Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Ten books about chance encounters with strangers

At Electric Lit contributers to Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us, edited by Colleen Kinder, tagged ten "books featuring strangers who throw everything into a tizzy, who act as surrogates, who unearth beauty, who enable epic journeys, and more." Keija Parssinen's pick:
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is a magician: his books slim, structurally daring feats of literary devilry. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, his second novel, is my favorite for its audacity and its power. The book details an encounter between a Pakistani man named Changez and a burly American, who looks like he “bench presses regularly and maxes out well above 225,” unfolding as a conversation in a Lahore tea shop. Though monologue may be a more accurate descriptor, since we only ever hear Changez’s voice, the American’s presence is acknowledged cleverly through described reactions, or questions repeated back to the inquirer.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this self-conscious framework might ring false, too stagey for fiction. Yet Hamid manages to make the staginess natural to a story that is not really about two men meeting by chance in a tea house, but rather two countries—supposed allies—regarding each other with suspicion across a cultural chasm. Changez is a mesmerizing narrator who unfurls the story of his American miseducation with the flair of a court poet, by turns funny, coarse, infuriating and touching. The brilliant ending challenges our assumptions and biases as we are left to parse whether we have just witnessed a casual exchange between strangers or a set-up.
Read about another entry on the list.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is among Maris Kreizman's nineteen top short books and stories, Ian MacKenzie's ten top books about Americans abroad, Emily Temple's ten top contemporary novels by and about Muslims, Laila Lalami's eight top books about Muslim life for a nation that knows little about Islam, Porochista Khakpour's top ten novels about 9/11, Jimmy So's five best 9/11 novels, and Ahmede Hussain's five top books in recent South Asian literature.

The Page 69 Test: The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

--Marshal Zeringue