The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This summer, new students at Goucher College will read Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a psychological thriller that puts a new and interesting spin on culture, success, and loyalty in the post-9/11 world. The book is Goucher's 2014 summer reading assignment for first-year and transfer students.

Selected based on suggestions from the campus community, The Reluctant Fundamentalist will spark discussion among new students, staff, and faculty during Goucher's fall orientation session. This summer, incoming students will receive a copy of the book and study guide questions to foster group conversation during a daylong discussion that will be held on Sunday, August 24. Hamid will also present a free public reading that day at 7:30 p.m. in the Hyman Forum of the Athenaeum.

Written as a single, sustained monolog, the novel is set in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At a café table in Lahore, Pakistan, Changez, a bearded Pakistani man, sparks a conversation with a suspicious, and possibly armed, American stranger.

Changez had been living an immigrant's dream of life in America. He arrived in the United States as a student of Princeton University, where he studied business and graduated with high honors. He was quickly recruited by an elite firm that specializes in the "valuation" of companies ripe for acquisition.

For a time, it seemed as if nothing would stand in the way of Changez's meteoric rise to personal and professional success. All of this changed in the wake of September 11. He was on a work assignment in the Philippines when the World Trade Center was attacked. Although pleased at first to see America "brought to her knees," Changez grew concerned for the victims, and his position in his adopted city was suddenly overturned.

Upon flying back to New York he found life there markedly different - beginning when he was strip-searched at the airport and treated as a foreigner, despite having lived in the city for years. This is the turning point of the novel, from which Changez began to feel uncomfortable in the United States and started his revolt against his company and its capitalist values.

Changez's identity undergoes a seismic shift, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and perhaps even love.

Hamid's novel, his second, became an international bestseller. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Decibel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and it went on to win the South Bank Show Award for Literature. 

Discussion Questions

  1. At the beginning of the book, Changez says his companion's "bearing" gives him away as an American. What does Changez mean by this? What are his deeper implications?

  2. Who is Jim, and why does he take such a liking to Changez? What do they have in common? Is his sympathy for Changez genuine?

  3. In Chile, Changez befriends the head of the publishing company his firm is there to value. Why are the two men drawn to each other? Why has Changez suddenly become so disinterested in his work? Who were the janissaries? Why does their history resonate so strongly with Changez?

  4. Discuss the two meanings of "fundamentalist" Hamid's title plays on - the first religious, the second suggested by Underwood Samson's business commitment to "focus on the fundamentals." What do the different meanings suggest about the novel's themes?

  5. Since 9/11, there has been a growing trend in contemporary fiction to write about the tragedy of that day and its aftermath. Compare The Reluctant Fundamentalist with some other "9/11 novels" you have read. What sets it apart or makes it unique?

    (Questions issued by Houghton Mufflin Harcourt.)