This week, a new story, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Casting Shadows, a short story or novel excerpt, published in the February 15th 2021 issue of The New Yorker. It was subsequently published as part of a full-length novel entitled Whereabouts. However, the text of Whereabouts, containing the short story, was first published in Italian in 2018, and then translated to English by Ms. Lahiri. Casting Shadows is not a continuous selection from Whereabouts but interestingly, comprised of various chapters put together. In a strict sense, then, it’s not a novel excerpt, but a short story put together from elements of a longer work.
Isn’t a short story a different form than a novel, a form with particular and necessary features that can differentiate one from the other?
Ms. Lahiri appeared on New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman’s blog, reading and discussing “Casting Shadows.” Some have been critical of Ms. Lahiri and The New Yorker for this presentation of “Casting Shadows,” calling it a sort of promotional gimmick for her book.
I shake my head sadly. Dena says that it’s very common for writers to have a short story and/or novel excerpt published in The New Yorker prior to publishing a book. It’s how the publishing/public relations business operates, and writers are entitled to be compensated for their work as much as anyone.
I’m no fan of consumerism but I know that I’m very taken with “Crossing Shadows.” I think it’s wonderful. I like “Whereabouts” as well but wanted to write about “Crossing Shadows.”
So there. The gauntlet is thrown.
Readers of Crossing Shadows who are familiar with this blog will immediately note the presence of a first-person narrator who seems very close to the “real” author, Jhumpa Lahiri. Both are women living in Italy, divorced and middle-aged, so it’s easy to think that Ms. Lahiri is writing about herself in a sort of memoir.
But what of the implied author, my dear? That entity created by the real author whom the reader believes wrote the story. That entity who expresses style and values? Do not blunder into this story without an awareness of the implied author.
Casting Shadows is presented as fiction. If you look at the index for that issue of The New Yorker, it says: Jhumpa Lahiri Casting Shadows. Fiction. We are asked to believe that it’s fiction.
Our time of the cult of personality, when authors are asked to create marketable personas to sell their work, can make it that much harder to separate the “real” author from the implied author and the narrator. I suppose a “marketable persona” is another entity mediating between the flesh and blood author and the market.
We’ll need to consider the implied author’s presence, but first, something else.
In Living To Tell About It, James Whelan makes an interesting distinction between traditional and what he calls lyric narrative:
“In traditional narrative, in the logic of connected events: one thing happens which leads to another thing and so on until the author finds some way to resolve the sequence. In lyric narrative…the logic of event gives way to the logic of revelation and exploration of a character’s emotions and attitudes in a particular situation. The movement from beginning to end typically follows the movement of the speaker’s thoughts, but these thoughts are not typically a review of his or her identity and situation. Instead, as the speaker’s thoughts follow their apparently autonomous direction, the author finds a way to convey to the reader a rounded awareness of the speaker’s character and situation.”
I believe Casting Shadows has characteristics of both traditional and lyric narrative but weighs in more heavily on the lyric side. The events or scenes of the story do not always seem connected except by the narrator’s presence, but there is movement and a kind of resolution of the narrator’s unrest.
An example, please.
The story begins: “Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with.” A nice beginning—it immediately raises a question: why might the narrator have been involved with this fellow? Why is she not? And the story provides an answer. The story does not begin: “I see this guy in my neighborhood, maybe we’ll get involved, maybe not.” That would raise a different question: will they, or won’t they? The first section continues with a fine image of the chaste couple observing and trying to photograph the shadows of pedestrians walking along a riverbank. “Then we, too, become two shadows projected onto the wall…” The title, Casting Shadows, of course, refers to this.
The next section or scene is marked off with a paragraph break. It continues: “In spring I suffer. The season doesn’t invigorate me, I find it depleting.” This section is about the narrator’s seasonal dysphoria and allergies—perhaps it relates to the first scene, perhaps not. There’s no mention of the man, no sense of how much time has passed. In any case, it tells we readers more about the narrator. In the logic of reading and storytelling, we readers want to believe it does connect somehow.
What does the narrator not get that the implied author communicates to we the readers? One thing is the episodic nature of the story, the discrete scenes, some almost like journal entries, that are delineated by paragraph breaks. The narrator gives no sense of awareness of these breaks, these sporadic glimpses. It is the implied author who structures them for us to understand. What is communicated? That the narrator is telling someone and/or herself about particular events and personal reactions in a poetic prose style. That these events and reactions are discrete phenomena that the narrator relates in small sections that begin and end. That there must be a process of selection, so that a great many potential things are simply not related by the narrator. This is not a continuous narrative; it stops and starts by some logic that we may be able to infer. As I said, we want to believe the sections connect and will struggle to make them connect, to perceive their over-arching order.
In regard to this, it seems to me that there is a pattern of an event reported, say of the narrator acting as a sort of wife-surrogate to the fellow mentioned above, and then the next section describing the narrator’s memories of being unsuccessful at childhood games of balance, games where she was “…terrified that I would fall, even though I never did.” In the previous scene, she was terrified that she and the man would fall together into an abyss.
Well, best beloved, the clock on the clubhouse wall says it’s time to go, so let’s pick up on this next time. Till then.