The New Yorker Reader: A Spoiled Man, by Daniyal Mueenuddin

by |
09/11/2008 12:33 PM |

You kids all tucked in? Ok, heeere we go.

You know what I’d like to read, for once? A story about class difference transcended.

I don’t mean to say that this isn’t a good story — I rather think it is, I know more about the, I guess, stuff of life in Pakistan than I did before reading, which as I’ve discussed here before is something I find important in understanding how the not-mes of the world live — but it’s just so inevitable, innit? An itinerant elderly Pakistani man (his home is mobile: he picks it up and moves it when he changes jobs, so that even the continuous aspect of his life is literally rootless), who gives us a glimpse into the everyday of liveable poverty and socialization, brushes up against the hierarchy of the rich, Westernized (in terms of customs and, in fact, a tycoon’s American wife) and powerful; the nobly obsequious career servant and the younger, hungrier servants who see him as their ultimate goal. So this guy, who’s lived hand-to-mouth his whole life, gets a taste of something more, and flies too near the sun, and comes to understand the innate brutality of the power that props up the country’s wealthy. (Just as we understand the vague, self-serving good intentions of the wealthy West: Mueenuddin goes out of his way to establish that he’s not condescending to the wealthy American wife — “She did fit in more than most foreign women” — for the sole purpose, it seems, of giving himself license to condescend to her later on: “Sonya musing by the fire on… having done a little bit for the good.” [The last phrase echoes an earlier one.] We get it: she doesn’t, can’t, get it.)

This is all well and good, and probably more true than I could in all likelihood ever know. But doesn’t it seem as if all stories like these (there are so many) amount, eventually, to an agonized hand-wringing session? We get it by now — at least I think/hope we do, and by “we” I probably hope to include more people than I think I can, so… But still. There’s an obvious social value in pointing out the inherent troubles of the lives of others (and an obvious artistic tradition, too: aspirations meeting social reality is an ageless narrative device, and money, how it changes everything and nothing, is an ageless literary subject), but what about the social value of a narrative of differences reconciled, of change effected? I’m honestly not even sure what such a story would look like — although uncertainty over how an aspect of the world works, or could work, is exactly the kind of question that good fiction might answer, and currently doesn’t, too much. It wouldn’t just be a matter of the same story with a happy ending — that’s some Horatio Alger bullshit — but it would be instructive (dialectic, didactic) in the same way that stories about the fact(s) of poverty in the developing world are. So…