Keeping track of the many clichés sprinkled throughout Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, I found myself assembling a sort of Reader’s Digest-style condensed version of the whole: ‘impressionable youth’, ‘going forward’, ‘in stark contrast’, ‘boggled the mind’, ‘Saeed steeled himself’, ‘there being a nip in the air tonight’, ‘Saeed’s desperate entreaties’, ‘Neighbourhoods fell to the militants in startlingly quick succession’, ‘a thin column of smoke rising somewhere in the distance’, ‘Saeed’s father saw the lemon tree and smiled for what seemed the first time in days’, ‘Vienna being no stranger, in the annals of history, to war’, ‘Days passed like this, full of waiting and false hopes’, ‘insatiable brine’, ‘snatches of beautiful singing’, ‘Jealousy did rear itself in their shanty from time to time’, ‘for time had done what time does’.
Every novelist publishes a bad book eventually. Even Harper Lee was not immune, in the end, to this iron law. With Exit West, Hamid publishes his bad novel. He has already had three good ones: Moth Smoke (2000), a noirish thriller about Lahore’s idle rich; The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), a dry, despairing parable about Eastern ressentiment and Western complacency; and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), a witty satire of 21st-century gangster capitalism. What went wrong?
Part of the problem appears to be a lack of basic follow-through. Exit West is predicated on a potent donnée: all over the world, mysterious black doorways have appeared. Through these portals, individuals can travel magically from East to West – from war zones and refugee camps directly to Tokyo, London, Sydney. Naturally, in consequence, the global refugee crisis worsens by an order of magnitude. In the West, ‘nativist’ mobs spring up, threatening violence. The end of the present world order looms. A good contemporary science fiction writer – such as China Miéville, say – might have made of this notion something revelatory and strange. But Hamid, it appears, can scarcely be bothered to develop the larger implications of his conceit. Instead of guiding us through his own black doorway – instead of pointing us towards the iteration of some new, gnarled truth about the contemporary world – he is content, alas, to leave us with a limp and laboured love story.
The lovers are Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed but certainly non-Western city. Saeed works for ‘an agency that specialised in the placement of outdoor advertising’. Nadia works for an insurance company, ‘handling executive auto policy renewals by phone’. War encroaches. Some central-casting militants invade the city. The situation deteriorates. Saeed and Nadia, having fallen rather boringly in love, resolve to flee. Via the black market, they purchase access to one of the mysterious doorways and make their escape to Mykonos, where they are held in a refugee camp. Finding the camp uncongenial, they slip through another doorway and land in a London mansion, on a street called Palace Gardens Terrace. Having dawdled in London for a spell, awaiting a pogrom that never happens, they at last decamp to San Francisco, where they fall out of love. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid concludes, non-controversially.
Why do Saeed and Nadia fall out of love? They just sort of drift apart: ‘each recognised it would be better to part now, ere worse came.’ But hang on – did he say ere worse came? I’m afraid so. And here (or, forgive me, ere), we arrive at the other major problem with Exit West, which is its prose. Arch, periphrastic, stutteringly cod-archaic, often ungrammatical, Hamid’s writing in this novel is a scandal. For instance: ‘Nadia selected a record, an album sung by a long-dead woman who was once an icon of a style that in her American homeland was quite justifiably called soul, her so alive but no longer living voice conjuring up from the past a third presence in a room that presently contained only two, and asked Saeed if he would like a joint, to which he fortunately said yes, and which he offered to roll.’ Setting aside the collision of ‘presence’ and ‘presently’, this sentence takes far too long simply to construe – you need to read it at least twice before you can figure out what it means, and that’s before you’ve even wondered: why didn’t he just write ‘Nadia put on a soul record while Saeed rolled a joint’?
There are other examples. ‘In times of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, evisceratingly real.’ Huh? ‘This building had taken the same name as the cinema that preceded it: both once had the same owner, and the cinema had been so famous as to have become a byword for that locality.’ I think I see what you’re getting at. But I needn’t go on. With its clichés, its rebarbative prose and its ineffectual protagonists, Exit West is unmistakably a misfire. As a novelist with a distinctively global purview, Hamid remains a valuable observer of the fault lines between East and West (and East and East, and West and West). The magical doorways that perforate the world of Exit West abolish those fault lines frictionlessly. The result is a novel that has very few interesting things to say and even fewer interesting ways in which to say them.