The American Dream?

This year’s summer reading book contrasts old worlds with new, challenging perspectives on identity, nationality, and worldviews.

On a few different levels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an unusual choice for the Rollins summer reading selection. For starters, it’s fiction and, at least for the last decade, the selections have been nonfiction; it’s also a light, breezy read; it’s narrated by a character who retreats from the bright, secular lights of New York City into a more traditional life in Pakistan; it’s not about a singular social or political issue, but a confluence of them; its ending is maddeningly ambiguous.

“We decided that maybe it was time to have a work of fiction in the mix,” explains Gabriel Barreneche, director of the Rollins Conference Course program. “The topic is kind of controversial—that’s what we wanted. We wanted a book the students wouldn’t be able to put down.” The committee also sought a “protagonist with whom the students could relate,” he adds, “a book that connects with the College’s mission, global citizenship.” They found it in Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 Fundamentalist, whose movie version, starring Riz Ahmed, Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson, and Liev Schreiber, was released earlier this year.

Fundamentalist tells the story of a Pakistani up-and-comer named Changez, who moves to the United States to first attend Princeton and then work for a high-powered New York valuation firm; after the attacks of 9/11 and the collapse of a love affair, however, his outlook begins to change. In the book, Changez tells us:

What left me shaken, however, occurred when I turned on the television myself. I had reached home from New Jersey after midnight and was flipping through the channels, looking for a soothing sitcom, when I chanced upon a newscast with ghostly night-vision images of American troops dropping into Afghanistan for what was described as a daring raid on a Taliban command post. My reaction caught me by surprise; Afghanistan was Pakistan’s neighbor, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the sight of what I took to be the beginnings of its invasion by [Americans] caused me to tremble with fury. I had to sit down to calm myself, and I remember polishing off a third of a bottle of whiskey before I was able to fall asleep.

This theme—balancing old worlds, and old loyalties, with new—transcends the book, as Changez struggles to hold on to his ancestors’ traditions while developing a new life in a very modern Manhattan, where people who look like him, especially in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, came under suspicion. Changez is the Other, a foreigner who can never quite leave his foreignness behind, nor does he really want to.

He is also enamored with the unattainable, loving a woman who cannot love him back—not because of his race or history, but rather because of her own history. This produces a tangled intersection of depression, unrequited affection, and sexual encounters that are probably best described as awkward.

Through it all, as Changez tells his conversant, he sought to forge his own identity—not quite American, not quite Pakistani. But ultimately he had to abandon his American dream:

It seemed to me then—and to be honest, sir, seems to me still—that America engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.

In this act of turning away, Hamid gives us a window into the perspectives of those we too often blithely dismiss as “anti-American,” as though their concerns are somehow less worthy than ours. It is a challenge to broaden our viewpoints and see things through the eyes of others.