Since the 1989 controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and certainly since September 11, American readers have shown interest in fiction that potentially serves a dual purpose: as a reflection upon the threat of Islamic extremism and as commentary on the immigrant condition in Western society more broadly. Monica Ali’s superb 2003 novel Brick Lane, for example, was thus received with an enthusiasm that went beyond the book’s quality. Similarly, Mohsin Hamid’s slender but engaging novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which concerns a Pakistani man wrestling with both life in America and Islam, garnered significantly more attention than other books of comparable quality. These books, critics seemed to say, did not just spin a good story; they also got inside the minds of people that many Western readers were eager to know more about. (Similarly, the failed attempts of Martin Amis and John Updike to capture some of these realities were met with noticeably acute scorn.)
Tabish Khair’s new novel, How To Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position, is the best short attempt to capture some of these realities and tensions that I have yet read. At less than 200 pages, Khair pulls off a brisk, bitingly funny narrative that manages to make some astute points about both Islamic extremism and the Western penchant for stereotyping without drawing anything like a false equivalence. And for a book so concise and witty, it is also surprisingly textured.
The story begins with a scene that would have pleased the young Philip Roth, and which is written in the darkly comic tone of much of the rest of the book. Our non-religious, unnamed Pakistani narrator is an English professor teaching in Denmark with a young wife desperate for children. (Khair grew up in India and teaches in Denmark.) He tries to masturbate into a sperm-sample cup which, distractingly, has his wife’s social security number written on it. The sight of a wandering police car distracts him, and causes the reader to wonder why he waited until ten minutes before he was due at the fertility clinic to perform this act. Still, “The excitement of the situation must have helped, for at that very moment my beleaguered appendage sent an SOS of sensation back to me, a silent version of the whistle that old fashioned trains set off.” Thus does our hero appear to be a man slightly at the end of his rope (and this is only the second page).
And yet, as the story progresses, the narrator actually reveals himself to be the sanest character on the scene. He is not sex-obsessed; he has a good deal of concern for other people; and he has some sense of irony. In one of the book’s most amusing lines, the narrator describes his day: “I continued reading the Proust (in translation) I was re-reading, as an antidote to teaching literature.” This simple sentence, casually tossed off in the manner of Evelyn Waugh, conveys the narrator’s dissatisfaction with academic life in just one stroke.
After his marriage breaks up—for reasons that are slightly unclear—he finds himself living with two other immigrants: an Indian Hindu, Ravi, who shows some interest in other religions, but greater interest in pissing people off; and Karim, a taxi driver in his mid-forties (a good decade older than the other two), and a devout Indian Muslim. As the book progresses, the narrator’s skepticism about Karim’s religiosity and suspicious behavior grows—Karim hosts a Koranic study session in their apartment that includes some strange characters—while Ravi appears as, alternately, slightly unhinged and a mere practical joker who may or may not be attracted to Islam. Both Ravi and the narrator fall in love with women who possess deeper roots in Danish society; they also develop a friendship with some warm upstairs neighbors, who are initially sketched as boring, politically correct Europeans but quickly develop intriguing shades.
The book is cleverly constructed in such a way that we know some event has occurred involving the major characters, and that the event had serious consequences, but we don’t know what it was or why it happened. This encourages us to read into every little nugget Khair drops along the way; he almost seems to be goading the reader into over-interpreting character traits and plot crumbs. One plot “twist” is very cleverly made clear to the reader but obscured from the narrator himself; the narrator’s inability to “get it” tells us quite a lot about him.
Khair’s clever take on the clash of cultures extends to his language. “Every Tom, Dick, and Hari from India goes to USA, UK, Australia, or Canada," Ravi states at one point. (He also uses the phrase “Indiosyncratic.”) Khair applies this gentle ribbing not just to linguistic differences, but to literary culture as a whole (in addition to academia). A character is said to have been “mentioned as a ‘name to watch’ by Salman Rushdie.” And then comes the sting: “For more than a decade, he had been rumored to be the next Vikram Seth.” (This is again reminiscent of Waugh: the casually stated insult.) But these gibes—along with repeated slaps at MFA programs—ultimately feel organic to the narrator’s personality rather than merely taunting or cruel.
Given the title, readers might think they are in for a more fully politicized novel than the one Khair has written. He does spend some time looking at questions that have surfaced over the past decade, such as whether Islamic fundamentalists should be labeled fascists. But the main focus of his story is the cultural and political reality of immigrant life rather than clash-of-civilization questions. If this novel is anything to go by, a subtle approach to Big Questions can succeed admirably.
The biggest surprise, however, is that a book so full of humor has so much to say about what is what is still portentously called “our era.” To claim that Khair indulges in mocking staid Danish society would be an understatement; but he also never slights its real achievements. In short, you never doubt for a moment why Khair’s characters are both slightly turned off and isolated by Denmark, and also envious of its liberalism and social freedoms. Khair has written that rare thing: a mature comic novel.