The Laughter by Sonora Jha book review


The aging White male professor has long been a popular protagonist in literary novels. A recent standout was the hero in German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Go, Went, Gone,” a retired professor who has more than a few problematic preconceptions about African refugees but comes to see their humanity when they stage a hunger strike near his home.

The professor in Sonora Jha’s second novel, “The Laughter,” however, more closely resembles Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Rather than lust after an underage girl, Oliver Harding lusts after Ruhaba Khan, a beautiful Pakistani Muslim colleague who is vibrant and au courant in a way that Harding used to be. Divorced and estranged from his daughter, Harding is in the twilight of his career and is amusingly sanguine about the changing role of the White male professor in a university system that has become increasingly attuned to issues of diversity.

“Let me be candid,” he says, “and state that one of the reasons that women of color are asked to do disproportionately high service on committees on the American campus is that men of pallor like me are no longer asked. We have proved to be obtrusive and resistant to change and have thereby earned ourselves more time sitting back in our offices or getting out to play golf.”

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The events of the novel occur in the days before the 2016 presidential election, and to get the reader on his side, Harding says he “didn’t quite subscribe to the hate-mongering of Mr. Trump” and is “all for” a strong female leader like Hillary Clinton. But he also takes pride in not fitting the mold of a typical Democrat. For instance, he champions the Second Amendment and owns a “fine selection of pistols.”

At a party thrown by the university’s provost, Harding meets Ruhaba’s 15-year-old nephew, Adil Alam. Adil has come from Toulouse to stay with Ruhaba in Seattle after running afoul of the French police for being in the orbit of a youth group suspected of militant Islamist views. Harding insinuates himself into Adil’s life to get closer to Ruhaba, who seems to recognize Harding’s attraction to her while keeping him at a collegial distance. When Adil starts walking Edgar, the professor’s dog, Harding develops a fondness for the teenager. Their relationship gives hope to the reader that Harding might grow to see Adil as more than a tool in a quest to bed Ruhaba. When Harding offers to take Adil to a shooting range, the possibility of a better person emerges.

“I was inviting a Muslim youth to learn to shoot a gun,” he says, a little incredulous at himself for extending the invitation. “But he’s the boy who rescued Edgar. He’s not the Muslim World.”

Unfortunately, despite his liberal political views and his professed tenderness toward Adil, Harding’s racism proves more deeply ingrained than he’s aware of. Like “Lolita,” “The Laughter” is the main character’s lengthy confession, though it’s unclear until the end of book what crimes Harding is divulging. Throughout the novel, it’s also unclear to whom Harding is confessing, other than to “his conscience” — which has plenty of prejudicial blind spots. If he’s writing to the authorities, he doesn’t seem to realize he’s incriminating himself. If he’s writing to someone close to him, perhaps even Ruhaba or Adil, he doesn’t seem to realize that he never sees them as more than members of the “Muslim World,” separate from and inferior to his own.

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“The Laughter” is an impressive performance, a disturbing character study of a man who views himself as the literal White knight in almost every scenario. Harding, however, never quite rises above being an avatar of the ugly-American stereotype. Some of his actions and views strain credulity and feel overdetermined. For example, despite being highly intelligent and well-educated, Harding is unaware that polio, which afflicts Adil, is still a problem outside America. In a particularly chilling exchange, when federal agents find pornography involving Muslim women on Harding’s computer, the professor responds by going into extensive detail about how much he dislikes pornography featuring women wearing hijabs, seemingly unaware he’s revealing the depths and complexity of his misogyny and Islamophobia.

Unlike “Go, Went, Gone,” which critiqued the power structures that enable perversions and prejudices to flower, “The Laughter” seems to argue that the worst consequences of these structures are immutable and inevitable. Harding’s transformation — if there is one — is a devolution from workplace lust to a fatalistic level of criminality. Harding expresses little remorse or accountability for his actions, and that seems to be the somewhat heavy-handed point. Perhaps the Humbert Humberts and Oliver Hardings of the world are truly beyond rehabilitation.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently “No Good Very Bad Asian.”

HarperVia. 320 pp. $27.99

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