Allusion and Undertones in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I wrote in my introductory post that I am ambivalent about much of contemporary fiction. Well, it’s wonderful to come across as singular a counterexample as Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This is the sort of work that reminds you why you read; I heartily recommend it to all. (A word of advice: you should read Camus’s The Fall before you read this. Apologies if that word of advice is a very slight1 spoiler, but it seemed outweighed by the importance of reading the Camus first.)

I won’t write a full review. Instead, let me take this as an opportunity to jot down a few thoughts about something I’ve been mulling over for a while, about the role of allusion in literature. Apologies that this a touch disjointed. (Spoiler Alert: I won’t ruin any specific plot details, but I’ll discuss broader formal and thematic aspects of the novel. So if you’re bothered by these things, read the novel first—it’s a quick and captivating read.)

Let me start with the following premise: I’m deeply ambivalent about allusion2 in literature. What I mean, specifically, is that I feel uncomfortable with the way many authors intentionally fill their works with allusions, showing off their immense learning. What purpose does this serve, other than burnishing the ego of the author and providing employment for the professor? (I’m reminded of the quote of James Joyce about Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Joyce is an interesting case, since I love his work. But I think it’s mostly in spite of the allusions that I love Joyce.3 And there’s more than a little irony in Joyce’s statement.4)

I won’t go at length into the specific examples that are problematic. Nabakov comes to mind, as does a whole range of more recent fiction (both of the realist and of the postmodern persuasion). In more contemporary works, I think my distaste has something to do with the problem of so many novels being written about people who are writers/artists living in Brooklyn, or professors working in the academy. Great novels should be about the world, about life—not about art itself. Form exists for the sake of function, not for form itself. So why keep talking about books?5

So what, then, about a work like The Reluctant Fundamentalist?  The novel clearly evokes Camus’s The Fall; both are monologic confessions told by a voluble and friendly host who meets his interlocutor, a mysterious foreigner who remains silent to us, in a cafe/bar. Further, one also gets a clear sense of The Great Gatsby. Yet I didn’t find this problematic, the way I do in so many other works.

Why is this? Let me suggest an explanation, which constitutes a justification for allusion when done right. In Hamid’s novel, the clear evocation of Camus and Fitzgerald allows the undertones of those two great novels to reverberate through this new work. How accomplish that?  Well, you have to make the reader aware, and so you include the hints. But these aren’t recondite or obscure, and there’s no need to sit with each text in hand and compare. As long as the link has been made—ideally subconsciously at first—the effect is there.

I could articulate some of these thematic undertones that are now brought to the novel. From Camus, we have the sense of the fall, of judgment, of the reaction of the world to a calamitous event (World War II and the Holocaust in Camus reflect on 9/11 in Hamid). From Fitzgerald, the sense of romanticism, of love, of the riches offered by America, some of the hope of America.6 But these articulations don’t do justice; the whole point of these undertones is that they bring a whole fabric of associations that can’t be neatly parceled into a critic’s few categories.

And so the success of allusion in this book offers a guide to how it can be done effectively, without appearing in any way gratuitous, as it does in so many works. If there’s a powerful work, a work which an educated reader can reasonably be expected to be familiar with7, then if you want its fundamental undertones to reverberate through your work, you can evoke it. For example, I love Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Suppose I were writing a novel, and I wanted to bring Dostoevsky’s reverberations. What I can do is put a philosophical story-within-a-novel—say one with historical and religious themes that reflect on the themes of the novel as a whole—in the middle of my book, just as Dostoevsky has his Grand Inquisitor. I could have a character offer an existential confession, where he laments suffering and speaks of his “Euclidean mind”.8 I could even choose to have a trio of male protagonists, one hedonistic, one tortured and intellectual, and one saintly.9

To illustrate, by contrast, what I shouldn’t do: I don’t write a novel and then decide to have my characters eat fish soup at a key moment, just because that’s what Ivan and Alyosha eat during their crucial meal. That’s obscure, gratuitous. And if I am trying to bring Dostoevskyan undertones, then I only do it enough so that the connection can be made;10 I don’t keep putting in obscure things just so that critics can carefully parse the precise connections.

