Sunday Review: Exit West
a novel from Mohsin Hamid
[ Riverhead Books / 2017 / 240 pp ]
“It was about the essential, about being human.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Exit West wins the Booker prize this year. Mohsin Hamid’s novel is well paced, lovingly written—and perhaps most importantly, a triumphant product of its time: of wars, refugees, borders, and violent nationalism. A novel of the human experience—crucially, of course, from the Other side.
Hamid enforces a kind of empathetic moral imperative: you won’t find any clever postmodern techniques here, none of Rushdie-esque flamboyance. We are immediately pulled into the lives of Nadia and Saeed, two young people about to fall in love in an unnamed country at war. Everything has been crafted for the reader to feel for them, identify with them: they could be young adults in any other country, enjoying their little drugs where they find them, working typical, mundane office jobs. Their lives fall apart and you’re horrified, rooting for them. You understand that this could happen to you. You’ll put this book down, switch on the BBC, and see Nadia and Saeeds arriving in Mykonos if they’re lucky enough. This may not be the point of the novel, but it certainly helps in cultivating empathy, and subsequently (hopefully) action.
Exit West brilliantly portrays the many violences of a country in upheaval, from the bombs to crowd molestations, the way people are forced to negotiate their personal and public space. Take, for instance, the way one must look at benign windows in wartime:
“A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come […] any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire’.
It also beautifully—excruciatingly—maps out the way people fight for a semblance of normality in these circumstances. There’s this moment later in the novel, where, after weeks without any access to clean clothes or showering facilities, Nadia finds herself in an opulent mansion in London. She luxuriates in the bathroom, and after her shower washes her clothes: “what she was doing […] was for her not about frivolity, it was about the essential, about being human, living as a human being, reminding oneself of what one was”.
This kind of cinematic lingering, paired with Hamid’s meticulously-chosen details, are testament to the author’s masterful technique: his sentences undulate slowly, taking their time in unveiling the moment at hand. There’s quite a meta line near the end of the book which perfectly encapsulates his style: “his voice uncoiling like a slow, languid exhalation of marijuana-scented smoke”. His rather slow tempo acts almost as innuendo: the act of remembrance countering everything that is lost in one blow, in one bomb. So much can lie in a mole, in a lemon tree, in an apartment.
His employ of magical realism is very effective (and affective) precisely because, I think, the surreal happens in truly extra-ordinary real-life. In the midst of such horror, there’s a (literal), almost Lewisian symbol of hope: the dark closet doorways, “the heart of darkness”. It’s an apt metaphor for globalisation—at least, for those who can afford it. You can’t help thinking of those other black shapes, the dark rubber boats that kill as well as convey. The closets are, in this respect, more a utopian imagining then dystopian. This quasi-utopianism also informs Hamid’s blueprint of a possible future, one in which cities and towns are radically redesigned to make way for the influx of immigrants and refugees. I’m definitely not the only one who thinks that all of London’s ghost mansions should be converted into homes for those who have none, and it’s some sort of vindication to see this happen here.
Visit Riverhead Books to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie
Five Things with Mary Jo Bang
1. The last thing that made you smile.
The solar eclipse—near-total where I was standing at 1:18 p.m. on August 21, 2017—wasn’t the last thing that made me smile but it did make me smile in a way that felt different from the smile I often put on my face. This is not to say that my reflexive smiles are not sincere, they are, but they’re often so automatic I don’t even feel them.
—How are you? (Smile.)
—Fine, how are you (Smile).
See? You don’t even know who is who. Nor do I.
On August 21, 2017, I was standing with a crowd of some 30 strangers on the corner of a city park across from my apartment. We were all wearing our special eclipse glasses, all staring up like time-frozen bug-eyed locusts in varying degrees of wordless wonder while the moon crossed in front of the sun. First the sun became a bright-yellow-crescent-shape that went on slimming until it was nothing but a mirror-image shiny-black disc, flared at the edge. The light around us (I took off my glasses and looked) seemed like a cinematic day-for-night simulation. I smiled, at no one in particular and for no apparent reason except the odd light made me happy: the defamiliarization, the instant newness, the ancient lineage of the experience. Looking back up, glasses on, the crescent had flipped left to right. Later (by seconds? by minutes?), the air was back to being what it had been, a yellow-tinged-lightning-white daylight. The day-in-day-out moon was obviously still in the sky but was nowhere to be seen.
