The maverick voices of some authors are antically evident right from the start. Take Pakistani American writer Syed M. Masood, who opens his debut novel, “The Bad Muslim Discount,” as follows:
I killed Mikey.
It sounds worse than it actually was. You have to understand that I didn’t kill Mikey because I wanted to do it. I killed him because God told me to do it.
I don’t suppose that sounds much better.
It helps, I think, to know that Mikey was a goat …
That voice belongs to narrator Anvar Faris who, whisked at a tender age from Karachi to California’s Bay Area in 1995, isn’t at all happy about being pressured by his father to sacrifice “the only pet I ever had” in anticipation of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice. The ritual killing, unsurprisingly, goes a bit haywire. And the family dynamics introduced — religious zealot mother, blandly conformist brother, jazz-loving dad who observes Islamic traditions the way some Christian-raised atheists enjoy decorating Christmas trees — stay in active play from Anvar’s boyhood until well into his adulthood.
Anvar’s skepticism about the faith he was raised in starts when he’s still a school kid. (“The day I was first told I was damned,” he recalls, “was the day I felt I had been blessed.”) By the time he’s studying literature at San Francisco State University, his default mode of conversation is pun-filled sarcasm peppered with literary and pop culture allusions. This trait sometimes rubs his family and friends the wrong way. When asked by his former high school sweetheart what the hell is wrong with him, his reply is endearingly sassy.
“It’s not one thing,” he says. “It’s more of a cascading malfunctions type of situation.”
If “The Bad Muslim Discount” focused solely on the Faris family saga, it would be fair to classify it as satire. But Anvar’s story alternates with a sadder and more desperate narrative. Safwa, a 10-year-old Iraqi girl, has suffered incalculable losses and oppression. Her mother is dead, her brother is dying and her father has been captured by the American forces occupying Baghdad.
A decade later, Safwa ruthlessly engineers her own escape to the U.S. with her now-free father and a predatory would-be fiancé in tow. Together, she and her father land in a crummy tenement in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood that offers a “good Muslim discount.” Anvar, despite his irreligiosity, is living there, too, after giving up his literature studies to study law following the 9/11 attacks. It isn’t long before Anvar’s and Safwa’s fates entwine, with dramatic consequences.
Masood’s narrative twists rival those of the best telenovelas. (If someone doesn’t make “Muslim” into a miniseries, I’ll be surprised.) As the complications in Anvar’s romantic life, family battles and legal career multiply, his confidence in his own cocky skepticism starts to fall apart, and the wise words of his beloved grandmother, which serve as epigraphs to each new section of the novel, strike home. (“Experience,” she says in one memorable passage, “can be lethal to certainty.”)
With Safwa’s entry into his life, all of Anvar’s certainty goes out the window. She doesn’t know what to make of his wisecracking bravado. (“I was used to being around shattered people,” she says). But she’s ready to use him to escape her brutally traditionalist father and the fiancé he is forcing on her. Like Anvar, she sees herself as “a bad Muslim” — and, she adds, “I’d like to be worse.” Unlike Anvar, she believes this makes her “a bad person.”
Masood’s purpose throughout the novel is to draw you deep into Anvar’s family world, not simply lampoon it — or, in Safwa’s case, righteously condemn it. (Her father and Anvar’s mother clearly incur as much pain as they inflict.) By its end, “The Bad Muslim Discount” delivers a quintessentially American tale about what immigrants gain or lose when they assimilate — or refuse to do so.
“Muslims — our generation, in the West — are like the Frankenstein monster,” Anvar reflects. “We’re stapled and glued together, part West, part East. A little bit of Muslim here, a little bit of skeptic there. We put ourselves together as best we can and that makes us, not pretty, of course, but unique. Then we spend the rest of our lives looking for a mate. Someone who is like us. Except there is no one like us and we did that to ourselves.”
The last stretches of the novel unfold against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential campaign and the rise of Trumpism — about which Anvar, naturally, has plenty to say.
“That radical Islamists and ‘America First’ nationalists had essentially the same worldview and the same desire to recapture a nostalgia-gilded past glory,” he reflects, “was proof, in my opinion, that God’s sense of irony was simply divine.”
There’s plenty of scathing pleasure to unpack in that sentence, and in passages like it found throughout this remarkable debut novel.