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Review of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' by Moshin Hamid

I’d like to begin the discussion by thinking about style. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is notable for its use of dramatic monologue. This style involves the use of first-person speech, directed explicitly towards an addressee whose presence is felt only through the discourse of the narrator. Dramatic monologue has a long tradition in poetry - Robert Browning, Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot are famous exponents of the form (Mathew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (cf. McEwan’s Saturday) might also qualify) – but is less commonly found in the novel.

What do you feel might be the advantages of employing the dramatic monologue form in novelistic writing? What sorts of effects can it generate for the reader? What potential drawbacks might it bring? Might it be something you would consider adopting in your own writing? Are there any particular styles, genres, or story forms, which you feel lend themselves to this address?

Dramatic monologue is a narrative style in which the story is spoken or thought aloud by an individual character. One of the main advantages of this form is that it is able to accurately impart the life history and feelings of that character and to impose them onto the story unravelling. There is little sense of the other characters involved. In some stories, this could be a major disadvantage, but in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” it adds to the dramatic tension. The speaker speaks and he hears the replies the American makes. We, the reader, do not. I have written one piece, a monologue by a middle aged neighbour, who is commenting on weirdly criminal events going on next door to her. It worked because it told the story from a single viewpoint, and it was presented in the form of a lady giving her story to a newspaper reporter. Any story form which requires some knowledge of the feelings or actions of another party would not suit the dramatic monologue this form, unless multiple narrators are used.

How successfully realised is this style in the novel, in your opinion? Think about how The Reluctant Fundamentalist might have altered had Hamid used one the following points of view: direct first-person narrative (without recourse to an auditor); third-person omniscient; third-person limited, or free indirect. Don’t worry too much about demonstrating the exact distinctions between these styles; what matters is that you can identify how and why the choice of PoV might fundamentally impact upon the novel.

Had the protagonist been presented to us in, for example, a free indirect style, his voice would have automatically been tempered by the authorial voice itself. That would mean that readers wouldn’t have been relating to the character, but to an authorial interpretation of the character. The author or narrator would therefore have been free to pass judgements on the character, thoughts and actions of the protagonist. This way, using direct first- person narrative, gives the tale a strength and sense of reality that it may not have had otherwise.

Had multiple POVs been adopted, the work and message would have been diluted. I feel this is a very successful piece of writing, in some ways BECAUSE of the style used. The style accentuated the book’s message.

How would you characterise the unheard auditor to whom Changez addresses himself? How does Hamid reveal this silent interlocutor? What effects might this addressee generate, compared with, for instance, the implied reader of a traditional first-person narrative?

Hamid reveals the “American” by a series of questions following which an answer is implied - “How did I know you were American?” and “Your disgust is evident” etc. Their initial meeting seemingly takes place by accident, though as we get further through the book, this seems less probable. The interlocutor is silent to us, but not necessarily to Changez, who clearly hears or otherwise experiences responses from the American. This addressee is a hearing ear and acts as the silent audience in Changez’s monologue. The implied reader of a traditional first-person narrative doesn’t necessarily seem to interact with the narrator. In this case, there is interaction, and the interaction allows Changez to tell further tales and expand on the story.

“It’s more of a novella than a novel,” she said. “It leaves space for your thoughts to echo.” (p58)

Does the ‘claustrophobic’ relationship between Changez and the American allow your own thoughts to ‘echo’? What is the relationship between yourself as a reader of the novel and the ‘you’ to whom Changez speaks? How closely did you identify with this mysterious character? What might the use of dramatic monologue imply about creating meaning and the coercive nature of story-telling?

The echoing of my thoughts does tend to occur more regularly when I am reading a shorter piece of work, as it allows me to concentrate more fully on each word written and read. In longer works I do find myself skimming over the surface rather than reading in great depth. That said, the relationship between Changez and the American does allow a further form of echoing. Changez makes statements and the American ‘answers’, leading Changez to make further statements. This ‘dialogue’ leaves lots of room for the reader to wonder what exactly was said or implied, and whether either or both of the characters actually have additional agendas that are under the surface.

