Ayad Akhtar's debut novel, which charts a Pakistani family's struggle to integrate in the American Midwest, is flawed and occasionally trite, but provides some insight into the immigrant experience.
American Dervish: broad narrative strokes charmingly wielded
Hayat Shah, the hero of Ayad Akhtar's much-praised first novel American Dervish, is the child of Pakistani immigrants to the Midwestern state of Wisconsin. At home, his parents are unhappily married, his mother homesick for Lahore and his father just as passionately attached to his life in America. These secular poles of what might be generically described as "the immigrant experience" are given a spiritual dimension with the arrival of Mina, a family friend who encourages Hayat to study the Quran, prompting not only a renewed interest in Islam but also a fervent adolescent crush. When Mina falls for a Jewish friend of the family, it's hardly a grand love affair, but its melodramatic consequences allow Akhtar to sketch a small-scale history of Islamic anti-Semitism. If it all sounds a little schematic - well, it is. Akhtar is also a screenwriter, and he favours the broad brushstrokes of film and TV: all love interests must be strikingly beautiful, all leaders demagogues, all housewives harassed and unhappy.
American Dervish has already been exceptionally successful. In the US, Little, Brown and Company apparently paid a six-figure sum for it, and it has been well-received by critics. At its best, it is claustrophobically domestic, taking place in cramped living rooms, kitchens and back gardens. If the specificity of Milwaukee - its particular history and geography - is barely rendered, it is because the American Midwest has become the blueprint for a featureless anywhere, globally reproducible as suburban housing sprawl or low-end shopping malls. Life has retreated indoors, to identikit living rooms. This is the flip side of the egalitarian American dream: it could be you, but you could be anyone. Of a trip to watch Independence Day fireworks, Akhtar writes, with studied banality: "We were sitting in folded chairs at the edge of the local high school football field, one of the few points of local elevation, and thus a privileged perch from which to watch the municipal fireworks. We came every year with our Tupperware containers filled with Pakistani food and lassi ..." Participating in events like this, the family strive to neutralise their otherness, not noticing that it's already being eroded by the sheer banal force of the accoutrements of suburban life: the Tupperware, the folding chairs, the tame fireworks.
Similarly, a visit to the local mosque is nicely evoked: " ... the Mollaskey Schoolhouse stood four storeys tall, a solid stone-and-brick block of a building complete with rounded towers and conical roofs. It looked more like a fort than a mosque. Overlooking the southbound highway, its Romanesque Revival facade (complete with Gothic gables) was dark with years of exhaust from passing cars." The bad-taste architecture, its absurd mix of styles and periods signalling a failed attempt at grandeur, is only given an extra layer of bathos by the presence of the mosque. The elaborate building unglamorously situated beside a motorway and the worshippers who visit it share a defiance of the civic dream that everyone and everything simply blend in or harmonise. And yet, the landscape is against them; this part of the world, Akhtar's novel suggests, blends everything into the indeterminate grey of its skies.
What do non-Muslim Americans think of when they think of Muslims? If you weren't sure, American Dervish gives some idea: the populous plot features wives hiding the scars of domestic violence under burkas; hard-working but avaricious businessmen from the subcontinent; young men channelling their fervour into fantasies of terrorism; lapsed members of the faith secretly addicted to alcohol and adultery; imams given to anti-Semitic rants ... For all that people like this exist in reality, as a cast of characters they give off the stale odour of stereotype. And yet they are the creation of a first generation Pakistani-American who himself grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The air of near-parody might not just be because the writing is at times routine and flaccid; it's also because, as the cliché about clichés goes, they're only clichés because they're true. Accurately lampooning one's own community is not necessarily a form of treachery, or, if it is, it is one that writers are permitted. Think of novelists like Philip Roth, of whose Portnoy's Complaint this book occasionally reads like a faint and fearful imitation. You can't exactly say that Akhtar is any less savage or angry than Roth - the book is full of intentional provocation - but rage directed against caricatures is already a little blunted; its object doesn't seem quite worthy of the effort.
