Friday, February 20, 2015

In The Light Of What We Know: Dense, Dazzling, Exasperating

Last May, James Wood, the New Yorker's venerable, but often grumpy, literary critic gushed and raved about Zia Haider Rahman's 2014 debut novel, In The Light of What We Know. He called it "dazzling" and "full of knowledge," and I thought, "Hmm...definitely worth a try."

I should've known any novel Wood raves about would be like this: in a word, dense. Plane/beach reading, this is not. The story is essentially a conversation between two really smart fellows — one, Zafar, is telling the other, our unnamed narrator, his story. It's 2008, and we're just on the onset of the financial crisis — our unnamed narrator is a banker, and when his good friend Zafar, who he hasn't seen in many years suddenly shows up on his doorstep in London wanting to tell him his story, it's a welcome distraction from his failing professional life.

Zafar's story involves a beautiful, mercurial woman named Emily, his experiences in Afghanistan in 2002 at the outset of the war, and several snippets of other stories that explore culture, class, and race (he's Bangladeshi, but people are constantly mistaking him as Pakastani or Indian, infuriating him, and negating the sacrifices of his countrymen during the horrific war for Bangladeshi independence in 1971).

The central question of the novel is this: How can we really know anything? Zafar had studied mathematics at Oxford, and is a huge fan of Kurt Godel, and his Incompleteness Theorem. But this question of how we know what we know (if we can know what we know) is also explored through language, religion and faith, and love.

Zafar's story is fascinating — and along the way, he provides us all sorts of tidbits of trivia, interspersed throughout his philosophical meanderings. He's an unusual fellow, to be sure — but insanely smart (as, no question, is Rahman himself).

So it's an often exasperating, sometimes truly though-provoking, periodically entertaining, and ultimately pretty satisfying novel. It took me about three weeks to get through these 500 pages, and I was glad when I finished — I felt like I'd truly accomplished something just by reading this.


  1. I started this book before Christmas and quickly realized that it was going to take all my attention. I'm glad that overall you seemed to like it. I think i'm going to have wait until I'm really in the mood for a dense read. Beside, the copy i have has tiny print!

    1. Yeah, definitely a book you have to the mood for. And, yeah! - print is really small. I'd read like 20 pages in an hour and get frustrated I hadn't gotten very far. About page 120, I almost quit - but I'm glad I muscled through.

  2. I'm coming close to the end of The Luminaries, which I've been reading whenever I have at least an hour to read at a stretch, because it's pretty dense, too. I like the sound of In the Light of a What We Know. Thanks for the review!