There is no relationship between us as readers and the ‘you’ (the American) of which Changez speaks, other than in two ways. Firstly, we are being addressed and informed, as is the American. And secondly, we as readers in the Western world, could be argued to be on the same ‘side’ as the American and therefore take a more partisan approach.

I did not identify with the American at all. So little was disclosed of this person that he became a storytelling device, cipher or nonentity, rather than a living man.

The coercive nature of storytelling does come to the fore in books like these. We are steered as readers in the same direction as the American is steered. We are led to believe in all that Changez says.

The confession that implicates its audience is – as we say in cricket – a devilishly difficult ball to play. Reject it and you slight the confessor; accept it and you admit your own guilt. (p80)

What was your attitude towards Changez? Were you sympathetic to his ‘confession’, or critical of his motives? How does the novel aim to position your response? For that matter, did you feel that Changez was a reliable narrator?

Many believe that a first person narrator can’t, by definition, be reliable as there isn’t any distance from the characters and events described, and nor can there be any kind of objectivity in the narrator’s responses to them, being themselves usually part of the story. Was Changez a reliable narrator – yes, from his point of view. He doubtless narrated what was going through his own mind, and his own version of the story. I felt he was an interesting character, somewhat deeper than usual, and complex. I could not imagine a young man like him having such a formalised conversation in front of an anonymous American.

I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to his ‘confession’ as it was less of a confession than I expected. The reaction to the Twin Towers disaster was interesting. He didn’t jump up and down in joy, but he felt some positive emotion, but the fact that he also experienced guilt at that feeling was also very interesting. I have no idea as to his motives for the confession or for befriending the American. Various reviews I’ve read give different responses to the reasons why. Was it non-accidental, political, was it the actions of the American rather than Changez which forged the ‘friendship’?

Without recourse to the inner thoughts of either Changez, the American, or the insight of a third-person narrator, The Reluctant Fundamentalist relies upon the simulation of direct address in a (largely one-sided) conversation. How convincing did you find the ‘speech’ of the novel? How did you respond to Hamid’s prose?

The speech of Changez is extremely formal in style, much of the kind of speaking you’d expect from someone trying to impress or perhaps training a younger person etc. The speech style was almost clichéd English as you might expect from a stereotyped student of English who had learnt only the formal forms of address, or a semi-Victorian style of speech and expression. It didn’t seem particularly convincing given that Changez had spent so long working in America and had embraced many elements of American culture as a result, but, oddly, that actually added to my enjoyment of the book. It made him seem more Pakistani and less Western and worldly and that worked well for me.

I enjoyed Hamid’s prose, finding this book one of the more compelling on this course.

Would you describe The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a ‘thriller’? How does Hamid integrate aspects of unease, suspicion, or suspense into the novel? How many threads does the narrative encourage the reader to follow?

I would find it difficult to categorise this as a thriller. The definition of a thriller is (according to Google) “a novel, play, or film with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage”. This book is more a re-telling of a man’s past and the main danger or action is in the man’s head itself, with very little happening between the American and Changez. So it doesn’t appear to fit into the thriller mould, particularly as it is not exciting or cram packed with action and activity.

However, Wikipedia also describes a thriller as “characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety”. So from this definition, the novel does seem to fit into the thriller category, especially when you think of uncertainty, apprehension, doubt, dilemma, eagerness, expectations, hesitation, etc. All thriller trademarks, and this book has them all.

Unease, suspicion and suspense are integrated into the novel by means of storytelling which leaves out as much as it expresses, by the use of ongoing uncertainty, particularly with regard to Erica and her mental state, and also by the expression of reader anxiety to the confused Changez losing his job etc. The change in his psychological state becomes more evident throughout the book, as does the constant talk of armed conflict, political instability etc – all adding suspense.

Did the novel keep you intrigued? What kept you reading? Was the relationship between Changez and Erica, for example, of sufficient interest to hold your attention?

