Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Andrew Sean Greer’s Less
This is an odd pairing, to be sure, but I read these two books, both highly-acclaimed, one after the other and could not help but notice some similarities.
In Exit West, the protagonists, Nadia and Said, are forced to flee their unnamed and increasingly dangerous and war-torn city, perhaps Damascus or Kabul or Mosul. They find “doors” that transport them through the magic of metaphor to London where they begin new lives as refugees. Later, the doors will take them to Marin County just north of San Francisco.
Less is the story of Arthur Less, a “bad gay” and a “bad writer” who is also fleeing, and sets out on a round-the-world trip to escape his fiftieth birthday, which will not only mark his passage into late middle life but also his failures, particularly his ex-lover Freddy’s marriage to a younger man.
Nadia, Said and Less are escapees, refugees, looking for something better, figuring out how to build new lives, desperate to understand what matters most. Here, the similarities end. Greer’s novel is humorous and Less is a bumbler. Hamid’s novel is taut, intense, re-creating the conditions under which migrants seek refuge, seek asylum in countries far from their own. Nadia and Said who begin as a young couple sharing a new and slowly deepening love, a loyalty to each other that gets them through the violence in the streets, through the doors, through the hard work of survival as refugees in unwelcoming cities. With time and hardships, differences in their beliefs, their characters and outlooks emerge, putting distance between them. Eventually, the magic doors once open to them, once carrying them along, slam shut. In the final pages, the two, now separated in later life, come back together for a cup of tea in their home city.
Less is not transported by doors from Italy to Germany to Morocco to India to Japan, but rather by stumbling through airports trying to keep track of where he is, where he is going and chanting “passport, wallet, phone.” He also stumbles through his memories of Freddie, slowly coming to understand that he should not have let his true love walk out. Why hadn’t he asked him to stay? Near the end of his migration, he encounters a door in a Japanese restaurant, a four-hundred-year-old sliding door made of paper that becomes hopelessly stuck, trapping the hapless writer in a room where he is meant to sample the mugwort and later write about it as a food critic. Less is trapped by the stubborn door and must break the paper wall of the room. Break free of his his feckless, drifting self. He flies home to San Francisco where he will re-join Freddy, who has forsaken his new husband.