Because the example of intercutting scenes in Wonderbook, the imaginary pulp cult classic Monster Island Bloody Hellfest by Chive Muscle is so…pulpy…I’ve chosen Bloody Hellfest’s antithesis for analysis here: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah—and rather than short analysis of multiple examples, I’ve decided on an extended analysis of this one book. I hope teachers will find this post of use as the jumping off point for a longer and wider discussion of the novel.
Americanah a great, entertaining mainstream literary novel and just happens to be a kind of masterclass on specific detail and nuance when it comes to cultural issues. But this tale of two people’s complex romantic relationship set against a backdrop of the U.S., U.K., and Nigeria also provides an interesting example of how to intercut character points of view. The two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, falls in love growing up in Nigeria, but when Ifemelu goes to study in the United States, these two soul mates break up and grow apart. Americanah charts the arc of their lives from teenagers through adulthood, switching back and forth between their points of view.
It’s useful to examine the novel’s seven-part structure, and how the intercutting supports the story that is potentially static instead dynamic. Keep in mind, however, that without Adichie’s commitment to character—her ability to invest the lives of her characters with specific and compelling detail, and to make them seem like real people—none of the structure would work, either. Yet her decisions about structure and intercutting do allow Ifemelu and Obinze’s story to have the maximum dramatic impact.
Below find a summary of each section of Americanah and then bullet points analyzing the POV switches in each part, along with related points. As noted in Wonderbook, when we try to separate out one element from others, you find that their interconnectedness means, for value to a writer, you must talk about more than just the one element. – Jeff VanderMeer
Please note that spoilers abound below, although I’ve avoided many specifics, including giving away the ending.
Part 1 (Chapters 1 and 2): The first chapter is from Ifemelu’s point of view and set in a Trenton braid salon and the other is from Obinze’s point of view and set in Lagos, Nigeria.
- By writing Chapter 1 from Ifemelu’s point of view, Adichie establishes that Americanah is primarily her story.
- By writing Chapter 2 from Obinze’s point of view, Adichie establishes that his story will also be important.
- Chapter 1 establishes the basic facts of Ifemelu’s life, just as Chapter 2 does for Obinze—and in doing so poses the dramatic question that makes you want to keep reading: Will Ifemelu and Obinze ever get back together? Because this very simple question is powerful and compelling, and relatable, it buys Adichie the time to explore very complex issues and situations at her leisure.
- The choice of having Ifemelu’s setting in the present-day of the novel be the braid salon (she doesn’t leave the braid salon until Chapter 41) also helps to gain Adichie time (time = pages) to explore the lives of her main characters.
- The frame provided by the braid salon contextualizes everything as flashback within that frame: not just her early and teen memories of Nigeria, but also her experiences of the U.S. Thus, all of these memories are equally immediate and the memories of Nigeria do not necessarily have to be embedded within her U.S. experiences. The braid salon also leads to conversations with other customers and the staff, often about race and culture, that accentuate and bring out thematic and dramatic resonance across the other scenes in the novel.
Part 2 (Chapters 3—22): All chapters except for chapter 4 are from Ifemelu’s point of view and ostensibly set in the United States through the aegis of the “frame” of the present-day (the braid salon). However, many of these chapters contain extended flashbacks into the past, some in the U.S. but weighted toward Ifemelu’s former life in Nigeria (with returns at intervals to the braid salon and the activity there). Chapter 4 is from Obinze’s point of view and set in Lagos. Some chapters, like chapter 7, are from Ifemelu’s point of view, but Obinze could be said to be the main character in them.
- The rhythm established by having Chapter 3 be from Ifemelu’s point of view and Chapter 4 from Obinze’s is an important signal to the reader: 1-3, Ifemelu, 2-4, Obinze. Their lives are intertwined, their points of view will continue throughout the novel. Just having Chapter 2 be from Obinze’s point of view would not be enough; Adichie needs the anchor of another chapter, falling in a regular pattern, to establish that viewpoint.
- Part 1 has also primed the reader to expect that any subsequent part may include chapters from both points of view; thus, it is not jarring in Part 2 (or, later, in Part 7).
- Once that 1-3, 2-4 pattern has been established, the fact that the other chapters are from Ifemelu’s point of view underscores that Americanah is her story, but with the pattern established the reader is primed to expect that additional chapters from Obinze’s point of view will eventually be forthcoming.
- Ifemelu’s point of view in the other chapters is generous to Obinze, in that the flashbacks to their relationship in Nigeria make him an important character. In chapters like Chapter 7, you could argue that although we see the scene from Ifemelu’s point of view that Obinze is the main character. Therefore, Adichie does not need to actually move back into Obinze’s point of view for his presence to feature strongly in Part 2.
Part 3 (Chapters 23—30): All chapters from Obinze’s point of view, detailing his attempts to become a success studying and working in the U.K.
- Allows us a change of pace from Ifemelu’s opinions and location, and also gives the reader a little self-contained story within the novel.
- This section reinforces Obinze’s remoteness from her, as he deals with his own issues, and gives us a better sense, from his perspective, of why they have grown distant; the emotional resonance is added in the reader’s mind to what we’ve learned from Ifemelu to create a more complex and three-dimensional picture.
- This switch to Obinze in the U.K. also provides a cultural contrast to Ifemelu’s experiences in the U.S., so suddenly that aspect of the novel in Part 2 is mapping itself to similar but also very different aspects in Part 3, creating additional resonance and points of communication (and miscommunication).
- Setting Parts 2 and 4 apart also signals that, even if it doesn’t at first seem like it, the emphasis in Part 4 will be different than in Part 2.
- Part 3 ends with Obinze’s arrival back in Lagos, but no information on what happens to him once he gets there (although these “subsequent” events still exist prior to—in the past of—Ifemelu’s visit to the braid salon). This abrupt cut away from Obinze provides closure to the story arc of his U.K. misadventures—and fills in a gap left by having Part 2 be almost exclusively from Ifemelu’s point of view, which creates a sense of satisfaction in the reader. This sense of closure (even as it is also an opening up) is vital for a novel that does not achieve its effects by way of overt, present-day forward action. It gives the reader a kind of reward in that sense.
- At the same time, Part 3 leaves the reader teetering at a point of drama wanting to know “what happens next,” which helps with narrative momentum. (We have some general sense of what happens next from Parts 1 and 2, but not all of the specific details.)
Part 4 (Chapters 31—41): All chapters from Ifemelu’s point of view, with the emphasis more firmly on her life in the U.S. with fewer flashbacks to Nigeria. Ifemelu leaves the braid salon at the end of Chapter 41. Rather fascinatingly, in terms of the affects you can create, Chapter 31 mostly deals with subjects related to issues with black women’s hair, with little or no mention of the salon setting. However, the subject matter implies the setting. (This effect reinforces, in the extreme!, the bullet point on 158 of Wonderbook about how when returning to a setting, you don’t have to repeat description from prior scenes using that same setting.)
- Just as we had some resolution regarding aspects of Obinze’s life in Part 3, in Part 4 we get the resolution to questions about Ifemelu’s relationships in the U.S. and her distance from Obinze. In a sense, Part 3 preps us to receive answers by providing its answers about Obinze, and Part 3 and 4 are twinned for that reason. Just as Part 3 is from Obinze’s point of view, Part 4 is solely from Ifemelu’s point of view.
- Having been in Obinze’s point of view for so long, we return to Ifemelu’s point of view in Part 4 in a way refreshed and also anxious to learn more about her. If Part 3 had been omitted, then Part 4 would seem perhaps “more of the same” in relation to Part 2.
- Because of the shift to Obinze’s point of view in Part 3, we also view Ifemelu and the events in Part 4 at least a little differently than if Part 3 had been omitted or had been placed after Part 4.
