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Mohsin Hamid tells the tale of ‘The Last White Man’

His new novella recounts how lives are changed when white people inexplicably turn dark-skinned.
Mohsin Hamid's new novella is "The Last White Man."
Mohsin Hamid's new novella is "The Last White Man." [ JILLIAN EDELSTEIN | CAMERA PRESS/Jillian Edelstein ]
Published Aug. 4

Anders is one of the first to change.

A young white man, he wakes one morning to find he “had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” He’s baffled, at first struck with fear that some other person is in bed with him, then imagines it’s a trick of the light or a remnant dream.

But when he grabs his phone and reverses the camera, he sees that he is indeed dark-skinned, his features altered. The bathroom mirror shows him a reflection he doesn’t recognize, and his phone confirms it when he places a selfie in a digital album and “the algorithm that had, in the past, so unfailingly suggested his name, so sure, so reliable, could not identify him.”

Anders is the main character in Mohsin Hamid’s sleek, surreal new novella, “The Last White Man.” Hamid, who was born in Pakistan and has lived for much of his life in the U.S. and U.K., has collected a long list of literary awards and nominations for his four previous novels, most recently “Exit West.”

“The Last White Man” might evoke other transformation stories, from Franz Kafka’s iconic novella “The Metamorphosis” to John Howard Griffin’s nonfiction bestseller “Black Like Me.” It also echoes “Recitatif,” the recently published short story by Toni Morrison, who was one of Hamid’s teachers at Princeton. But Hamid takes this allegory down its own path.

Related: Read a review of Toni Morrison's "Recitatif."

Set in the present day in an unnamed American town, “The Last White Man” traces the impact of major change on the lives of individuals.

Anders’ first reaction to his new skin is to hide, to call in sick to work and to avoid his father and his girlfriend, Oona. But as news begins to trickle in that he is not the only person this has happened to, he feels some comfort. All around the country, it seems, white people are turning dark. No one knows why, no one knows how, no one knows who will be next.

At first their numbers are small enough that their transition is a curiosity, although inevitably it evokes racist responses. Anders has a job in a “black iron gym,” a place for serious lifters whose approach to the weights seems more a way to blow out rage than to exercise. He calls his boss to explain what has happened and returns to work, but only after “his boss looked him over and said, ‘I would have killed myself.’”

Anders and Oona were high school friends a few years back. They’ve reconnected in a casual relationship, both of them in mourning for a parent. Oona also lost her twin brother to an overdose and is caring for her ailing mother, and Anders’ stoic father is dying of cancer, so their bond is more a source of comfort than a hot romance.

Oona works as a yoga instructor and is usually a calm and open person. But she is disoriented by Anders’ change and at first “had to will herself to see Anders” in the newly brown man. But their relationship survives and evolves; soon enough she does see him, whatever his color.

Oona’s mother is another matter. Immersed in internet conspiracy theories and talk radio, she’s fearful about the news: “People are changing ... our people.” She’s frightened by the world outside her door in general, telling her daughter, “You’re so beautiful. ... You should get a gun.”

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That world is in turmoil as more and more white people wake up brown. There is talk of cures and reversals that come to nothing. People shelter at home in an eerie echo of the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, rarely venturing out onto the deserted streets.

Riots arise, and “pale-skinned militants” appear in armed gangs. There are rumors that they are running people out of town and even that they leave dark-skinned bodies in the woods.

Anders isn’t surprised when three of them show up at his house, but “he was not expecting one of the three men who came for him to be a man he knew, a man he was acquainted with, it made it much worse, more intimate, like being shushed as you were strangled....” He isn’t harmed, but he’s frightened enough to take refuge at his father’s house.

Violence and disruption continue as more and more of the population becomes dark, but Hamid keeps the volume turned down on the wider world as he focuses on his main characters, Oona and her mother, Anders and his father.

The novella’s style is restrained and cool despite its volatile subject matter, and its plot deals more with subtle changes in its characters’ emotions than with angry outbursts of racism.

What does hatred of the other become, this haunting story asks, when we ourselves become the other?

The Last White Man

By Mohsin Hamid

Riverhead Books, 192 pages, $26

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