The story gathers force and momentum as the characters collapse into various forms of unhappiness, leaving only the narrator, Hayat, to look forward to a life of assimilated American bliss. As for poor Mina, Akhtar throws a soap-operatic quantity of misfortune at her. Despite her burden of perfections, Mina remains sympathetic, and Akhtar knows how to pre-empt and manage the reader's exasperation with her martyrdom.
Visiting her in hospital, Hayat accuses her of failing to live up to the imperative of survival: "Humiliation, I told her, was not a vehicle to anything but senseless injury. To say otherwise was to let a world filled with pain go its own way, unchecked, unredeemed." But Mina has the last word, with a Sufi teaching: " ... everything, everything, is an expression of Allah's will".
If Akhtar intended American Dervish to be an ambassador in the notoriously vexed relationship between Islam and America, we can cautiously greet the book as a success. It gives accessible insights into many aspects of Islam that might not be familiar to a non-Muslim audience, mainly through conversations between Mina and Hayat. Mina is the vehicle for lines like, "Surah. It's what we call a chapter in the Quran. A surah."
The real audience for this remedial approach, with its prissy italicisations, is a presumed readership whose main encounters with Islam are through the distortions of the US news media. It is this unspoken context that makes American Dervish more than the sum of its parts and partly explains its status as a publishing sensation. Yet the novel is set in the 1980s, before events around the turn of the century - 9/11, the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Second Intifada and so on - racked up tensions to their present pitch. The retro setting might be a decision born of a desire to avoid recycling worn-out "clash of civilisations" rhetoric, or it might speak of a certain degree of cowardice. But the most likely reason is simply that Akhtar was born in 1970 and this is the era of his own adolescence.
Hayat's efforts to become a hafiz (someone who has completely memorised the Quran) give Akhtar the excuse, which he clearly relishes, to include passages from the Quran. The book's denouement, when it turns out that these English translations might not be as reliable as Hayat believed, has a clever retroactive effect on these excerpts, suggesting that Akhtar is not as convinced as some of his characters that the chimera of assimilation can be made real.
Hayat is halfway between insider and outsider, as his religious upbringing has been ambivalent and half-hearted. His failure to fully occupy either available identity, Pakistani or American, will be deeply familiar to many children of immigrants. But Hayat also triangulates an uncertainty that Akhtar seems to have left unresolved, about who the book is for exactly. Brave attempts to tackle big questions about Islam are not so brave if they are intended for an audience of sceptical outsiders. On the other hand, facts about Pakistani food and Islamic prayer will make little impression on those for whom they are mundane rather than exotic.
Akhtar's efforts to make his Pakistani characters legible to a presumed audience of outsiders renders them a little clunky, as if they existed mainly to convey a message of ordinariness: look, we're people, just like you. But the trouble with insisting that one person is much like another is that it detracts from one of fiction's possible justifications, which is that it illuminates not just what is similar but what is different in others. What we have in common with others is that they are, like us, singular: this is the weak paradox that makes fiction an even vaguely worthwhile enterprise.
Akhtar is not alone in fumbling this particular pass - this kind of faux-literature is endemic now, encouraged by publishers who believe it to be marketable. It mixes palatably soft-focus prose with a light sprinkling of intellectual kudos. It has neither the honesty of what used to be disparaged as "chick-lit", which had no pretensions to do anything other than pander to silly dreams, nor the rigour (or the humour) of serious literature.
This new form dabbles in ideas without ever getting its brains dirty with them. It is like Hayat's mother, a former student of psychology who makes frequent reference to Freud without apparently having understood anything of his work. The failures of this book - flawed, occasionally trite, but nevertheless heartfelt and even brave - are the generic failures of the mainstream literary novel. Some of the characters in American Dervish abandon religion because it seems to mitigate against truth; Akhtar might do well to reflect on the degree to which the same applies to mainstream fiction.
Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.