The Stranger


This brief, charming, and quietly furious novel recasts a story so familiar as to seem almost banal: A young man arrives in a great metropolis to seek his fortune, at length realizes that the new life he has adopted constitutes a betrayal of his deepest self, and finally—sadder, wiser—returns home. Hamid, however, is an artist of fantastic cunning, and his second novel (following the rightly praised Moth Smoke) demonstrates what certain trumped-up laureates of post-modernity seem incapable of grasping: that it is possible to simultaneously address the byzantine monstrosity of contemporary existence and care about the destiny of one’s characters.

The young man in this case is Changez, scion of Pakistan’s dwindling nobility; the city is New York. Two main factors contribute to the book’s resounding success. The first is Changez’s voice. Hamid loves rummaging through the refuse heap of American cliché, salvaging dilapidated phrases, and showing that, with a little work, they can still be used to furnish a very respectable house of fiction: “Every fall, Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters who came onto campus and—as you say in America—showed them some skin. The skin Princeton showed was good skin, of course—young, eloquent, and clever as can be—but even among all that skin, I knew in my senior year that I was something special. I was a perfect breast, if you will—tan, succulent, seemingly defiant of gravity—and I was confident of getting any job I wanted.”The way the delicate, patrician fingers (“if you will”) handle that crass Americanism is marvelously awkward, and not unworthy of Nabokov.

The second key element is a shrewdly managed framing device. Seated at a restaurant in Lahore, Changez narrates his story over the course of a single evening to an American stranger, whose identity is gradually disclosed by an unsettling drip-feed of information. After taking a job with the elite valuation firm Underwood Samson—who are indeed impressed by the succulent bosom of Changez’s credentials—he finds himself living the good life in Manhattan. However, world history soon arrives on the scene to trample the carefully tended flower bed of his private bliss: In the wake of September 11th Changez discovers how the U.S. treats its huddled masses when in the grip of a xenophobic paranoia. As this unfortunate narrative unfolds, the obscure man to whom it is related comes gradually into focus, and a disturbing clarity finally asserts itself.