- By this point, too, Adichie has continued to accentuate the simple dramatic question of whether Ifemelu and Obinze will ever get together, which is twinned to the other question that has come to the fore in the meantime: Will Ifemelu return to Nigeria?
- Chapter 41 foregrounds the braid salon again, to anchor us in the present—to signify, too, a forward motion that propels us into the last sections of the novel, where the dramatic question will be resolved. Once Ifemelu leaves the braid salon, anything can happen because we are once again in the present and the unknown future. There is a great dramatic potential in that very simple action.
- However, by now, the complexity of the interactions in the salon and the complexities of Ifemelu’s life—and the ways in which Adichie has shifted between the two viewpoints—mean that for many readers the question of the novel has become not so much will Ifemelu and Obinze get back together but instead: Will Ifemelu succeed in taking all of these now disparate elements of her life and experiences and fashion a satisfying and meaningful life for herself out of them? This is the genius of a great novel: that it hooks you with one question, delivers an answer but also poses more complex questions along the way, ones that hook the reader on a deeper level.
Parts 5 and 6 (Chapters 42 and 43): I group these sections together because they belong together. Chapter 42 is from Obinze’s point of view and Chapter 43 is from Ifemelu’s point of view. These are transitional chapters, with Ifemelu still in the U.S. and on the verge of returning to Nigeria and meeting Obinze again.
- Chapter 42 from Obinze’s point of view emphasizes how Ifemelu is still in his thoughts, along with his hopes (which may mirror the reader’s own) that she will return to Nigeria at some point. It also reminds the reader of his perspective on things, as a counterpoint to Ifemelu’s own. His absence from Part 5 would have been seen as an unfortunate absence by the reader.
- Chapter 43 from Ifemelu’s point of view foreground both a kind of anticipation and trepidation; she is on the cusp of a life-change, and it is necessary to have a separate chapter (and part) to capture the dramatic importance of this transitional state. This is also the moment of heightened drama before they meet again; as such, Adichie has the luxury of creating any scene she likes, dramatic or low-key, because the reader is supplying the tension.
- The compartmentalized nature of these two chapters in two separate parts, while seemingly unnecessary (why not both placed in a Part 5?), in fact underscores this moment before they will be together again. It also underscores their individual qualities—their integrity as individual people, regardless of their relationship to one another. So, we see them here, separate, cut off from one another not just in their own chapters, but their own (adjoining) Parts.
Part 7 (Chapters 44 through 55): Set in Nigeria, these chapters are all from Ifemelu’s point of view except for Chapter 54, which is from Obinze’s point of view. These chapters grapple with the issues in Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship and provide a resolution to the novel.
- The majority of the chapters being from Ifemelu’s point of view again affirms that Americanah is her story.
- From a reader interest point of view, there is also more usefulness in Ifemelu’s observations about Lagos after having lived in the U.S. than in Obinze’s observations, since we have already gotten these observations and also because there are things that are so natural to him that he would not notice or remark upon them. (Although perspective is influenced by his experiences in the U.K.)
- Although Obinze has only one chapter from his point of view, it is an important and long chapter, which means it has a bit more weight than one would expect just from skimming the chapters.
- Obinze’s chapter, now that both characters are in the same place, doesn’t really overlap the events in Ifemelu’s point of view chapters but instead fills in gaps and provides needed insight.
- Just as the second chapter of the novel was from Obinze’s point of view, so too the second-to-last chapter is from his point of view, creating a pleasing symmetry—but allowing the novel to end in Ifemelu’s point of view.
By novel’s end, Adichie’s intricate structure, which includes incisive decisions about how to cut between the points of view of her two characters creates not just a satisfying resolution but also thematic resonance. There are all kinds of linkages between scenes and experiences, and catharsis and interest generated in the reader as a result of those decisions.
I offer up this crude diagram of the structure, which I drew by hand. In 2014, this image will be replaced with a polished version by artist Jeremy Zerfoss.
(For a larger version, click here.)