2. A secret.
A game of secrets. Match the following people with the secret quotes that follow: A. Claude McKay; B. Diane Arbus; C. Joseph Conrad; D. Virginia Woolf; E. Sylvia Plath; F. James Joyce.
Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.
A secret! A secret!
You are blue and huge, a traffic policeman,
Holding up one palm—
And suddenly some secret spring’s released,
And unawares a riddle is revealed,
And I can read like large, black-lettered print,
What seemed before a thing forever sealed.
Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
3. The last thing you wrote.
Not the last thing I wrote but the last book I wrote is A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, August 15, 2017). The book takes as its title a loose translation of the German Wurfpuppe [Throw Doll, Throwing Doll, Doll for Throwing] designed by Alma Siedoff-Buscher in the Bauhaus weaving workshop in 1924. All of the poems in the book are responses to Bauhaus photographs, ephemera, and people who were important to the German Bauhaus school and design movement (especially Lucia Moholy and other women who studied and worked there). The school, which had three iterations in three different places, Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin, lasted from 1919 until 1933, at which time it was labeled anti-Nazi, Communist, and ‘cosmopolitan’ by the Nazis and shuttered. The poems also respond to disturbing echoes between 1933 and this moment in the U.S.
4. Favourite city.
My favorite city is Paris and New York. Or New York and Paris. How I say that depends on where I’m standing. I also like Denver, Colorado and Los Angeles, California. And London.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
I would place an Obama campaign button (from the 2008 election) in a time capsule. This because I have two, so I would be willing to part with one for the sake of time and history. And if I were allowed to place more than one thing, I would add an Obama action figure. And a Michelle Obama action figure. And maybe a Freud action figure too. And Zora Neal Hurston and Emily Dickinson finger puppets.*
* “On your finger, she’s a puppet; on your fridge, she’s a magnet! Approx. 4″ tall.”
(ad copy from online The Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild.)
Mary Jo Bang is the author of eight collections of poems and a translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher. Her most recent book, A Doll for Throwing (August, 2017), was listed by Ms. Magazine as one of “6 Poetry and Prose Collections Feminists Should Read This Summer.” She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
Triptych with Missing Limb
a poem from Miriam Borgstrom
“this rhythm of being trampled by elephants
the empty womb is full of empty children”
Do you know what you have? Or don’t? Often times I find myself wondering about how different I would be if I didn’t have what I have, and because of this desire, I like to look for poems that attempt to answer this hypothetical question. ‘Triptych with Missing Limb’ is a poem that nearly knocked the air out of my lungs, made me wish I had come up with such a clever move.
A work in three parts, there’s deliberate moments of domesticity coupled with violence such as “the women come trotting into the oven”. Perhaps the most powerful is the space between lines “we walk towards our shadows / or we break the line” to “the freshly squeezed children”, with that middle stanza empty. A perfect example of the visceral and the visual, ‘Triptych with Missing Limb’ is a promising feat from a young writer.
Visit Cosmonauts Avenue to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
a poem from Anna Sandy
Anna Sandy’s poem ‘Exoskeleton’ is one of those poems you can thoroughly enjoy one way, then tilt it a bit into a different light and enjoy in a new way. The misalignment of maternal and filial connection is the narrative heart of the poem, yet the framing of the narrative, an insectile birth followed by years of awkward and emotionless parenting, can be read as a commentary on the inherent alieness and invasiveness of pregnancy followed by the more-common-than-we’d-like-to-think disillusionment of parenting. It can also be read as a medical indictment of how a traumatic birthing process ruptured the natural and usual bonding of mother and infant. Another, and perhaps my favorite way, is to see the poem as two specific people, a cosmic misfire of personalities where a woman’s capacity for affection and love is too shallow to nourish this child. Any way it’s read, the poem is dark, wonderful and heartbreaking.
