What I’ve Been Reading This Week: Ants Among Elephants, Harry Potter & Orphan Stories, & Literary Adaptations on TV

I just finished reading this excerpt of Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India featured in the Boston Review. I’m adding the book to my reading list–what I’ve read so far is a fascinating and beautifully written story that touches literature and politics through the lens of family history.

“The Threat Within: Harry Potter and the Cultural Baggage of Orphan Stories” by Kristen Martin Martin reflects on the trope of orphans in literature about children and teens, her own experience losing her parents at a young age, and the absence of honest depictions of grief in “orphan stories.” For me, her essay also brought to mind the debate over Netflix’s recent adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which spends more time exploring the impact of Anne’s childhood traumas than original novel or the 1985 TV mini-series.

And speaking of TV adaptations, check out Lisa Rosman’s “Have You Seen What TV Has Been Doing to Books Lately?” on the recent trend of prestige TV shows adapted from literary novels.

I also just learned that Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties will be debuting in October 2017! I first stumbled across Machado’s work as an intern at AGNI and have been a fan of her writing ever since, so I’m eager to read the book when it comes out!

Revisiting Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle

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When the film adaptation of Dodi Smith’s I Capture the Castle appeared in my Prime Video recommendations last week, I couldn’t help but add it to my queue. I’ve loved the novel for years, and I have a distinct memory of reading the novel for the first time, sitting in a green-and-white striped armchair in the driveway in front of my parents’ house (it was summer vacation, and the living room floors were being redone).

At the time, I was a methodical diarist, and I believed myself to be in unrequited love with a boy who was two years older than me and to whom I barely spoke. I Capture the Castle felt like exactly the book I needed: an Austen-esque bildungsroman, the novel is told from the perspective of seventeen year old diarist Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a decrepit castle that her father, a struggling but famous writer, has not paid rent on in years. When two brothers, Simon and Neil, inherit the castle and move in next door, they seem to offer a way out of poverty and boredom: a strategic marriage between Rose, Cassandra’s twenty-year-old sister, and Simon, the eldest son could keep the family financially afloat. Simon and Neil seem like Darcy and Bingley. Rose tries to flirt like girls in classic novels and at first fails miserably—she doesn’t know how to be a modern woman of the 1930s. Matchmaking plans are set into motion, and it all feels like a romantic game—until, suddenly, it isn’t fun anymore.

Reading the novel as a young teen, I identified with Cassandra’s aching desire to be a writer, to understand her family and the adults around her, to fall in love, to become an adult herself. In one scene early in the novel, Cassandra overhears a conversation between Simon, the man who she falls in love with and who becomes her sister’s fiancé, and his brother. The two remark that she is “a cute kid” and “a bit self-consciously naive.” Cassandra is furious, and when I first read the novel, I was furious on her behalf. Revisiting the story now, I still recognize those feelings, but I see something else, too: that Cassandra, who says she “feels older” than seventeen, is very, very young. This isn’t to say that her feelings and observations should be disregarded—Cassandra’s teenage perspective and her voice as a narrator are exactly what make the novel so compelling and relatable.

At 23, I hardly possess years of worldly experience, but I think I’m now a bit wiser than Cassandra or the equally sheltered Rose. At fourteen, I saw the Rose-Cassandra-Simon love triangle as tragically romantic, but last week, watching the film, I was struck by how deeply inappropriate it is for Simon to kiss Cassandra. He is a grown man, engaged to her sister, and she is seventeen. Simon sees this as no big deal, and though Cassandra is distraught by the idea that she has betrayed her sister, she still sees Simon as essentially a good man, someone worthy of her love. Suddenly, Simon seems more Wickham than Darcy.

And then, there’s Stephen, the son of the Mortmain’s former housekeeper and love interest Cassandra by all rights should end up with. Yet, when he takes a modeling gig so he can save up to buy Cassandra a radio, he ends up sleeping with a much-older, married photographer. When Cassandra discovers this, she finds herself inexplicably upset. She and Stephen talk it over—how love and desire are messier, more complicated than either of them had imagined. Yet neither Stephen nor Cassandra seem to see that their older partners of taken advantage of their idealistic views of love and sex.

In spite of the novel’s nods to Austen and classic marriage plots, only a few characters in I Capture the Castle have traditionally happy endings. At the same time, no one really gets a tragic ending either—instead, they go on with their imperfect lives. Cassandra has been unlucky in love, and she says she was a fool to ever think she could “capture” the world on paper—but we readers know she has grown up, grown wiser, and that she is certainly a writer.


A few final notes:

  1. In case you haven’t read the novel, you can read an excerpt of the first chapter here. In my opinion, it has one of the best opening lines of all time.
  2. In the film adaptation, Rose is played by Rose Byrne. It delights me that before she was in Bridesmaids and X-Men, she was a supporting character in several British period dramas (she’s also in the David Tennant version of Casanova).

Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?

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I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls

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Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.

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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.