EXIT WEST and all the stories that have lately revived my hope

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, Exit West, holds the whole of our world on its blue (star-specked) palm. The story of hard-fisted regimes and near apocalypse, escapees and plundered landscapes, dark doors and possibilities, Exit West is the story, too, of People as illuminated by two particular people: the young lovers Nadia and Saeed. They meet at a time of crumbling infrastructures, raging drones, ID searches, random violence. They take up the journey (through these dark, mysterious, escape-hatch doors) together. They live among other immigrants in foreign lands in subsistence circumstances, and they try (they both do try) to retain the feelings they believe they have for one another throughout the raw rub of it all.

Global and intense and palpable, sprinkled with this necessary, never-intrusive magic, Exit West is hard-hitting and heart-hurting, but never, for an instant, cruel.

I will never look at another image of a dislocated refugee and not see Nadia or Saeed or their fellow travelers. I hope every American reads this book, every European, too, and that we all have the same response. That we act on it.

Over and over and over again, Hamid smashes the conundrum of love and life, home and homelessness with long, binary sentences and short words. He writes philosophy into action and within action he posits tenderness. He makes powerful use of the conjunction and the multiple, the crowded and the stop:

That night a rumor spread that over two hundred migrants had been incinerated when the cinema burned down, children and women and men, but especially children, so many children, and whether or not this was true, or any of the other rumors, of a bloodbath in Hyde Park, or in Earl's Court, or near the Shepherd's Bush roundabout, migrants dying in their scores, whatever it was that had happened, something seemed to have happened, for there was a pause, and the soldiers and police officers and volunteers, who had advanced into the outer edges of the ghetto pulled back, and there was no more shooting that night.

Two pages later, returning his focus to the two characters that shoulder his novel, Hamid writes:

Saeed for his part wished he could do something for Nadia, could protect her from what would come, even if he understood, at some level, that to love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you. He thought she deserved better than this, but he could see no way out, for they had decided not to run, not to play roulette with yet another departure. To flee forever is beyond the capacity of most: at some point even a hunted animal will stop, exhausted, and await its fate, if only for a while.
How lucky I have been to spend the last few weeks reading and re-reading books that teach me. Books that have forced me to ask myself what it is I think I am doing with my writing life...and what I should be doing. Paul Lisicky's The Narrow Door (unspool time to find the truth). Dana Spiotta's Innocents and Others (the novel as document, the document as story). George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo (be unafraid to do the things that will, inevitably, be questioned). Paulette Jiles's News of the World (make history now, make details crackle). Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons (there are always many sides to one story). Debbie Levy's Soldier Song (picture books, the best of them, are as smart and as well-researched as anything on the adult table). Vivian Gornick's The Odd Woman and the City (memoir is as much about what you've thought as about what you've done). Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow (nothing wrong, nothing at all, with a good, old-fashioned hero set down inside a good, old-fashioned, finely told story).

Don't despair, my friends. Great art is still among us.

Today I creep back into my own writing life. Edits are arriving on a book due out next summer. Having been emptied and defeated for so long by the news, I am bolstered, ready, hopeful, again, about the power of story.


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