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Osman Shah thinks he knows what he’s doing when he tells his coworkers a joke with his own race as the punchline. It is 2018, and AAP, an educational-tech company, is holding its annual meeting in Montreal. As a group of attendees relaxes in the hotel lobby, Osman, who has a vague role in sales, describes being patted down by airport security.
“I don’t blame them,” he says good-humouredly, noting how tense he is whenever he goes through the line. “I’d pat me down too.” He then gestures to his face and, by implication, to the colour of his skin. “Then there’s the whole ‘this’ thing.” Osman is not after much: his tired gag promises to unsettle his listeners and trigger awkward titters from those brave enough to laugh with him. “Anyone who takes pleasure in rendering even brief power from goodwill and fear is shit,” he later reflects, but without much else to enjoy, he will settle for leverage over the colleagues he despises.
One person is listening carefully. Olivia Robinson has her eyes set on the top job at AAP, which provides universities with online courses as profitable as they are ineffective. A white executive who has mastered the “shallow dips into shame and corporate self-interrogation” required by faux-progressive politics, she presents herself as a champion of diversity, tirelessly working to overcome her own cultural ignorance. Osman becomes her unwitting pawn. At the next day’s conference session, Olivia incorporates his anecdote into her own grand “enlightenment narrative” and forces him to accept her feigned apology in front of the mesmerized audience.
Before long, Olivia is running AAP and Osman is left feeling like a “brown lump of tragic heroism.” From this point on, he is obsessed with exposing Olivia’s deceptive tactics to the world even as he grudgingly admires her ambition.
Naben Ruthnum’s new novel, A Hero of Our Time, is an unsparing take on contemporary culture in which the rhetoric of diversity is the weapon of choice in a series of petty office battles. The title is a nod to the 1840 novel of the same name by Mikhail Lermontov, whose charismatic antihero, Grigory Pechorin, swashbuckles his way through the Caucasus, leaving behind a trail of bodies and broken hearts. Ruthnum has given Osman all of Pechorin’s cynicism without any of the Byronic flair. Instead, Osman has a gift for fine-grained observations of hypocrisy and discomfort. Sitting in a rockabilly bar, for example, he watches tattooed hipsters with Bettie Page haircuts and notes their “progressive politics melded with nostalgia for an era when Black people weren’t allowed to make eye contact with them.”
But, if Osman is devastating to others, he is even harder on himself. Painfully aware of his own awkwardness, he seems intent on identifying his flaws before anyone else has a chance to. His disgust with his body is a refrain throughout the book, as when Osman laments that he will not be able to entice his colleague Nena Zadeh-Brot with his “oily face, impregnated with its sebum custard, and the souring mollusk pheromone stench that drifted through the helpless cloth over [his] armpits.” Though self-conscious about his weight, Osman is constantly eating: servings of pho and Sichuan green beans slide down his throat. Osman, you see, does not chew. He swallows food whole, rather like a snake.
It is rare to encounter a contemporary author bold enough to make his protagonist this unlikable. The novel’s other characters are flawed too; like unhappy families, each one is off-putting in their own way. But, as Osman remarks, “an excess of virtue strangles a book.” Working in a literary industry hungry for prepackaged, reader-friendly uplift, Ruthnum has decided to frustrate the desire for a feel-good story featuring an inspirational minoritized hero. Instead, he has written a book with no easy-to-digest moral and even less sentimentality.
Osman Shah is Ruthnum’s answer to a question he posed in Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, a blend of literary criticism and memoir published in 2017. In that work, Ruthnum pans what he calls “currybooks”: generic novels about South Asian émigrés torn between cultures, laden with lush descriptions of home-cooked meals as markers of authenticity and tradition. Currybooks do little to represent the complexity of diasporic life, according to Ruthnum, especially given how many people grow up without ever knowing their parents’ or grandparents’ countries of origin. Even worse, the popularity of the genre can keep diasporic writers from publishing other kinds of stories. “What they’re interested in up here in Canada,” argues Ruthnum, “has a lot to do with how you write about where you ultimately came from, and not about what you write about as a brown Westerner with a collection of different interests and experiences.”
Until now, Ruthnum has squared this circle by publishing thrillers under the pen name Nathan Ripley. Find You in the Dark, his debut, is about a man who digs up the victims of serial killers to taunt cops for their failures. His second, Your Life Is Mine, features the daughter of a cult leader and mass murderer who discovers that her father’s terrible legacy endures. Ruthnum’s skill for suspense serves him well in A Hero of Our Time, a tightly plotted novel propelled by a bevy of layered secrets and hidden identities. Osman digs deeper into Olivia’s relationship with a daft but successful startup founder, Brody Beagle, whose billions are ripe for investment in AAP’s mission of “disrupting” higher learning. As Osman continues to track down Olivia’s connection to a backwoods church that houses white supremacists, he comes to understand “the authentic, pure racism that illuminated her progressiveness” and uncovers a grotesque lie tied to her psychological seduction of Brody that may be her undoing.
