefore be inferred only from Changez’s responses—much like a stereotypical TV sitcom phone call extended to the length of a novel (What’s that, Sam? You say you want to come over after dinner? Sure!). The American, then, is a man created out of inference and implication.

The initial description of the American’s American-ness helps to situate the man in the novel. Changez, who seems to have picked the man out as American, asserts that it was not physical characteristics, but instead “it was your bearing that allowed me to identify you” (Hamid 2). Changez is unspecific about what he might mean by bearing, but it’s a curious comment that can be read on a couple of different levels. If bearing is meant to indicate the way that the American carries himself physically, and the attitude that he projects in those movements, then the comments indicates that, to Changez, Americans’ physical interactions with the world are identifiable and distinct from all other nationalities’. On the other hand, however, if bearing is read to mean something more like relevance or relationship, it would indicate a statement that the social relationship of an American to those around him is somehow peculiar. Either way, the most American thing about the American is indeed his American-ness—a circular thought, for sure, but one that means his physical and social interactions with the world and its people are profoundly and apparently distinct.

Throughout the novel, the precise nature of this definitive American-ness seems to be a means for Changez to critique the US more broadly. For example, Changez notes that the man seems particularly curious about the origins of Changez’ own scars—and perceives that the American wonders whether the scars might be markers of some presumed-terrorist “training camp,” an inquiry seemingly founded on racist American assumptions about Pakistanis (46). Whether this is actually the reason behind the American’s curiosity is almost irrelevant, because it demonstrates what Changez imagines as the prototypical American attitude toward Pakistanis. Similarly, Changez later critiques the American use of the label terrorist to devalue the lives of others and to justify “collateral damage” of innocents (178). This close connection between a presumed personal attitude and a known governmental policy might shed light on what Changez sees as that typically American bearing: American (inter)national policy is seen as tied to and determinative of the man’s bearing in and presumed attitudes toward the world. The American man, therefore, becomes a symbol of his country as much as a character in and of himself.

Undoubtedly the most compelling aspect of the American’s character is precisely his unknowability and mystery. Like many first-person narratives, Changez’ framing and partial conversation questionable reliability, just as much in terms of absence of information as in terms of biased presentation. So much is left unsaid or implied that it becomes very difficult to know which statements are intended sarcastically, which innocently, and which, if any, deviously. For example, the first early suggestions of the American’s profession are rather ambiguous. As the two men sit down for dinner at a restaurant, Changez notes “you prefer that seat, with your back so close to the wall?...and you will not remove your jacket? So formal! Now that is not typical of Americans” (Hamid 2-3). The tone is conversational and pleasant, as if the American might simply be a quirky businessman, but the barest suggestion that the American might also be a government agent—who sits with his back to the wall to protect himself, and keeps his jacket on to conceal a weapon—persists. Thus, the American is mysterious and somewhat unknowable, even as he is described, because description comes through indirect implication and games. As Changez says, the man is “inscrutable”—for reasons both professional and narrative (17).

These implications that the American is a government Agent sent to “intimidate” Changez “or worse” abound, becoming ever stronger as the novel progresses, even as they never quite crystalize (183). Changez repeatedly assures the American that, when startled, he need not “reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet”—or presumed gun (5). Changez confesses himself to be “increasingly curious as to the nature of [the American’s] business,” for as Changez notes, “we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me” (64; 75). Along with many others, each of these moments seems to build toward an increasingly pressing suggestion that the American is, indeed, an agent—and that Changez may himself be rather less than innocent (for he would otherwise seem uncannily knowledgeable as to the movements of a covert government operative).

Crucially, however, each such moment is simultaneously paired with its own denial. Each time a suggestion is made, it is done in terms of hypotheticals, of discussing generalities, of assurances of that suggestion’s own impossibility. As Changez states in a moment of crisis, “you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins” (183). The suggestion is as clear as it ever might be—if the man is an agent, then Changez is a terrorist—but that suggestion is phrased as its own negation. Accordingly, the American becomes more than just a mysterious and unknowable man over the course of the book. Instead, he becomes in many senses, two potential men, coexisting. The book allows the American to be either a nervous, but innocent businessman on a trip to Pakisatan, or a covert agent whose cover is blown on an assignment to kill an enemy of the US. Both versions of the American are immanently present in the novel, and neither can be positively said to be the dominant choice, because the reader can make no judgment on evidence unmediated by Changez’ half of the conversation. Thus, the American is both businessman and agent. He is not simply inscrutable; he is dual.

Changez makes a curious observation that seems close to expressing this confusuion. He describes the American’s seemingly-increasing paranoia (implicitly, the American’s worry that his cover has been blown). The American seems like “an animal that has ventured too far from its lair and is now, in unfamiliar surroundings, uncertain whether it is predator or prey” (31). This might, indeed, be the question for an agent. But for readers, however, the question becomes not predator or prey, which would presume his engagement in combat, but the question of carnivore or herbivore—whether he’s there for a mission of blood or of innocent commerce. The question, of course, seems unanswerable, and therein may lie much of the point of the American’s character. His dual—even multiple—possibility lends to many different narratives.

All of this confusion of identity and narrative comes together for me in one surprisingly direct statement by Changez. Changez says to the American at one point, “in history, as I suspect you—an American—will agree, it is the thrust of one’s narrative that counts, not the accuracy one’s details” (118). This seems, to me, a statement fairly symbolic of the narrative structure as a whole, as well as the bizarre duality of the characters of Changez and the American. The accuracy of detail is subsumed to the larger narrative in this vision of history (a characteristically American one according to Changez). This idea mimics the progression of the plot, which becomes increasingly murky as to the accuracy of details, as multiple distinct ‘accurate’ versions of the events might be read. The American might be a jittery businessman talking with an innocent professor, or an agent sparring with a criminal mastermind, OR an assassin sent to kill a man who merely exercises a right to dissenting speech but never plotted actual violence. The details and accuracy, however, go out the window, as the narrative speeds along and progresses—thrusts itself—dramatically and forcefully into an armed conflict (or goodnight handshake) that emphasizes not a specific conclusion but the unresolvability itself in the situation. The American, like Changez, and like many in their two countries, has the potential to be many things, working either for justice or for ill.