Visit Nightjar Review to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
Variable Planes of Motion
a story from Garrett Biggs
“This could be where they meet. Eighth row, left aisle, emergency escape.”
This week I have a story about alternate universes, branching realities, love, nostalgia, and loss that was recently published in The Offing written by Garrett Biggs. Biggs plays with ideas of the fragility of time, the tenuous connection between not only the choices we make, but the unstoppable, unshifting flow of time moving past us, grazing over all the things we can’t know, the world a series of moving parts with their own solar paths.
“Gabe drives in, orders one chocolate milkshake, and somehow in every permutation, Milo takes one look at him, sees he’s ordered chocolate, and deliberately hands him something else.”
In a way this story reminds me of a lot of story-heavy interactive choice games. There’s this feeling of the intangible, the things that are destined to happen no matter what you decide to do. Some things are just more inevitable than others, some thing propagate themselves between each permutation, reluctant to let go, to let entropy take the reins.
“Now, the clouds are starting to wither and the car is burning ozone. He’s about to reach 90 mph, and beside him, there is a mother or a love or a ghost in the passenger seat.”
Visit The Offing to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
The Body of García Lorca
a poem from p.e. garcia
‘The Body of García Lorca,’ by p.e. garcia, reads like an autopsy, a cataloguing of a dead body, as if the poet is standing over the body itself, taking thorough and careful notes that crackle with a magic that pays homage to one of the greatest poets who ever lived.
There’s a sort of restraint, here, a necessary calmness to capture the sorrow, the injustice, the loss of such a figure. The language is perfect for this: “knuckles rounded like the moon” (how can you look at the moon and not think of Lorca; “a forest of teeth riddled with woodcutters and beggars” (Lorca always seemed to be journeying and relaying the tale of a journey).
Garcia is able to intertwine Lorca’s iconic imagery with his very body, un-divorcing the thought (the poetry) from the body, holding both together, paying homage to both, as one.
Visit The Wanderer to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
Procession of Flies
a poem from Nathan Xavier Osorio
I wasn’t expecting to reach a strange and complex view of a relationship in such a short poem, but ‘Procession of Flies’ pleasantly surprised me with its compelling images. We reach lyric strangeness pretty early when the sow’s head begins speaking sans tongue: “a butcher’s fever isn’t for gold, but for the long hours in darkness.” The darkness could be the animal’s body that hasn’t yet been sorted into cuts of meat or the bed in which the butcher sleeps, but either way, I imagined the butcher swallowed. This line implies that even those who make a living off conquering still not only find, but desire a place in which they can surrender. Even the butcher who spends their day destroying bodies still longs for a space where the lack of light reduces everything to one texture, one plane of existence—all blotted out.
The speaker encounters a much different view than the butcher’s: “I fish out the bougainvillea petals from the aqueduct / and let the casinos slip away into daylight.” These fragile petals can only fall apart further, losing their pop of pink when they dry & brown or staining when they’re crushed. They entice most when they’re attached to a branch or floating in the wind—overtaking the landscape instead of being overtaken by the canal. Yet the speaker only reaches them when they’re already lost, weighing down this water. Likewise, the casinos are best lit up, so it’s no surprise that the daylight easily obscures the building that can no longer rely on fluorescents to invite. If we loop back to the title, the “procession of flies” knows that appearance isn’t the only appeal. Rather they’re drawn to the exposed core and the rot left uncovered, clinging onto the last bits of meat with their lives. They save what they can, much like the speaker in this seemingly barren location.
These concepts of decay and loss come together most interestingly in the last lines: “when we see the cassette’s black ribbon… you ask, “‘Baby, do you think I could have been someone?’ / your body tumbling miles down the road.” This sentence construction blends both the past and present, eternally connecting this question with the loss. We lose the you before the answer is even fresh on the speaker’s lips, before the you can believe their life is more than just basic. Yet the whole landscape is stained with their presence.
Visit The Offing to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse