Anders waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come, and the hours passed, and he realized that he had been robbed, that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him
Anders lives in a rural town where he works as a trainer and passes time smoking weed and having sex with Oona, a friend from high school who moved home after college to help care for her mother. This town, which read to me like Britain but could easily be in the US (Hamid also uses ambiguity as a universalizing device this way in Exit West), is populated overwhelmingly by white people. That is, until Anders wakes up one morning to discover that he is no longer white, patient zero for a plague that sweeps through society.
The Last White Man belongs to a genre of novels that range from Albert Camus’s The Plague to Jose Saramago’s Blindness where either a real or metaphorical plague sweeps through a community, thus allowing the author to explore the consequences of this change. (Other reviews mention Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but, despite the echoes in Anders’ experience, I found the broader social transition strain that analogy.) Hamid’s version, the plague is a metaphor for immigration that compresses the abstract fears about replacement into a matter of weeks, thus heightening the social tensions.
Other than revealing who, in fact, becomes the titular last white man, there is little plot to explain in this slim novel. The Anders-Oona relationship, for instance, starts as little more than a liaison of convenience and only develops somewhat beyond that. The relationship Anders has with his father and Oona’s with her mother are similarly lightly-handled. Rather, this is a novel about questions the answers to which have far-reaching consequences.
What impressed me about The Last White Man was how Hamid develops two themes related to identity.
First, Hamid uses Anders’ abrupt transition to explore the experience of being a person of color. He is the same person he was on the previous day, but he also no longer recognizes himself. Moreover, his day-to-day experience of the world has become filled with menace from the people around him. Anders changes how he interprets he the actions of the people who look at him and how he thinks about the people who had been living as people of color in town before the transition, not-so-subtly gesturing at the assumptions and social cues that the majority population so frequently takes for granted.
Anders was not sure where his sense of threat was coming from, but it was there, it was strong, and once it was obvious to him that he was a stranger to those he could call by name, he did not try to look in their faces, to let his gaze linger in ways that could be misconstrued.
Second, Hamid explores how racism can work on a social level. The spreading coloration is not the result of foreign influx or migration and yet the perceived threat fueled in part by media claiming that the plague is the result of a conspiracy seeking to undermine the natural order leads to violence that ranges from suicide to the formation of lynch mobs. And yet, Hamid also leaves the reader with a note of optimism. Most people start out unsettled by the changes, but, just as Anders and Oona are able to rediscover one another, so too is the community at large able to rediscover the ties that make them into a functioning society.
I liked The Last White Man a lot, and both the themes and the lyrical prose are in keeping with the other novels of his that I have read. The simplicity of the plot and character relationships allowed the heavier social themes to shine through in a very breezy read. The simplicity placed this book somewhat behind Exit West in my estimation, but the balance put it just ahead of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In sum, The Last White Man is well-worth reading and leaves me interested in reading Hamid’s other two novels.
I just finished reading Angela Saini’s Superior and am now reading both Umberto Eco’s Baudolino and Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews.