In order to get a better handle on The Reluctant Fundamentalist author Moshin Hamid, I read his first novel Moth Smoke. Reading this first novel makes it clear that Hamid has talent and that he enjoys experimenting with his writing – no straightforward narratives for him.
Moth Smoke also deals with his native Pakistan but with a more internal focus. Here is the publishers description:
When Daru Shezad is fired from his banking job in Lahore, he begins a decline that plummets the length of this sharply drawn, subversive tale. Before long, he can’t pay his bills, and he loses his toehold among Pakistan’s cell-phone-toting elite. Daru descends into drugs and dissolution, and, for good measure, he falls in love with the wife of his childhood friend and rival, Oziâ€”the beautiful, restless Mumtaz.
Desperate to reverse his fortunes, Daru embarks on a career in crime, taking as his partner Murad Badshah, the notorious rickshaw driver, populist, and pirate. When a long-planned heist goes awry, Daru finds himself on trial for a murder he may or may not have committed. The uncertainty of his fate mirrors that of Pakistan itself, hyped on the prospect of becoming a nuclear player even as corruption drains its political will.
As seems to be my habit these days, I read Moth Smoke a while back and never got my thoughts down. As a result I am having a hard time writing anything particularly thoughtful. So allow me to point out some reviews that I think capture the books strengths and flaws.
– Jhumpa Lahiri had a fine review in the New York Times For Lahiri Hamid’s story brings to mind Fitzgerald and Gatsby:
Hamid writes about the slippery ties between the extremely wealthy and those who hover, and generally stumble, in money’s glare. Hamid also sets the action over a single, degenerate summer, when passions run high and moral lassitude prevails. And like Fitzgerald, Hamid probes the vulgarity and violence that lurk beneath a surface of affluence and ease.[. . .]
”Moth Smoke” is written in a lean, hip present tense. Amid Hamid’s lapidary prose are robust images that amplify the festering and the constriction Daru feels. A dead dog on his driveway has ”gorged ticks” that ”cover his ears like bunches of grapes” and ”tendons like tight ropes wrapped around his bones.” Every other chapter pulls away from Daru and from the linear sequence of the novel, granting Murad Badshah, Mumtaz and Ozi extended soliloquies that both lighten and complicate the scope of Daru’s increasingly claustrophobic vision. Added to the mix are a few chapters set in the courtroom where Daru ends up on trial for murder, an interview with one of Daru’s college professors and an extended rant about air conditioners. The playful array of voices and tones makes for an inventive ride, but the constant shifting of gears can be distracting, especially since some of the alternate chapters seem either sketchy or superfluous compared with Daru’s dark, solidly realized point of view.
I agree with Lahiri that the alternating chapters from different characters are playful and inventive but mostly distracting. Hamid is clearly playing with perspective and motivation but it distracts from the “lean, hip present tense” Lahiri notes. Not enough to derail the book really, just a little jarring at times.
– Sudip Bose in Salon notes this flaw as well, but like Lahiri finds much to praise. Bose does a nice job of capturing the image noted in the title:
The book’s dominant image is of a moth circling a flame. In the darkness of evening, Daru watches the strange seduction played out: the moth “spinning around the candle in tighter revolutions,” attracted to the fire. Ignited, the moth is consumed. The lingering moth smoke reminds Daru of burning flesh — his own, for this Icarus ends up singed by his own irresistible attractions.
To tell Daru’s story, Hamid employs multiple narrators, each with a distinct voice, none entirely reliable. This variety is, to my taste, a flaw, since none of the others is as finely pitched as Daru’s tragic, ironic voice. When Daru isn’t speaking, the prose tends to the flamboyant, with overworked metaphors and relentless punning, adding up to a bad Salman Rushdie impersonation. All in all, though, Hamid has turned a beautiful trick: He has made an old formula — man, woman and cuckolded husband — into something fresh and luminous. Rather like a moth turned into a butterfly.
So there you have it. This first novel marked Hamid as a “writer to watch” and one that clearly enjoys employing creative voices and perspectives. If you have an interest in Pakistan, or just enjoy skillful re-workings of age old stories, you will enjoy Moth Smoke.