In The Last White Man, Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, the protagonist, Anders, wakes up to discover that he has changed race. He looks in the mirror to see not the familiar white face, but “the dark man who had been Anders”. Drawing on literary models from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to José Saramago’s Blindness, Hamid doesn’t seek to explain why this dramatic transformation takes place, but rather to explore the impact that it has on the people of the unnamed American town in which Anders lives. For although he is one of the first to undergo the transformation, the novel is true to its title and eventually there is just one white man left, and then there are none.
Hamid’s last novel, the Booker-shortlisted Exit West, was an extraordinary and perspective-altering allegory on the experience of refugees. In that book, mysterious “doorways” conveyed refugees from one country to another – a sci-fi trope that spoke to the randomness and lack of agency at the heart of the migrant experience. The conceit in The Last White Man works in a similar fashion, forcing us to examine the way that race conditions our reaction to others, and our conception of ourselves.
The Last White Man is compellingly readable and strangely musical, a kind of folktale to future generations
Anders is a likable everyman who works in “a black iron gym, a rough gym, where men, and it was usually only men, tested themselves with barbells against gravity”. He is in an on-off relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Oona, a yoga teacher who lives what she feels is an “interrupted, or abandoned, life” following a family tragedy. Anders’s change in skin colour overthrows the listless predictability of the couple’s existence. The first response is violence. From Anders: “He wanted to kill the coloured man who confronted him here in his home.” From his boss at the gym, who tells Anders that he would have killed himself if it had happened to him. From Oona’s mother, who is horrified to find that her daughter is in a relationship with a dark-skinned man and seeks solace in increasingly strident and paranoid rightwing forums online.
As more and more people are transformed, online unrest spills out on to the streets. Militants take control of the town, protesting against the fact that it has become “a different place, a different country, with all these dark people around, more dark people than white people”. Anders finds himself no longer welcome at the gym, where previously the only other member of staff who wasn’t white was a janitor. He recognises that “the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are”, but that this change is not necessarily wholly negative. He becomes closer to his sickly, working-class father, eventually moving in with him. His relationship with Oona flourishes despite the violence on the streets. At the same time a sense of imminent threat hangs over everything and “Anders no longer strayed far from his rifle”.
The Last White Man is a short novel of very long sentences. The narrative is given a breathless, incantatory feel by the layering of clause upon clause in sentences that spill over several pages, by the use of commas rather than full stops, by the sense of the novel at a formal level being propelled relentlessly forward. It makes for a book that is compellingly readable and strangely musical, as if being recounted as a kind of folktale to future generations.
Names are important in Hamid’s writing – remember Changez from The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nadia and Saeed (“Hope” in Ukrainian and “Happiness” in Urdu respectively) from Exit West? Here Anders is of course a nod to the othering that is at the heart of the book, but it’s also the name of Tobias Wolff’s protagonist in Bullet in the Brain, one of the great short stories. There, in a bank raid, a set-in-his-ways literary critic finds his perspective on life radically altered during the revelatory final seconds of his life. Hamid ends this strange, beautiful allegorical tale on a hopeful note, with Anders feeling that perhaps “something new was being born”. We recognise how far he has come since the circumscribed, depressed life he lived as a white man, and our perspective, like his, has been dramatically altered by the extraordinary power of this vision of a world stripped of racial prejudice.
The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply