In looking over recent blog posts, it seems like there are a lot of people arguing about the broader messages of Exit West and ideas it brings up. In fact, by my count there are at least 17 posts in the last few weeks who’s title includes some form of the word “other,” a word that, somewhat amusingly, appears in the actual book only 5 times. In light of this, I think it might be worthwhile to examine the book on it’s own merits — independent of broader societal or social ideas that might contextualize it. The question I intend to tackle is this; as a work of art, as a piece of fiction, is Exit West “good?”
As a prerequisite to tackling this question, I must establish a criteria by which to measure the novel’s “goodness.” While there are certainly a variety of ways to conduct such a measurement, I will use Nabokov’s standard for a good writer laid out in Good Readers and Good Writers for two reasons. First, it is a standard with which I personally agree and already has substantial arguments in its favor laid out by Nabokov in the actual essay. Second, it is the standard we established in class at the beginning of the year. The rest of this post will focus entirely on my interpretation of Nabokov’s standards and weather or not Exit West aligns with them; if you disagree with those a-priori standards then I suggest you stop reading now.
So, what does Nabokov demand of a good writer? For clarity’s sake, I will follow the chronological order of Nabokov’s work in outlining each standard. The first such standard for good writing appears at the beginning of the 4th paragraph of Nabokov’s essay but is most poetically summarized near the end of that paragraph; “The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts.” Nabokov is arguing that a good writer does not simply take the world as it exists and modify it or mold it to illustrate a point; a good writer, through the artistic process, completely reconceptualizes the meaning of the universe and uses the novel as a lens to provide insight into that new world.
So, where does Exit West fall in all of this? Well, the most notable “recombination” in the world of the novel — one which generally mirrors ours — is the inclusion of doors between different parts of the world. And what is the relevance of these doors from a literary perspective? Hamid answers this question directly during a book talk in 2017, explaining how “the doors in a way allowed me to focus on the sorrow of the departure and also the radical change that happens in a new place, while not having to spend so much time on how we get from place to place. Because so often we think of migrants and we think of refugees and we think how did they cross the Rio Grande…so different from me” (13:50). This is a tacit if not explicit admissions that the doors as a world-building tool serve a particular message based purpose. They allow Hamid to focus less on some details of our reality and more on others in service of making a particular political point about the world around us. This goes directly against the Nabokovian ethos of creating a new world, because Nabokov’s conception of writing is one of pure art — an expression of aesthetic mastery that might have political implications but transcends them in particularity. Hamid’s message, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of “ornamentation of the commonplace” Nabokov describes — a tool to serve a purpose.
In paragraph 9 of his essay, Nabokov brings up another trait of food writing: the ability to evoke an order of imagination deeper then the reader simply “relating” to a character or feeling a connection to one. Nabokov contrasts this lower level of imagination with a model of “impersonal imagination and artistic delight” where the reader maintains a level of “aloofness” and enjoys the “inner weave” of a masterpiece. While there are many respectable things about Hamid’s literary skill and “inner weave” in Exit West, any interpretation that is faithful to the true construction of the novel — explicitly outlined by the author — must utilize the first, lower order of imagination. Hamid does not attempt to hide that this is a novel about migration, explicitly saying this in countless interviews and going to great lengths throughout the novel to demonstrate it (I won’t go much further into examples in the novel here but suffice it to say the name of the novel alone is a strong indication). The ability to understand migration in a different way, to, as a non-migrant reader, attempt to understand migration at all is inherently an empathetic one because only through empathy can the experience provide political impetus. Put another way, ask yourself this; would the message of the novel be nearly as meaningful if you weren’t able to “see the world” through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Would the book be so impactful in uprooting common western notions of migrants if you couldn’t see the world through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Can you even coherently read the novel without seeing the world through Nadia and/or Saeed’s eyes? Hamid’s explicit political message forces the reader to use an empathetic level of imagination that falls exactly into the literary pattern Nabokov critiques.
Though distinct, both the points I made above draw from a common well: because Hamid’s message is trying to serve a political point, it undermines the work as an independent artistic endeavor. This is not to say that works that make a political point are all necessarily bad. Indeed, as the son of migrants, I happen to agree with the political point Hamid is making and think he makes this point effectively and eloquently. Many people enjoy fiction with a political message, and feel it helps them better understand the world. And even Charles Dickens himself, one of the author’s cited by Nabokov in his essay, was a strong believer in ethical and political fiction, using his works to draw attention to some of the social and economic problems of British urban life. But in Nabokov’s view, the effectiveness and eloquence of the political message behind a novel is distinct from the “goodness” of the work artistically, as demonstrated by the boy who cried wolf example he gives near the end of his essay. Nabokov reasons that the lesson of the boy who cried wolf story — the fact that the boy was eaten — is “quite incidental.” Instead, this is what he says is important: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” Hamid’s novel, while effective in making a point about migration, is an embrace of the “moral,” the “lesson” of the story, be it about migration literally or other concepts that interact with it, like, as many of my classmates have observed, western notions of “the other.” And as Nabokov points out, this comes at the cost of the novel as a work of art.