I enjoyed this book, and yes, there was sufficient in it to keep me reading. I did want to find out more about the shady American but this never happened, and my questions weren’t answered, but this left me interested and wanting more rather than being unsatisfied with what I’d got. There is a subtle distinction.

Changez and Erica’s relationship was interesting. I would have expected there to be a little more racial tension, but there was little or none.

Despite all the positives as previously mentioned, I actually found it unfeasible that Erica’s fall into deep depression and hospitalisation happened so speedily. It just seemed too fast and I would have preferred her to hold onto Changez for longer. Would it be usual for such a young woman to have taken the death of her husband in such a way, and for so long? I would also have been happier if she had, for example, been in a mental institution when the pair of them met, as it would not have seemed as contrived. Also, the scene of making love while Erica pretends that Changez is Chris, seems weird. Would a young man go to such lengths?

Islam and religious radicalism seem conspicuously absent from Changez’s monologue. Is this a ‘political’ novel, in your opinion? To what extent does Hamid intertwine the personal and the political? How explicit is the novel’s critique of, for example, America and the West?

Yes, there was very little mention of Islam in the book. Similarly, though, there was little explicit mention of politics, apart from as general critique of nations, current events and thought patterns. It was more of a sociological book, or rather a book of social comment. The 2001 Indian parliament attack is mentioned and is necessary backdrop to the rest of the book, but it isn’t what it’s all about, unlike in “The Harmony Silk Factory” where politics seems to permeate more fully, despite the book not being as explicitly political. I felt that this was more a book about people and thoughts rather than about bigger issues.

How clear, convincing, or compelling did you find the account of Changez’s conversion across chapters 10 and 11?

Changez’s ‘conversion’ reads more to me of a person experiencing a mental breakdown than a life changing religious or political epiphany, but I am guessing that it does happen that way for many people. Still, I found it more compelling than I found it clear or convincing. Pg 153 – “I must admit, Jim’s words gave me pause. I had great admiration for him; he had always stood by me, and now I proposed to betray him”. This is a man torn in two directions rather than a man who is ready to sacrifice all for a new thought pattern. Read a few pages later Pg 157 = “But I must have been in a peculiar emotional state, in a sort of semi-hypnotic daze, for when I woke in the morning my feelings were entirely different. It was then that I was hit by the enormity of what I was giving up”. This isn’t just about his good job and impressive income - this is also about the country of America that he’d made his home, his friends, his colleagues etc. He is giving up much, but for what?

Did you read the novel as a literal narrative, or do you feel that it contains allegorical elements?

Most critiques of the book do not take it as a literal narrative, and instead find multiple allegories – Erica is America, Changez = changes. I think it can be read as both a literal narrative and an allegorical work, and that’s what makes the novel so strong.

How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did you feel it to be a satisfying conclusion?

I responded to this book pretty well as a whole, but do feel the end let it down just a little.The lack of conclusiveness regarding Erica was bad enough, but the oddness of the final events didn’t really tie things up for me on first reading.

When first considering this, I wondered if I would have preferred an ending more similar to that of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying". In the book Gordon Comstock takes stock of his everyday life and rebels in a quite serious manner. By the book’s ending he has moved back to the everyday life with increased gusto as circumstances have conspired against his rebellion. Perhaps this as an ending would have been more corny or predictable, but it would at least have been clear. The ending we are presented with could have the American pulling out a gun or business cards. Either would fit in with the story.However, because we don’t know, we lose some grip on who or what the American character might have been. Clearly, Changez is aware that the American isn’t always entirely enthralled by his chatter, and does warn him to stop looking over his shoulder. He perhaps feels that Changez is a liar or a potential terrorist. I feel sure that the American, whoever his is, does know how to react to Changez and precisely who he is, even though Hamid clearly never intended for the reader to know for certain. The interesting part is that we are left guessing to the final moment. What is Changez doing by befriending the American? Why is the American listening to his ramblings? What is the ultimate aim of their meeting? We don’t know, but that’s ok.

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