"Of Windows and Doors" by Mohsin Hamid Originally published in the November 14, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
I first read Mohsin Hamid when his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. He’s also been the subject of one of our New Yorker posts in the past, when “The Third-Born” was published in 2012, though not one that garnered a lot of discussion (I’m not even sure if I read it). Hopefully we can do better this time around with “Of Windows and Doors”!
Please feel free to comment below. I look forward to reading the discussion!
I still have to catch up with How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
I just read the story, and I’m still digesting it, but I’ll offer a few first thoughts.
We all complain about book excerpts. This was one. Yet I felt satisfied with it. I could tell that more was to come, but I felt that one complete episode had been told. In this way, it was like “Cove”, which I also felt made up a somewhat complete unit. Complete enough to qualify as a good reading experience.
I enjoyed the story and thought that it was well written. Hamid is in control of his prose and uses it chiefly to convey emotion and mood. That seems to be his forte. (I haven’t read anything else by him.) He does it well. Two primary emotions were the trepidation of the two young people about leaving (and about staying) and the suspense of their exit plan. I think both moods were conveyed well, without being extreme. Quick, powerful writing.
I suspect there will be some discussion about the use of “magic doors”. In the Pageturner interview Hamid addresses this aspect. He says something like “I distrust the reality of realism.” A bit precious, to my mind. But his use of doors as metaphorical and literal portals worked for me. I’m willing to grant the writer this degree of invention. To those emigrating from a dangerous country, that exit visa must seem magical.
Finally, this story raises the issue of what fiction has to offer in a real-world situation like this — where people are fleeing Muslim fundamentalism in the country where they were born. This story at first seemed like reportage. In this case, the magic doors function as a marker — they tell us something that prose can’t. Another thing that fiction does is to tell a story in stark plot lines. Still, the best reportage can do this, too. Especially if the reporter is wiling to bend time and space a bit. So I think the question still remains to be answered. One thing Hamid said in response to this question is that fiction can offer imaginative and more optimistic options for the future. I guess I would have to read the novel to see what he is talking a out and whether I find it convincing.
I look forward to reading others’ impressions.
I found this to be quite moving and was captivated by the rhythm of Hamid’s sentences, especially the long ones, each pulling me forward into the next. His prose reminds me of José Saramago’s in that sense. I’m generally not crazy about fiction that is this expository, but there are exceptions for writing this hypnotic.
Kudos for that comment on Hamid’s rhythm, the rhythm of his sentences, pulling us forward. I felt it, but it was so essential to the writing that I didn’t separate it out.
I must say I agree with all the previous comments about this one. I put off reading it for a while because I was not sure about reading another excerpt (William, you liked “Cove” a lot more than I did), but when I did get around to it I was delighted. I am glad to see Roger added mention of the rhythm of the writing because that is the element that I found most captivating about the writing. The musicality of his writing is so strong I found myself starting to reread some of the sentences out loud. There is a lot of emotional power to the writing as well, as William also points out.
I have not previously read Hamid but after I saw the film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist I meant to do so. I also look forward to reading the rest of this book.
In this novel excerpt, windows allow danger, death, inside, while doors lead to new places, new beginnings. The question is how war changes the shy student into a radical willing to kill his own people. And how familiar places, businesses and homes, turn to dust. In other words, what was once realistic and somewhat simple—family, friends, lovers, one’s livelihood—is now complex and, at times, unfathomable.
Hamid takes the waring environment, its reality, and illustrates its effect on day to day living. Senses are on hyper-alert, a state of mind that is hardly the norm; yet it must be. The narrator speaks in paragraph-long, compound sentences, as if he has so much to say he can’t pause between thoughts. His mind and emotions are on overload. And when he’s, at last, removed from such a state, he is profoundly transformed, virtually reborn.
Hamid, like Herman Hesse, creates magic to explain the unexplainable: people and places disappearing from one another’s lives through death, siege, imprisonment or whatever, never to be heard from again. I didn’t feel this piece was intended to portray fantasy but, rather, to illustrate those extreme feelings and occurrences associated with war and the basest, most desperate, side of human nature.
Perceptive s usual. I especially liked this:
I didn’t feel this piece was intended to portray fantasy but, rather, to illustrate those extreme feelings and occurrences associated with war and the basest, most desperate, side of human nature.
Thank you William and Melinda for your extended posts. I have read your comments three times to fully absorb what the author was conveying in this story. You both have added multitudes for me!
I am also very impressed with the style of the piece. The long sentences and description of the characters’ ambivalence are masterful. I had an odd reaction which was I found the story calming, soothing almost despite it obviously dealing with horror and death. I think it must be the style which is so masterful, confident, and poised that I never felt any visceral horror or disgust with the exception of the incident of the blood coming through the ceiling. I appreciate some explanations of the magical realist “doors” which I wasn’t quite sure of but when something is this well-written and intelligent, I’m willing to give a lot of trust to the writer.