by mohsin hamid
riverhead books, 240 pages, $26
In an odd way, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, deserves the fulsome praise it has received from our literary establishment. The New Yorker’s pronouncement of “instantly canonical” may be premature, but it is perfectly logical. For Exit West champions a powerful orthodoxy: Every social problem can be solved by the free flow of capital, goods, and labor; and nothing that arises from this free flow can be a social problem.
In a recent interview, Hamid said, “Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures.” Exit West sets out to remedy that. The novel imagines a future that in many respects is already here. But the appeal of that future is limited to the sorts of people who read expensive magazines in expensive cities, who regard the movement of peoples as merely multiplying the varieties of restaurants, and who treat religion, nation, and sex as accidents and preferences that should never impede the development of human capital.
Exit West follows the lovers Saeed and Nadia, who flee their unnamed Middle Eastern city as a religious militant group takes it over from the ailing government. Hamid uses an understated magical-realist device to evoke the mass migrations in which his protagonists participate. Certain doors across the world spontaneously become portals between diverse locales. These instantaneous links between the Middle East and Australia, Brazil and the Netherlands, Greece and America, allow Hamid largely to ignore refugees’ journeys and focus on the social outcomes of migration. Hamid depicts immigrants self-organizing and, after triumphing over “nativist” mobs, merrily building new urban spaces for themselves in Western cities. While working as a laborer in this program of infrastructure development, Saeed becomes pious and joins a social justice mosque; Nadia becomes a lesbian and moves to Mykonos. In these episodes and others throughout the novel, social leftism, direct democracy, and financial capital unite, victorious over the dark regressive forces of nationalism and economic-political inequality.
These solutions to globalist growing pains are not novel. For instance, Hamid speculates about a future political order, based on pure democratic assemblies: “How this assembly would coexist with other preexisting bodies of government was as yet undecided. . . . [U]nlike those other entities for which some humans were not human enough to exercise suffrage, this new assembly would speak from the will of all the people, and in the face of that will, it was hoped, greater justice might be less easily denied.” In an earlier century, such assemblies were called “soviets.”
Similarly, after a hundred-year hiatus, the Social Gospel returns in the service of globalism. Entry into the kingdom of God requires obedience to a simple principle: “The only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage, and in such a world the religion of the righteous must defend those who sought passage.” People should be able to go where they want to go: This is the highest good to be upheld by civil and religious authorities. Hamid hails a future in which we are sundered from our families, lovers, nations, religions—all of Burke’s “little platoons,” which attract our loyalties and limit our impulse to wander freely. A universal love envelops all; plenary affirmation imposes no boundaries.
In the first half of the novel, we follow Saeed and Nadia through the door of migration—and it is telling that these pages are so emotionally hollow. Universal love triumphs over real passion. Eventually, Saeed and Nadia go their separate ways. Their breakup is described in terms so muted as to be inhuman: “Jealousy did rear itself in their shanty from time to time, and the couple that was uncoupling did argue, but mostly they granted each other more space, a process that had been ongoing for quite a while, and if there was sorrow and alarm in this, there was relief too, and the relief was stronger.” These are words therapists have been saying for more than half a century.
A darkness looms on the edges of the story. The garden of Hamid’s new order of self-accepting, self-organizing universal men and women is threatened by religious militants. It was the victory of these militants that precipitated Saeed and Nadia’s migration. What motivates these dark forces? Why do they not share Hamid’s triumphalist vision of the freedom of movement (and desire) that would allow them to go to the West, build infrastructure, and find themselves? We never learn why they resist history’s march. Hamid seems incapable of imagining that anyone does not view globalism as a happy fate.
Exit West has many strengths. Its first half, which treats the disintegration of Saeed and Nadia’s home city, is affecting, and Hamid has a good ear for striking phrases: “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” The vignettes of anonymous people whose lives are changed by the magical doors of migration are often touching. A suicidal accountant escapes to a new life. An older gay couple from two continents come together.
But Saeed and Nadia’s story is central, and it chills the heart. They are not real characters, perhaps because Hamid’s imagination is so strongly controlled by ideology. The social regime he envisions makes people act and feel in strange, not-conventionally-human ways. If Exit West is any indication, the neoliberal future does not bode well for fiction.
Jude Russo is an MFA student in fiction at New York University.
Photo by Justin Brendel.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?