We met on Monday 4th of November, at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square building, to discuss Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid.
The meeting was the second of our new cycle of gatherings discussing the theme of borders and the text was certainly a good fit. Strange Doors begin to appear across the world, linking cities, countries, and continents. In an unnamed country in the Middle East, riven by civil war, young lovers Sayeed and Nadia must navigate these Doors in order to escape and are catapulted into unfamiliar circumstances.
There was a range of responses from the attendees, with some enjoying the text, while others remained unconvinced. What follows is a round-up of some of the aspects of the novel that we discussed:
It was pointed out that the story focused on the individual narratives of two characters embedded within a larger structural crisis. This was frustrating for some as it meant that the narrative missed out on an examination of the political and systemic nature of the narrative.
Conversely, it was argued that the characters explored complex and nuanced understandings of religion and the veil. Further, the focus on two characters allowed for the immersion of the reader into the system itself, and how individuals reacted and survived within systemic violence and change. The couple’s dissolution, it was pointed out, mirrored the dissolution of borders within the text, allowing an exploration of political questions via analogy.
There was some disagreement as to the generic function of the Doors in the text, which transported characters from one city/country to another.
On the one hand, it was argued that the Doors functioned as novums in the text, as they worked to estrange the reader from the ‘reality’ of border crossing by their difference. The novum of the door, also, completely changes the nature of that reality by its appearance: borders begin to break down, new cities and economies begin to develop etc. The Door was compared with jaunting in The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester, an sf novum in which individuals can teleport from place to place.
On the other hand, the Doors were not explored beyond their function to move people between places. Stewart Hotston’s paper at ‘Productive Futures’ was mentioned, in which Hotston critiqued sf’s tendency to not explore the full material repercussions of particular technologies, especially those of energy and resources (a version of the paper is available on Hotston’s website).
The Doors were a mechanism, not only for compressing space but time also. It was argued convincingly that such a compression elided the trauma of transit; the actual process of crossing borders. Finally it was pointed out that the Doors were not as metaphorical as it might seem, but represented actual established routes of non-legal migration.
We discussed in detail the style and genre of the work. Some placed the novel within the wider speculative fiction category, others within a Fantastika or Fabular mode, but it was generally agreed that it didn’t fit entirely into the classic science fiction genre.
It was felt that the choice of style was a powerful way of exploring individual lives within the Migrant Crisis, but that this necessarily limited the text in terms of its ability to describe the bigger picture and might in fact hide some of the political ramifications of the situation described.
The style was felt by some to be simplistic and not able to convey complex ideas. It was suggested that the sentence and paragraph structures in fact mimicked the Doors, the parataxis of the style connecting and disjoining clauses, characters, and locations.
Someone usefully pointed out that genre itself is often a boundary, and constructed in order to keep some people within and others out. Who or what is allowed to count as sf continues to be a political question.
Strangely for its fabular/magical realism mode, technology was a central concern of the text. The use of smartphones, the control of electrical power and access to the internet, and the ubiquity of surveillance were often foregrounded.
Though the Doors themselves were figured using the fantasy Portal trope, the zones at either end were full of technology, specifically surveillance technology such as drones. We discussed in some detail the scene in which Saeed and Nadia bury a drone that has crashed into their roof. It symbolized the naturalisation of technology within the landscape, the end of the couple’s relationship, and the displaced burial of those they could not bury in the country they fled.
The most prominent piece of new technology invented in the text was the thimble voting device and it was felt that it was particularly underdeveloped. It was presented as a Utopian device for allowing mass democratic participation and did not reflect the potential abuse of such a device by the state or private companies.
We generally felt that there was a leaning toward Utopia at the end of the text; even that the text was leading from the beginning away from conflict toward the potentially Utopian settlement of Marin County, California.
However, again, this was felt to be underdeveloped and merely gestured toward. This was defended to a certain extent, as to extend the novel would be to make it a much longer novel and that Hamid merely wanted to take us on the journey toward Utopia. It could have been expanded either long the lines of an Octavia Butler novel, with violent reaction waiting in the wings to impede the development of Utopia, or a la Kim Stanley Robinson with long tracts on public assembly and direct democracy.
The politics of land and ownership were peculiarly absent for a text critical of colonialism. The refugees of Marin do not think about whose land they acquire for their settlement even though the authorial voice reflects on the dispossession of land the Native Americans by European Settlers.
Towards the end of the session we discussed the representation of race in the novel. There was a criticism of the representation of black characters within the narrative. Early in the text there is scene where a black male character is described using racist tropes and later there is black woman character who is stereotyped as masculine and aggressive.
It was pointed out that the former scene used the language of Heart of Darkness in order to critique colonial fiction and racist tropes. However, this was not felt by all; the line between critique and repetition was not demarcated clearly enough.