Sunday, March 20, 2011

Patrick Mason

Patrick Q. Mason is Research Associate Professor at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Associate Director for Research of an interdisciplinary research initiative entitled Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.

His new book is The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Mason what he was reading. His reply:
The only good thing about flying these days is that, if you are lucky, you can read a good book. Fortunately, before my travel ordeal last week I had picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, a book sufficiently slim to read on most flights. By the end of it, I had an argument with the title—the protagonist, in my view, is more a reluctant nationalist or resistance fighter than a fundamentalist per se—but that was about my only quibble with it.

In the literature on the American Civil War, there has blossomed a cottage industry of titles on the question of why soldiers fought. The same is increasingly true of our post-9/11 setting, as people try to get into the various minds of terrorists, religious extremists, and—dare I include them in the same sentence—American neocons and military personnel.

Hamid’s book meets the mark of excellent fiction. It features engaging and realistic characters in a complex but accessible world presented by captivating (and often captivatingly simple) prose. It builds steadily, and subtly, to a genuinely suspenseful ending. The narrative is touchingly humane, far less about politics than about an authentic, human, and tragic love story. But it also wrestles, as intelligently and incisively as almost anything I’ve read, with the question of—to use President Bush’s formulation—“why they hate us.”

The root of the conflict between East and West, Hamid suggests, is not poverty but privilege—indeed, the excessive privilege (and perhaps the even more inflated sense of privilege and entitlement) associated especially with modern America, and the arrogance with which it is projected upon the rest of the world. Hamid’s reluctant fundamentalist (again, it’s the wrong word) is not really disenchanted not with the wealth he is accumulating in an elite New York financial firm after graduating at the top of his class at Princeton. Rather, upon witnessing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on TV and the subsequent American response in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he realizes he is not his own man, and that the privilege he has both earned and been granted is ultimately irrelevant and powerless in relation to the ties that bind.

We can argue about the “typicality” of Hamid’s protagonist compared to the actual conflict. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist succeeds because it is a profoundly human novel. And if we have learned nothing else over the past ten years, it is that we are in desperate need of more humanity in this world.
Learn more about The Mormon Menace at the Oxford University Press website and visit Patrick Q. Mason's faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: The Mormon Menace.

--Marshal Zeringue