British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid is known for fiction that uses surrealist premises to explore issues including migration, religious extremism, and race. In The Last White Man, Hamid draws on his personal experiences of being subjected to the white gaze after 9/11 to imagine a world where whiteness transforms to brown. The end result is an unsettling fairy tale that does not quite live up to the ambitions of its premise, but is interesting nonetheless.
When Anders, the novel’s protagonist, first awakens to discover he has transformed from white to “a deep and undeniable brown,” he is filled with “an unexpected, murderous rage” at this theft of himself. He calls in sick from work, visits the grocery store, smokes pot, and then finally works up the courage to call his lover, Oona. As the story unfolds, additional white people undergo this transformation, resulting in social upheaval in the nameless town of the nameless country in which none of the characters have surnames. Oona’s mother, radicalized by radio stations, describes the events as “the plot against their kind” and praises the newly forming white militias. Pizza delivery becomes a two-person job, one to deliver the pizza and the other to stand guard with a pistol. Along with these unnerving changes to the social world, the omniscient narrator tells us, the days become shorter and cooler and “the leaves no longer as confident in their green,” adding an aura of menace to the natural and unremarkable turn of the season.
In recent decades, the aspiration to be colorblind regarding race has been critiqued both because it is seen as impossible and because it ignores ongoing effects of systemic racism. Hamid’s novel sidesteps these critiques by flattening the racial diversity of its characters entirely. The narrator tells us the new world of universalizing brown leads to one form of blindness – difficulty recognizing people you previously knew – but also a new sensitivity to voice and facial expression. This seems to be the normative thrust of the book: race is constructed and ought not be salient; what matters is the human underneath.
But it is in raising the question of the human underneath that the book falters. After his transformation, Anders initially feels that “under the surface it was still him,” but then realizes that the way people interact with you “changes what you are, who you are.” The ending of the book suggests that it is our loving relationships with others that define us. Certainly this is a better basis for identity than the faulty metaphysics of race, but what of the soul?
Absent a metaphysics that sees everyone as created in the image of God, personal experience becomes the sum total of the self, and also the basis for ethics. Thus, Anders’s father can overcome prejudice once his own son is transformed, and Oona’s mother can affirm her daughter’s intimacy with a dark man after both she and her daughter become dark as well. This metaphysics may work well enough in the fantastical world of Hamid’s novel, but in our own decidedly less abstract world, a deeper metaphysics is required.