Mohsin Hamid is not trying to comfort Americans.
His chilling new novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," is about a Pakistani man named Changez who has a deeply conflicted relationship with the United States, and who grows increasingly angry with the country after the Sept. 11 attacks.
It is not a true story. It is not autobiographical. It is, by Hamid's admission, a bitter little pill. Yet, Hamid says, it also is a perspective that exists and deserves consideration.
"The thing about Changez is he is a character who is completely in love with America and angry with America," the 35-year-old author says. "At the end of the novel, he rejects America and can't stop thinking about it. These complexities and these paradoxes to me begin to hint at some of the complexities and paradoxes of our world."
The book, Hamid's second, is a hit. It has climbed up the bestseller lists and received plaudits from critics. Hamid believes that much of the success, however, hinges on timing. It's unlikely such a book would have been published in 2002, and it shows how far Americans, and others, have come in seeking different perspectives since the attacks.
Hamid is a thin, bald, bespectacled man who has some things in common with his Ivy League-educated narrator. Like Changez, he is a native of Pakistan who attended Princeton and worked in the corporate world in New York. Hamid's resume also includes Harvard Law School.
Hamid began writing "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" well before 9/11, and originally, it was quite similar. The first version was also about a Pakistani man who loved, yet felt alienated by America. That draft was finished in summer 2001.
After the Sept. 11 attacks that year, Hamid tried to maintain the same story but eventually decided to integrate the real tragedy. What resulted is a dark narrative told in a first-person voice that's at times nostalgic, at times sarcastic, and at times taunting.
The novel revolves around a conversation between Changez and an American in the Pakistani city of Lahore, but the reader is privy only to Changez's words. There's more than one hint that the U.S. visitor Changez speaks to is a spy, or even an assassin.
"It's meant to provoke and engage with the reader," Hamid says of the one-sided approach during a recent interview in Manhattan. "In Western media we often have a lot of voices from the West but very few articulate voices from the East. And sort of doing it in the reverse was very interesting to me."
In one of the most striking moments, Changez, who works for a valuation firm known as Underwood Samson after graduating from Princeton, is in the Philippines on business when he learns of the Sept. 11 attacks. He watches the twin towers fall on television.
"And then I smiled," Changez tells the unnamed American. "Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased. ... I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. ... Do you feel no joy at the video clips _ so prevalent these days _ of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies?"
It is a short book, just 184 pages long. Yet, it manages to contain a lot.
Changez's conflicted desire for America is not just about politics. He has fallen for an American woman named Erica, who has yet to move past the death of her previous boyfriend. He's also struggling to understand the American corporate world, at times a soulless, barren land. (His name by the way, is said with a hard g; it is not pronounced "changes" and was not intended to be ironic, Hamid says.)
Hamid says he went out of his way to be respectful, to avoid mocking the attacks or victims of what he considers a horrible act. When he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks, he was in London. The first thing he did was check on the safety of an ex-roommate in New York.
What Hamid also did in the months and years afterward was interview people from Pakistan. He found that while most were horrified by the Sept. 11 attacks, they did not believe the U.S. should invade Afghanistan.
Hamid also began to deal with hassles he'd never dealt with before in traveling to America _ hours-long interviews at the border. He jokes that his marriage was tested once when his wife had to choose between going for a smoke or waiting for her husband to clear security. (She stayed.)
Changez, too, encounters such travel and profiling hassles. It doesn't help that, during and due to his growing alienation, he lets his beard grow.
Hamid currently lives in London, and says he's quite comfortable in both East and West, finding more joy than confusion in dealing with multiple cultures. And he loves America _ "There are 300 million Americas!" he says _ where he spent much of his adult life.
Hamid's previous novel "Moth Smoke," also a critical success, describes drug addiction, class envy and furtive love in urban Pakistan.
"'Moth Smoke' was looking at Pakistan as an insider of Pakistan, but with slightly foreign eyes," Hamid says. " `The Reluctant Fundamentalist' was exactly the same. It was looking at America as an insider of America but also with slightly foreign eyes."
Personally, Hamid says the U.S. reaction to 9/11 was "both understandable and unfortunate."
"What did not happen on 9/11 which should have happened, I think, was an effort to make people less afraid," he said. "That something terrible's happened, we're obviously very frightened by what's happened, but we must keep in mind that these sorts of attacks will only happen very rarely because we'll do everything we can to prevent them."
The overall reader response to "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" has been positive, Hamid says.
Some have connected with the alienation felt as workers in the corporate world. Others say they might disagree with Changez's anger toward America, but they don't deny his point of view may exist.
Then, there are the few who say they completely agree with Changez.
Hamid finds that rather discomforting. He said he has "enormous love" for America.
"It is me _ or at least a large part of me."
Mohsin Hamid is not trying to comfort Americans.