Onward Ruin!

Author of disaster: Mohsin Hamid

For every literary figure who, like the mythic Icarus, flirts with disaster, there exists another who plunges into it with gusto. Daru Shezad, the hero of Mohsin Hamid's sweltering, noirish debut, Moth Smoke, is such a type. Shezad's tale opens in present-day Lahore, Pakistan, where we find him lolling around at a catastrophic nadir, awaiting trial for a murder he may not have committed. At the center of the trial is the flame Shezad circled and dove into like a moth--Mumtaz, the beautiful wife of his closest friend, Ozi. Narrating from his jail cell, Shezad tells us of how he became enraptured of Mumtaz's fire.

Beginning at the trial before tacking backward, Moth Smoke at first resembles a simple confessional narrative. We know Shezad's fate in advance; the intrigue of this story lies in how a man with a solid job and auspicious future could fall into petty thievery. But rather than make this a straightforward tale, Hamid, who grew up in Lahore and now makes his home in New York, divides the story of Shezad's decline among Moth Smoke's players. Thus, while Shezad's edgy, at times annoyingly cocky voice drives this book, we also hear from each of the main characters. Their interjections create a delicious tension in Shezad's narrative: Whose angle do we believe? While Shezad reveals to us Ozi's corrupt, privileged underbelly, it is from Ozi we learn that Ozi's father has bankrolled Shezad's pricey private-school education and secured him a banking job. To hear it from Ozi, Shezad is an ingrate who deserves his fate.

Shezad, however, is bitter that he's had to rely on handouts. When he reunites with his friend at the tale's beginning, Shezad has just lost his job after telling off a powerful client of his bank. Just back from America, Ozi has taken up with Lahore's elite, who wantonly guzzle the city's unstable power supply with their air conditioners as the rest of its denizens bake in the brutal summer heat. To these yuppies and playboys, and Ozi, too, Shezad is not a long-lost friend but just the guy invited to their parties because he brings the drugs. As his unemployment stretches into weeks, Shezad becomes increasingly aware of Lahore's divisions between the poor and the ultra-rich. He is disgusted at his former life, yet he covets its shiny accouterments.

Then enters Mumtaz. As Shezad quickly discovers, there is more to her than the typical Lahore wife. At night she travels the gritty streets of the city, uncovering its seedy side, which she writes about in newspapers under the nom de plume Zulfikar Manto. Soon after meeting Shezad for the first time, Mumtaz discloses her secret identity to him, which thrills him because he, too, is tired of the city's arrogant wealthy. Even though he recognizes her to be trouble, Shezad starts dialing her mobile number. He holds her hand at first gingerly, then boldly, and finds himself returning her soft pecks on the mouth that come at the end of their adventures in the inky Lahore nightlife.

This affair, which culminates on a steamy summer rooftop, is not the beginning or end of Shezad's self-destructive acts. To keep himself afloat, Shezad begins buying in bulk the weed he smokes, with a little bit of heroin as a bonus, then resells it to his former colleagues and party friends. In time he is ridiculed by his former classmates, scolded by his servant, and savagely beaten by the parent of a 17-year-old client. The closer he gets to Mumtaz's flame, the more Shezad begins burning up like the moths who dive-bomb his bedside candles. Framing his decline is Pakistan's frenzied nuclear race with India--an incendiary situation fueled by a staggering disregard for the possible outcome.

As Lahore swoons into its scorching, pre-monsoon season, the city is delirious with its newfound nuclear muscle, and Shezad is obsessed with Mumtaz. What has started as the playful courtship of disaster can now seemingly only be consummated in utter ruin.

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