The closer Osman seems to get to his goal, however, the easier it becomes for him to ignore the lacklustre state of his personal life. Estranged from his father, he misses the chance to reconnect before the older man dies. His mother appears to be in the early stages of dementia and gradually pulls away from him, something Osman realizes should bother him more than it does. He has no friends besides Nena, a gifted saleswoman who neither returns his romantic interest nor shares his desire to topple Olivia.
But Osman’s personality is also crumpling under the weight of distrust at AAP, which conceals its rapacious capitalism with a bland show of righteous politics. When Nena is sent to extract funds from Brody, who is mourning the recent death of his wife, she compliments him in terms she knows will appeal: “You queered marriage by doing it your way, and we’re queering institutions like universities.”
To survive their workplace, Osman and his colleagues cultivate awareness of the potential negative subtext of everything they say and do. Each gesture, word, and pause is calibrated to either minimize damage or thrust in a dagger. Some are clumsy at this game, like “biometrics Randall,” who sidles up to Osman to apologize for their running joke about getting curry for lunch: “If you want to have a talk with HR about the way I’ve been with you, I want you to know I completely understand. I’ll fucking go in with you to confirm. I mean, if that wouldn’t just make you feel intimidated.” The cannier ones, like Olivia, blend threats and promises so smoothly that it is hard to pull them apart. “We can’t create a leadership role for you at AAP,” she tells Osman in an ominous conversation disguised as a heart-to-heart, “because you’re not letting us know who you really are.”
Conservative critics of progressive rhetoric like to claim that racism is no longer a significant problem. Ruthnum’s position is more nuanced: racism still harms people of colour, but painting a shellac of social justice on institutions obsessed with money and power does nothing to help. In fact, it makes things worse by urging the targets of intolerance to participate in their own erasure. A Hero of Our Time features several characters of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent who adapt their identities to what is most strategic in any given moment, in large part because that behaviour is rewarded. Vikram Chandra, a brilliant disabled executive at AAP, pretends to be stupid so as to remain the unthreatening token his bosses need: the promotions roll in as long as he keeps his mouth shut. Osman’s late father, Ajit, an English professor at the University of Toronto, regularly changed his nationality:
In Curry, Ruthnum condemned the way cultural clichés circumscribe the kinds of books diasporic authors can bring to market. With A Hero of Our Time, he goes one step further, suggesting that racism limits the very stories people of colour can tell about their own lives. Not far into the book, we learn that we are reading Osman’s attempts at a novel, which he fruitlessly tries to share with his mother, Sameen. Earlier, Ajit asks Osman to help him write a false memoir “to give a public who doesn’t know me a story that they’ll like to hear.”
A lifetime of acting in the roles others expect of them also leaves these characters incapable of connecting with one another. One of the stranger qualities of Ruthnum’s novel is the mechanical, nearly aggressive way Nena and Sameen speak to him. “I don’t wish to live through another long story about your work,” Sameen explains to Osman during one of his visits. “I want you to be okay with me saying that.” Nena is even more severe: “I just don’t want to be actively bored when we talk.” Osman understands their rejection as proof that he is unlovable, but they may be trying to foreclose any intimacy that could threaten their performances.
Appropriately for a novel that turns the currybook on its head, food serves as an index of alienation rather than of homecoming. Sameen does not cook for Osman; instead, she writes down her favourite brand of frozen naan, underscoring how emotionally distant she is from her son. At no point do we see Osman eating a “curry,” but he does wolf down a variety of international meals, entirely without pleasure. After all, Osman is convinced that his oversize body repels everyone else as much as it does him, though there are clues that he is of average build. As Nena puts it when she finally forces him to look in the mirror, “Osman thinks he’s three hundred and fifty pounds, covered in hair, sweating constantly, that he reeks of whatever food he most recently ate.” It turns out that the hardest thing for Osman to accept is his normality.
Trickster figures often have outsize appetites. They are amoral, witty, sometimes cruel. They understand how power works and can spot hypocrisy from a mile away. When necessary, they know how to vanish. This sharp and entertaining tale of a modern corporate trickster hits all its beats, but underneath it runs the sadness of a man who has been made invisible—above all to himself.