Smoke Bluntly Gets in Your Face
By GRAEME WOOD
There is a strong case to made, based on Mohsin Hamid's debut novel Moth Smoke, that "Generation X" is not just an American thing. There is at least as much drug abuse in this fine new Pakistani novel as you'll find in a Winona Ryder movie, and enough navel-gazing existentialism to fill half a Lisa Loeb album.
Moth Smoke is about rich young professionals in nuclear-age Pakistan. The year is 1998, and Pakistan is testing its nuclear arsenal and beating its chest in India's general direction. India reciprocates with bomb test-runs of its own and with diplomatic sneers. The bomb is the menacing and distracting backdrop for all the personal problems the twentysomething characters of Moth Smoke have to face. ("Nothing like nuclear escalation," says one character, "to help you forget your problems.") The children of soldiers and entrepreneurs, they struggle with politics, as well as with the usual generational issues: finding a place in their fathers' and mothers' societies, finding security, finding love.
As if these quests were not complicated enough, the young Pakistanis in this story face the slightly smaller challenge of finding good hash. Marijuana is the leisure drug of the young Pakistani elite, and the act of smoking, selling and buying it takes many pages of Moth Smoke. The drug abuse starts tame, then slowly escalates in proportion to the intricacy of the narrative, until by the end, selling highs is the main character's business.
That character is Daru, a bank employee in his late 20s who gets smart with a senior client and loses his job. He finds comfort in an affair with his best friend's wife, a homemaker named Mumtaz with a second career as an undercover journalist. We learn early on that our primary narrator (the first person switches frequently among the main characters) has been involved in a botched robbery, and is now on trial for murder. The evidence sounds damning, although we are not told the specifics of the case until much later in the book. The story is told by him and by others, always in a slightly mournful, regretful voice, as if the whole cast were paying penance for a communal sin.
As you might guess, this book does not admit much humor--it is, after all, an account of Daru's slow and painful descent from yuppie respectability to scumminess. But Moth Smoke never gets cumbersome, and even at its most heavy, the narrators are a sympathetic and colorful bunch. They are all, by Pakistani standards, moneyed and elite. (Even Daru, the novel's hard-luck case, has a servant boy.) Most everyone has a sport-utility vehicle to negotiate the rotting streets of Lahore, a city without enough public works to take care of its roads. Indeed, the novel at times seems like a huge smear campaign against Range Rovers and Pajeros--the characters who drive them are spoiled, corrupt, evil, stoned, sometimes all of the above.
The title, drawn from an overworked image of a moth immolating itself on a candle (after being fired, Daru can't pay the power bills), reflects two themes that pervade the book. For one, the moth's attraction to the flame is a kind of self-destructive love, much like Daru's own love for Mumtaz. The second is the theme of smoking, which symbolizes that self-destructive impulse.
It is admirable that Hamid maintains measured prose and restraint--it would have been easy, especially in the more dramatic scenes and the chaotic later chapters, to let the narrative go berserk. Instead we get to watch lunacy come in careful and slow streams, and the effect is wonderful. None of the prose is brilliant, though it is never dull.
The keen depiction of a lost Pakistani generation will invite comparisons with F. Scott Fitzgerald, though perhaps a closer analogue would be the late Robert Bingham, who did for overly rich young New Yorkers what Hamid is doing for their Pakistani counterparts. And given the focus on substance abuse, one might even call it a Pakistani Trainspotting, minus some luridness and plus a smattering of Urdu. Could this novel have been set in New York? Probably not. The corruption among the elite, the nuclear threat and the constellation of gender and social issues in Pakistan work in a constellation that would not have translated well to any other location.
The question that will determine this novel's fate (in the popular mind, anyway) is whether it will transcend these national bounds, or whether it will end up in the dustbin of "regional literature." I say that the dustbin is a pretty sure bet for this one. I more liked the novel than disliked it, but its author will survive in my mind mostly as a rising talent, not as a full-fledged master. For all Moth Smoke's insights, it smells of trendiness, and I suspect that it will not survive past its distinct historical setting--a setting made possible by the atomic volatility of the region, and the state of Pakistani gender and class politics.
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