Mohsin Hamid: “The Third Born” from The New Yorker, 9/24/12

New Yorker Art: Martin Roemers/Anastasia/Panos

New Yorker Art: Martin Roemers/Anastasia/Panos

One cold, dewy morning, you are huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since, wealth-obsessed though you will come to be, you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

Insert my usual rant about the first chapters of novels-in-progress not being short stories. If you read this (and it’s available online), expect an introduction, a series of scenes as exposition to (presumably) the story of the little boy growing into his promised wealth-obsessed adulthood.

But it’s still very much worth reading. There’s some great stuff here.

The family itself is wonderfully drawn. Father is a cook (“a craft of spice and oil”) , travelling to work in the city and coming home only sporadically. He isn’t disconnected from his own days as a son: “His own father derived considerable pleasure from the daily progress of crops in the fields, and in this, at least insofar as agriculture is analogous to the development of children, the two men are similar…. He sees the labor by which a farmer exchanges his allocation of time in this world for an allocation of time in this world. Here, in the heady bouquet of nature’s pantry, your father sniffs mortality.” Mom is likewise connected to the older generation, shown in vivid detail as she sweeps under the gaze of her mother-in-law: “Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger woman to age; the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.”

What struck me about this family, in which the second-person protagonist (sorry; hey, try it, it’s not so bad, once you stop complaining about it, this second-person thing) is the Third Born of the title, is the transition of the family within itself and within the community, and the boy’s role in both. It’s a story (well, the chapter) of a clan becoming a family as they move from farm to city. I’m a little hazy on notions of tribalism and clans; I know the terms, vaguely, from long-ago Sociology 101 courses, but they’re still not something I actually understand. This story (chapter) brings me a little closer. In his fascinating Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon, Hamid discusses the difference in terms of his own writing style:

Nuclear families are easier to write, at least for me. They have fewer moving parts. But the clan is important. It’s vital to understanding the world. The problem is that I gravitate toward compression. Slender books.…[C]lan-writing can become essayistic. But I think there are ways to re-appropriate essayistic writing in fiction. Certainly I’m trying to figure out ways to do so. Tell, don’t show. Sometimes.

I see this change, as the family moves to the city, as a move (with the attendant turmoil any move entails) towards modernity; it’s a key element of the chapter (I’m not sure if it’s part of the (uncompleted) book as well). But it does strike me, having read the interview, as “essayistic.” I feel like I’ve learned a lot after reading this selection, rather than I’ve connected with a character. And I feel like I’m fine with that, since it’s very interesting learning; I think I agree with Hamid that understanding the clan is “vital to understanding the world.” For someone more globally sophisticated than I, someone who doesn’t need this basic education, it might be less interesting. And for someone looking for a gripping story with a satisfying ending – sorry.

That’s the keyword for this story (chapter): interesting.

I’m interested in the role of birth order:

Yet you are fortunate. Fortunate in being third-born.

There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like your parents’ fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree….

Third means your success is decoupling from that of your kin.

I’m also interested in the writing choices Hamid has made: like using second person (“I found it pretty liberating as a form: you can move from a hyper-intimate first-person-like perspective to a cosmically removed third-person-like one very easily”). That sounds like something for Zin’s Second Person Study (I’ll have to include this story therein) – second person allows shifts in intimacy, the intimacy between the character and the reader, and between the character and other characters. I’m not sure this story (chapter) needed to be in second person, but I’m fully behind the idea that the author needed to write it in second person. The effect, for me, is that the “you” character seems closer to me than to his family. Which isn’t to say I feel close to him; not really. I feel a solitude from him, that he’s all alone in the universe, and I just happen to be looking through a peephole at him, following everything from his perspective, but still at a distance.

But Hamid made another choice: to obscure details of setting. No characters are named, which is not that unusual, but usually makes a statement about anomie or interchangeability. Here, his purpose is somewhat different:

I wanted to use Pakistan as a template, but not be bound by it. Not having any names in the novel, except for continent names, was a way for me to de-exoticize the context, to see it fresh. You have to think differently when there’s religion but no words “Islam” or “Christianity,” food but no Afghani tikka or Wiener schnitzel, beloveds but no Laila or Juliet. I wanted to find my way to something universal, and since I work with words, I tried to teach myself through selective abstinence.

Now you have to admit, that’s – dare I say it – interesting. I’d envisioned North Africa (I’m confused about betel nuts; I need to get that straight), but sure, I can see Pakistan. What I love, though, is the concept.

Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.

3 responses to “Mohsin Hamid: “The Third Born” from The New Yorker, 9/24/12

  1. Pingback: Project Runway Season 10 Episode 13: Finale, Part I | A Just Recompense

  2. I had no idea that this was an excerpt, though it makes perfect sense now that you mention it, especially given the foreshadowing in the first paragraph. And yet, stuff like this feels a lot more realistic than the prose of, say “The White Tiger” and I think I might enjoy it better as a shorter piece, with the idea that although this boy may have opportunities to grow thanks to his unique position in the family (I also loved that description of what the “third-born” means), he’ll just as easily be snuffed out, and we’ll never really know. Either way, life goes on, as it must.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.