I’m in the middle (near the middle of) Thomas Pynchon’s gargantuan Against the Day. Much like when I read Infinite Jest, the novel is so long and complex that I must make myself take breaks from reading it; as it is simply exhausting. Enter another similarity: while reading Infinite Jest I also completed in one day a brilliant book by Shusaku Endo entitled Silence. Now, while reading Against the Day, I have completed in a day an impactful novel by Mohsin Hamid, his first: Moth Smoke. This being my second go-around with Hamid’s fiction, I knew, roughly, what to expect from the book.
Moth Smoke is the story of Daru Shezad, a former PhD student turned banker who loses his job and turns to selling drugs to make ends meet. Simultaneously, his childhood best friend Ozi returns to Lahore from America with a beautiful wife named Mumtaz. Mumtaz and Daru immediately have a connection of spirit and begin an affair. This all connects to the title of the book, which is summed up in a breathtaking passage near the halfway mark of the story:
When I get home I find Manucci staring at a candle on the mantelpiece for no apparent reason.
I walk over to him, my shadow dancing on a different wall from his.
“What is it?” I ask him.
“A moth in love, saab,” Manucci says.
Sometimes I don’t understand what he’s talking about. But I do see a moth circling above our heads.
“The poets say some moths will do anything out of love for a flame.”
The moth takes off again, and we both step back, because he’s circling at eye level now and seems to have lost rudder control, smacking into the wall on each round. He circles lower and lower, spinning around the candle in tighter revolutions, like a soap sud over an open drain. A few times he seems to touch the flame, but dances off unhurt.
Then he ignites like a ball of hair, curling into an oily puff of fumes with a hiss. The candle flame flickers and dims for a moment, then burns as bright as before.
Moth smoke lingers.
Mohsin Hamid, Moth Smoke
The novel is a deep examination of the chaos of the human soul, both it’s ability to care and it’s capacity to destroy. Hamid avoids the pitfalls some stories take that turn them into soap operas; namely, the cliches of marrying the wrong person and the friend or person that’s an outsider to the marriage or relationship knowing exactly how to fix everything. At times this book is unsettling due to its tendency to show a reader how life can spiral out of control. Upon finishing the book I felt shaken. At moments early in the story you find yourself awaiting the “turn” of the story: that moment in which something will go wrong and drive the remainder of the book. It could be argued that there is a very real moment of turning, but I don’t believe the book predicates upon it. Instead, as you await this moment, it never arrives; but then you look up and realize that everything is in shambles and you do not know if anything can be salvaged. This is the cause of the distressing feeling at the end of the book. As we go through life we automatically examine everything as if it is on a timeline. Past, present, future. As such, we take upon ourselves a truly western way of understanding everything, namely pure cause and effect. Thus, when we encounter an uneasy situation we attribute a cause to it: the effect. In fact we’re so caught up in cause and effect that we put it within itself. That caused this, but if I had done that instead of that then that would have happened and I wouldn’t be dealing with this, etc.
That is perhaps what I will be taking most from Moth Smoke. Daru becomes so fixated upon “this” and “that” that he never bothers to take the situation as is and examine what is happening now. He does not accept the present.
There is quite a bit to learn from each character’s part in the story. Hamid is as talented as writers can be when it comes to creating characters that are not only interesting but also novel-driving. Much like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, there is not a single throw-away character. Mumtaz, Ozi, and Daru all are flawed in different ways. All living in a fantasy world in their own lives.
I very much enjoy Mohsin Hamid’s work and I will surely be reading his newest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. However and honest question I must ask about his work is whether or not his endings are inherently flawed. Both Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist end suddenly and on a cliffhanger. In the end you don’t know what happens. You can only speculate. It’s almost random compared to the rest of the novel, where he seems to inform you, the reader, of everything over time. Even if you don’t know something, you will know it later. He’s surely influenced by Vonnegut, as his tendency to jump time periods really bounced off the pages in both his novels. So in a way it makes even less sense that his novels end without informing his reader of just what happened. I’m very much on the fence about such endings.
Regardless, Moth Smoke was fantastic and Mohsin Hamid needs to be on your bookshelf.
Recommended to: It is difficult to think of a person who I would not recommend this novel to. It’s an easy, compulsive read that joggles emotional responses out of you.
Avoid as if it were taking David Wright on your fantasy baseball team because he keeps getting hurt God-you’re-killing-me-David (there’s a fantastic religious joke in there): Those who don’t want to read something potentially disturbing, and those who need their novels tied up in a ribbon.