September 24, 2012

"The Third-Born"

By Mohsin Hamid
~4700 words

Through the accident of his third-born status, a young boy seems poised to rise out of squalor.

The story is a kind of a monologue directed at the unnamed main character, told in the second-person by a narrator—possibly the protagonist at a later stage in life—with direct knowledge of the future. The main point seems to be that the desperate conditions in which the boy lives (he is suffering from hepatitis E when the story opens) do not doom him to a life of misery:
As you lie motionless afterward, a jaundiced village boy, radish juice dribbling from the corner of your lips and forming a small patch of mud on the ground, it must seem that getting filthy rich is beyond your reach. But have faith. Your are not as powerless as you appear. Your moment is about to come.
But the narrator never reveals this "moment," preferring to dwell on the luck of the draw that makes it possible:
There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village [like the firstborn sister]. Third means you are not working as a painter's assistant [like the second-born brother]. Third means you are not, like your parents' fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.
While "The Third-Born" is beautifully written and abounds with fascinating characters and rich descriptions of the setting (an unnamed developing country, perhaps the author's native Pakistan), it is weak on plot and feels more like a novel excerpt than a self-contained story.


Reader poll: I found "The Third-Born" to be ___.
Reader challenge: This week's story by Mohsin Hamid is written in the second person, a once-unusual choice that appears to be gaining in popularity. Off the top of my head I can name four other second-person stories: "Forever Overhead" by David Foster Wallace (1999), "Miss Lora" and "The Cheater's Guide to Love" by Junot Díaz (both from this year), and, thanks to a previous comment on this blog, "The Places You Find Yourself" by Jerome Edwards (2010). What other second-person narratives (short story or novel) are you familiar with? Please answer in the comments.

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