Thank you!

  • Alan Bray

Walkin' the Dog


An important idea is that reading a story changes the reader, that being with a story—and we should say, the implied author of the story—makes you a different, possibly better person. The implication here is not that there should be a Puritanical and censorious rule: “You are commanded to only read the Holy Scripture or Torah, because you are what you read!” It‘s more an acknowledgement that stories have an effect on us, one that it’s good to be aware of. If reading were not an important activity, then it would be no big deal what you read. If you read stories that show the violent exploitation of children and women, what effect does that have? Not a very good one, in my opinion. Although…it’s a bit more complicated. Lolita is a notorious example of a book that some people call pornography, others literature. I’ll just say that when I’ve read Lolita, I think it made me a better person, but not because I thought Humbert Humbert was a great guy. I thought his behavior was wrong, but was moved by the tragedy of the story, the tarnished humanity, I suppose, of a pedophile.

A simpler example would be if an implied author wants to show a character killing someone, the act can be contextualized in different ways. Let’s say a character is a policeman who kills very bad people, people who are shown doing very bad things. Contrast that with a character who kills innocent victims, victims whose innocence is displayed. In the first case, the implied author probably wants the reader to feel satisfaction, in the second, unease.

Well, you say, that’s all very fine but what of Casting Shadows? How do we feel spending time with the implied author of this story? What sort of experience does the story’s implied author want us to have?

I think the answer is something like, if you read me, spend some time with me, I will move you emotionally. Make you happy, sad, frustrated. I will draw you in with my character’s vulnerability, the way her faults are exposed. You may or may not like her and what she does, but you will profit from the effort.

How is this accomplished?

Our friend Wayne Booth talks about how the title and first line of a story is an invitation to the reader. The first line of Casting Shadows is: “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.” There’s an immediacy of yearning here; the single sentence captures the way a lonely person is excited by somewhat random encounters. You learn quickly that this man is the husband of the narrator’s friend, but by then you already know that an affair between them doesn’t happen, it “might have” happened, and I believe this forestalls condemnation and dislike. Instead, you are given to understand that this is a story about how the narrator is attracted to the husband of her friend but does not have an affair with him. As we have seen, things become more complicated, and the narrator is perhaps not without some blame, but her errors are always cast in a sympathetic mold.

Hey, nobody’s perfect.

The implied author has the narrator tell the reader: “In spring I suffer…Every blow in my life took place in spring…of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment.” The reader learns that the narrator is melancholy, has had sad experiences. Some people, reading Casting Shadows, have complained that the story is a portrait of someone with “clinical depression.” This is perhaps legitimate, but I think the overall picture is more of someone with gravitas, someone who has had a range of experience and is alone. Again, this interpretation tends to blunt criticism of the narrator as a “bad” person. Not to excuse her desires, but to make her more likable, less an object, more a ”real” person.

The next section elaborates on this theme. The narrator describes an encounter with her “ex, the only significant one.” Now she mostly sees his negative qualities, his fussiness, his pretension. She recalls his unfaithfulness to her, how he maintained a sort of double life, going from life with her to life with another woman. The narrator was badly treated, however…”even as my life shattered into pieces, I felt as if I were finally coming up for air.” A further view of the narrator as a sympathetic survivor.

Now that the implied author has established some likable qualities in the narrator it’s time to show her dark side—a dark side now in context. She is a sad, lonely person who yearns for happiness. She follows her friend and the husband, listening in on their arguing. She goes on an outing with the husband when her friend is ill, becoming a sort of surrogate wife, and then waits for his call proposing they have an affair. As I’ve mentioned, she doesn’t express guilt or remorse, but does feel considerable anxiety over falling into “an abyss.”

I think the story would have a much different feel if we did not have the earlier scenes of the narrator expressing sadness, loneliness, telling the unfortunate story of her failed marriage. Without the proper context, she could come off as an unlikable psychopath—but that is not the implied author’s intent. (Unlikable psychopath—are there likable psychopaths?)

At the end, responding to a crisis, the narrator goes to walk her friend’s dog. Over several days, she walks the dog; she likes the dog: “…though he pulls me, I’m the one holding the leash. Every step puts distance between me and my infatuation until it’s no longer dangerous, until our romance, which never took hold to begin with, loses its hold over me.”

So, reading Casting Shadows lets us spend time with a lonely and alienated person who yearns for connection, almost achieves it through illicit romance, but catches herself and accepts that it isn’t meant to be.

I am touched by this story, by its style and by what it shows about people. I like the narrator even though I’m unhappy with her at points mid-story. She shows her vulnerabilities, and this helps me like her. Even though I don’t always find her honest, the implied author lets me know the truth.

I think we’ll wrap up Chasing Shadows this week although there’s more to say about this beautiful story. One thing that comes to mind is its curious genesis: taken in discontinuous sections from a novel written in the Italian language, translated, and published in a major American literary magazine just before the publication of the Italian novel in English. A marketing ploy, some have said. I say this is a fantastic story on its own, a successful venture, but I wonder if this sort of thing will be repeated—crafting a short story from parts of a novel.

Till next time.

#CastingShadows #JhumpaLahiri