This being a blog, and this being a particularly sketchy meditation, I suppose I can avoid an elegant conclusion. Perhaps the way to put it is this. I tend to dislike most cases of allusion in (recent) literature, either because it comes out of some postmodern/meta tradition—and I generally don’t like that—or because it comes out of a realist tradition that lacks the life to do anything other than write about people who read and write books. (Or, I suppose, because it’s just really pretentious; Nabakov falls into this category, though he probably fits into the other two as well.)  But allusion can accomplish something important—something magical—in good literature, if it’s used to evoke works whose undertones can reverberate through a new work. Hamid’s novel, which is wonderful in many ways (not just in this regard), is a perfect example.

 Let me me finish by adding a few stray thoughts.

  • One sees this use of undertones in biblical allusions. These are (generally) wholly good, one very much wants to be able to call upon the Judeo-Christian heritage.
  • I read somewhere that in ancient epic literature, one was expected to have allusions to one’s forbears, as a way of acknowledging one’s debt. Thus it’s no surprise that Virgil’s Aeneid is full of parallels with Homer. I understand this sentiment. (Indeed, this is natural; the only reason I know Ivan and Alyosha had fish soup is because I had made a note to myself, Look, this is something I could allude to! I think we have a natural human desire to allude, both to offer our thanks, and also as a playful puzzle (cf. the etymology of allusion).)
  • Another justification for allusion is simply as a device for the author. I’m reminded of a point Douglas Hofstadter makes in his book Le Ton Beau de Marot: paradoxically, constraining oneself can in fact help one be creative. (He goes on to talk about various games of translation, e.g., translation Pushkin without using the letter e, or something like that. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, I don’t know if I would recommend it, but this point is important, and I don’t recall seeing it elsewhere.) Thus, trying to fit within the constraints of paralleling a famous book can help. (Sometimes the copy can be better than the original—cf. Picasso’s quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. For example, I enjoyed Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse much more than Nabokov’s Pale Fire.11 Interestingly, I think Millhauser’s book actually has more of an influence on my reading of Nabokov than vice versa.)

  1. Only in my world, where I refuse to read even blurbs on the backs of books, for fear of prejudicing my sole “virgin read” of a work. 
  2. Here, I will more broadly define allusion to include, as well, explicit reference. 
  3. Today, we treat Joyce as sacrosanct, afraid to criticize. A good antidote to this is to read Edmund Wilson’s 1922 review in The New Republic.

    It is not so bad when in order to convey the atmosphere of a newspaper office he merely breaks up his chapter with newspaper heads, but when he insists upon describing a drinking party in an interminable series of imitations which progresses through English prose from the style of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles to that of Carlyle one begins to feel uncomfortable.

    Apropos of the critical reception of Joyce, I love the following anecdote from Hugh Kenner’s book on Ulysses, p. 169: “Ezra Pound in old age liked to recall how Joyce had responded to reviews and explications: `If only someone would say the book was so damn funny.'” 

  4. Cf. this quote from “A Little Cloud” in Dubliners:

    If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reasons of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions.

  5. Note that is part of why I broadened my definition to include explicit reference, since what matters is the reference, regardless of whether it is implicit or explicit. 
  6. I am sympathetic with Hamid’s characterization of the novel as “a love song to America as much as it is a critique”, in response to a reductive interview question by Deborah Solomon. (I don’t know that I literally agree with him, but I understand where he’s coming from. This is a novel that I think is at grave risk of being so reduced.) I think the Gatsby undertones are important in giving it this sense, which is missed by some readers. 
  7. But it’s fine if they’re not. 
  8. Actually, I don’t like how Dostoevsky uses “Euclidean”, in contrast with other geometries. I prefer to misinterpret the quote (indeed, I think I initially misread it) as being about having a “logical” mind. 
  9. I once noticed that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest had just such a trio of brothers, too, in the same birth order; my bubble was popped a bit when a friend pointed out that, in fact, Hal is younger than Mario. Perhaps this trichotomy is somewhat archetypal; can’t the last three popes be categorized as the athlete, the intellectual, and the humble saint? 
  10. Acknowledging that different people might pick up on different things, you can—indeed you want to—have redundancy. Thus it’s okay, I think, that Hamid gave a character the name Juan-Bautista, which might have immediately rung a bell for some but didn’t for me until I looked back at my notes about The Fall (whose protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Clamence). 
  11. I think I mentioned this only because I want to include one of my favorite quotes from that novel, a quote which, like the Joyce line above, pokes fun at the pretensions of literary criticism.

    I once asked Edwin if the story was an allegory of the suffering artist in a society that does not understand him. “A what?” he replied. When I had explained “allegory” he frowned for a while and at last said no, he didn’t think it was an alligator. (191)