How Mohsin Hamid used a 2nd Person narrator to build drama in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A few years ago, I was at a party attended largely by Boston-area academics when two men got into an argument about whether there was any merit in using second-person point of view (really). The pro-second-person guy couldn’t come up with any examples to support his case, and soon everyone moved on to other topics of conversation. Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the example that would have turned that argument in favor of second-person narration.

Hamid has said the novel owes its unusual narrative structure to Albert Camus’ 1956 novella The Fall; though not written with the intent of theatrical performance, both works are structured as second-person dramatic monologues delivered by the narrator to a silent ‘other’, and Hamid and Camus both make use of dramatic techniques to maintain narrative tension. Hamid’s narrator, the former financial analyst Changez, shares characteristics with Camus’ ex-lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Like Changez, Jean-Baptiste admits to having once “earned my living by carrying on a dialogue with people I scorned.” Both men, too, are in a kind of self-imposed exile; Jean Baptiste from his native France, Changez from the United States, where he once believed he would make a life for himself. Yet as satisfying as these parallels are, they are most significant in that both men are the type of man who is convinced of the value of his own story, the kind of man who invites a stranger for a drink in a cafe and proceeds to deliver a dramatic monologue designed to win the stranger’s empathy, if perhaps not his sympathy.

The promotional summary on the back of the 2008 paperback edition of The Reluctant Fundamentalist reads: “Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this immaculate speaker of immaculate English to seek you out.” This is slightly misleading — Changez does not really address the reader directly — but the dramatic monologue does have the effect of forcing the reader to take on the role of the ‘other’ to whom the monologue is addressed. “Ah, I see I have alarmed you,” Changez says in the novel’s opening lines. “Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” Immediately, we know something about the “you” who is addressed. Changez’s theatrical ‘other’ is a burly American man with “short-cropped” hair and an “expansive chest” who keeps reaching under his suit jacket to reach for — something. Though this may be drama, it is not improv, and Changez’s monologue eaves little room for the American to respond spontaneously. This is not to say that the American is impassive, but that we only ‘see’ him through Changez’s responses to him. Changez interprets and re-iterates the American’s words before responding to them: “Creepy, you say? What a delightfully American expression — one that I have not heard in many years!” In The Fall, Camus allows his readers the occasional hint at Jean-Baptiste’s interlocutor’s language in much the same way: “Fascinating?” Jean-Baptiste says. “There’s an adjective I haven’t heard in some time. Not since leaving Paris, in fact, years ago.” Through a few, carefully chosen glimpses of the ‘other’, Hamid and Camus create an impression of dialogue, but they also highlight how the linguistic differences between their narrator and unheard interlocutor.

In both The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Fall, the dramatic monologue builds a world inhabited by characters with a multiplicity of voices — but accessible only through the voice of the narrator. The speaker describes other characters and even allows them to speak — but these other voices and characters are always presented through the speaker’s own voice. The structure of the dramatic monologue allows Hamid to showcase Changez’s voice — the hyper-articulate, sometimes idiosyncratic speech of an educated man who learned English as his second language. Changez, having rejected the ethos of post-9/11 America, no longer speaks like an American — and, he admits, he never really did. “I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American,” Changez says. But when he describes how he was stopped by Homeland Security officials on his way back to the US, Changez disparages the immigration officer by describing her “mastery of English” as  “inferior to mine.” Changez occasionally slips into this slightly self-righteous arrogance — a tone Jean-Baptiste too takes on in The Fall — but it is an attitude that the structure of the dramatic monologue seems to demand.

When Changez acknowledges that the one-sidedness of his storytelling may be making his interlocutor uncomfortable, Hamid winks at the reader. The story is being told in this way for a reason, and we get to be in on it. “Possibly you find me crass for revealing such intimacies to you, a stranger? No?” Changez asks. The American across the table from him very well may, be we, the readers, don’t. Novelistic and theatrical works are meant to reveal intimacies. Even if we do not want to be made uncomfortable in our every day lives, many of us expect to be made uncomfortable when we read a great literary work or go to the theater.

Changez knows this, and so he tells his interlocutor what Hamid’s readers have already guessed: “Allow me to assure you that I do not always speak this openly; indeed, I almost never do. But tonight, as I think we both understand, is a night of some importance. Certainly I perceive it to be so — and yet if I am wrong, you will surely be justified in regarding me the most terrible boor!” Plays never take place on ordinary days; they are always set at the moment of crisis. Hamid has told The Guardian that, in addition to The Fall, he drew inspiration from the narrative framing of the classic western High Noon, “in which ‘the viewer is ‘living the film in the same time as its characters’. In imitation, the reading of his novel was to have the same duration as its action.” The plot of High Noon is propelled by the anticipation of a crisis: at twelve noon, a train carrying an old nemesis will arrive in town and Gary Cooper’s character must choose whether to fight for his life or stand by his commitment to pacifism. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, too is propelled by a sense of an approaching doom; but where High Noon reaches its shoot-out resolution, Hamid closes the book just before the big reveal. What is the “glint of metal” under the American’s suit jacket? A gun, or, as Changez politely suggests, “the holder of your business cards?” The tension is never resolved, and, as a result, we never know if Changez’s premonition is justified. Perhaps this night holds a terrible significance for one or both of the men. Then again, Changez may simply be the worst kind of boor.

Camus makes this kind of ending possible. In The Fall, Jean-Baptiste presents his own narrative as an explanation of his role as a “judge-penitent,” but he never quite manages to define what a “judge-penitent” is. “Are we not all alike,” he asks his interlocutor, in the novella’s closing paragraph, “constantly talking and to know one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance?” In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid, too, creates a sense that his characters already know the answers: “I have not, I suspect, entirely surprised you,” Changez tells the American. “Do you deny it? No? And that is of not inconsiderable interest to me, for we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me.” These lines read like foreshadowing, a hint to the reader that, if we wait patiently, the truth will be revealed. But in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like The Fall, there is no ultimate revelation, only a quietly accumulation of suggestions. The theatrical principle of dramatic irony is inverted. Instead of a narrative in which the readers know more than the characters, the characters (both the speaker and the unheard other) conspire with the author to keep one another and the reader in the dark.

“You should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you American are all undercover assassins,” Changez tells the American, but this is almost what the book fools us into imagining: that these two men, Changez and the American to whom he is speaking, are a potential terrorist (or a man perceived as a potential terrorist) and an undercover assassin. We don’t really know; and we also don’t know how much of what Changez has told us is true. In the novel’s opening lines, Changez reassures his interlocutor that he “loves America”, but he also describes how, watching the twin towers collapse in New York City, “my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” He also tells us that his own reaction filled him with “a profound sense of perplexity.” Changez might be lying; he also might be honestly describing complex and confusing emotions. The dramatic monologue leaves room for both truths.

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