Things to read, watch, and listen to

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I spent the weekend trying to recover from the kind of cold that makes you not want to do anything except lie on the sofa. Sure, I’m technically well enough to do the things I’m meant to be doing: editing for freelance clients, applying for jobs, attending Christmas parties and networking events, apartment-hunting, and making meals for myself, but with a cold, all of these things are harder than they ordinarily would be, and I’ve been letting those job application deadlines slip by, choosing instead to swaddle myself in my beloved crocheted blanket. The good news is that this is an ideal place from which to consume media—so here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

  • Season 1 of The Crown—yes, I know that Season 2 premiered this week, but I’m still back in Season 1, which I began this time last year, when I stayed home from work with a back injury. I can’t quite decide if I like The Crown — do Margaret and Elizabeth have to be so nasty to each other? and why is everyone so riled up about divorcées? — but it’s so well done that I just keep watching.
  • Cat Person—I woke up yesterday morning to see that the New Yorker short story had gone viral in the US while I was asleep in London. Reading the story made me think about conversations I’d had with friends in college about their dating lives—there’s been a lot of talk about how timely the story is, and I agree that this is true. But I was most impressed by how Kristen Roupenian describes Margot’s thought process, how she assesses potential dangers, risks—and her own shifting desires.
  • Baby Driver—several friends raved about this film to me when it first came out, and last night, I finally got around to renting it on Amazon. With the hindsight of the last few months, Kevin Spacey’s presence as a mastermind of heists is discomfiting, but Baby Driver is worth the watch for the chase sequences, the soundtrack, Ansel Elgort’s baby-faced sincerity, and Jon Hamm as a vengeance-crazed baddie. It’s a lot of fun.

 

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).

I loved Wonder Woman, but I wish it had been even better

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I am not a comic book buff or, very often, a fan of superhero movies, but I found myself enthralled by Wonder Woman. As many women have written in the past few weeks, there was something powerful about seeing Diana (Gal Godot) defending her home and then taking on injustice in the outside world. I do not often enjoy action movies, but I found the fight sequences exhilarating. Wonder Woman breaks new ground; I found it empowering and often smart. But it’s not perfect. Here are my thoughts on where the movie succeeds and where it falls short:

The film is at its most political in the London scenes, when it uses Diana’s confusion at the norms of 20th century Europe to highlight the absurdities of patriarchal society. Why do couples marry—and why do they stay married when they are no longer in love? Why do men—all of whom are far less skilled at combat than she—insist her that she is the one being protected? Why does her mere presence scandalize British lawmakers? Why will no one listen to her? Why must she fight so hard to prove herself? “I don’t understand,” she says, again and again, and we are reminded how nonsensical the rules of war, politics, and heteronormative, patriarchal society truly are.

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In one scene, Diana tries on a series of outfits in a London department store that are intended to help her blend in in 20th century Europe. One by one, she nixes the options that Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his secretary Etta (Lucy Davis) present to her: they are too uncomfortable and constricting. “What do your women wear to fight?” she asks, leaving Trevor to stumble over his words, uncertain how he can explain that, in this world, women don’t fight.

The film’s attempt to make a point about the impractical nature of women’s clothing in early 20th century England is slightly undercut by its own costuming choices. Inexplicably, Diana and the Amazons wear boots with wedge-heels. Sure, wedges are more stable than stilettos, but they’re highly impractical for running, horseback riding, or rappelling from island cliffs. Likewise, the shoulder-baring, waist-nipping armor that the Amazons wear is slightly too similar to the corsets Diana scorns. Wedge-heels aside, I can see a case for costuming the women in outfits that echo the traditional (if sexed-up) iconography of wonder women past. The Amazons’ barely-there armor is reminiscent of how the Spartans supposedly trained in the nude and make their fearlessness that much more impressive. Who needs bulletproof vests? The Amazons’ righteousness, brilliance, and skill are their armor.

Whatever you think of Diana’s armor, it’s clear that Trevor is correct when he tells her outfit is inappropriate daywear for the streets of London. Yet when Diana emerges from the fitting room in a practical, loose-fitting gray suit, Trevor tells her that her looks are going to attract too much attention. Introducing a movie-makeover cliché, he suggests she put on some glasses. “Right,” Etta scoffs “Put on some specs and suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” I loved this subtle call-out: glasses don’t make Gal Godot (or any woman) less attractive.

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Last week, Christina Cauterucci of Slate’s XX Factor blog wrote about her discomfort with the way Diana’s male sidekicks ogle her and crack jokes about her sex appeal, and argues that “whatever chance Wonder Woman had of being some kind of feminist antidote to the overabundance of superhero movies made by and for bros was blown by its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.” While I agree that the men of Wonder Woman engage in some unquestionably icky behavior, I read these moments differently. For me, the leering jokes of men the “right” side of the war actually emphasized what Diana is up against. She’s suddenly found herself in a world where sexism, injustice, and violence are normalized and to a certain degree perpetuated by even the men who claim to be fighting against injustice, and who she considers to be her friends. Trevor, the most virtuous of the men Diana meets, becomes her truest ally and then her lover, but he knows as well as we do that he is not worthy of her. The audience’s realization that even the “good guys” are not wholely good aligns with Diana’s realization that ending the war or restoring peace to the human world will not be as simple as killing a single general or even destroying the God of War.

The second half of Wonder Woman explores the idea that both good and evil are a part of human nature, and director Patty Jenkins was able to underline this theme by setting the film in the final days of World War I. A devastating, brutal conflict fought over the concerns of dying empires and geopolitical alliances, World War I has become an archetype for the meaninglessness and wastefulness of modern warfare. A World War II-era Wonder Woman could have joined the Allies in rightfully punching Nazis, but rather than construct a narrative that placed Diana on the virtuous side of a moral war, Jenkins sets Diana in the midst of a war where no one is in the right.

Given this intelligent setup, I was mystified that the movie’s Germans, when we finally meet them, take the form of Nazi-esque clichés. If Wonder Woman’s true enemy is war and humanity’s inherent flaws that lead them into violence and cruelty, why does she also need to fight against two human supervillains: the twisted Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who test mustard gas on prisoners and murder German officers committed to the armistice? While these characters act as an effective red herring (we, like Diana, never suspect that the god of war might be disguised as a mild-mannered British politician played by David Thewlis), their all-out wickedness weakens the argument that all humans have the propensity for both good and evil.

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We could have seen the devastation caused by poison gas without Dr. Poison’s torture experiments, and General Luttendorf need not be a supervillain—just a cruel man with a horrifying commitment to the ideas of total war. In making the Imperial Germans into the Huns of Allied propaganda, Wonder Woman missed an opportunity to subvert superhero movie tropes and created a more nuanced comment on the nature of war and violence.

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.