The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

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I admire the author’s book Exit West and looked forward to this one. The audiobook read by the author captures the grimly factual, matter-of-fact tone of the book as he did for Exit West.

The book opens with Anders waking to discover he has turned brown. While this book has elements of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Jose Saramago’s Blindness, its trajectory is its own. Other characters are Anders’ girlfriend Oona, her mother and Anders’ father.

As more people became brown, vigilantes came out, and society was breaking down. Anders read about a man who shot himself in front of his own house, a shooting originally assumed to be an act of home defense, “the dark body lying there, an intruder shot with his own gun after a struggle. But the homeowner was not present and was nowhere to be found and then the wedding ring, the wallet and the phone on the dead man were all tallied up, and the messages that had been sent, and the experts weighed in, and the sum of it all was clear. In other words, that a white man had indeed shot a dark man, but also that the dark man and the white man were the same.”

Anders was unsafe in his apartment and went to live with his father as the social order was breaking down. When the power went out, they sat with their guns in the dark, prepared to protect themselves as necessary. Oona’s mother was racist and believed the radical things she read online. She is described this way:

Oona’s mother had not been a fantasist when Oona and her brother were children. Or rather, if she had, the fantasy she in habited was a common one, the belief that life was fair and would turn out for the best and good people got what they deserved for the most part, exceptions being just that, exceptions, tragedies. But she had not worked after the twins were born, and when her husband had died, unexpectedly early in the prime of health, he left her enough money to get by, but he took away that fantasy, leaving her alone to grapple with the slow loss of her son in a world that did not care and was getting worse all the time.

The fragility of the social order that Hamid depicts is unsettling. While we won’t have the surreal experience of all humans turning brown, we do have reason to worry about that fragility. And of course there are aspects of the social order that need to change. This is a powerful, frightening book.

Eventually everyone was dark, social order is restored, the lives of the two characters Oona and Anders proceed in a normal, predictable way, but nothing is the same as it was.

Mohsin Hamid, The Last White Man, Riverhead Books, 2022, 180 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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