Whereabouts, a novel, by Jhumpa Lahiri
This melancholy and stylish novel, Jhumpa Lahiri’s third, marks a tonal and literary departure. In her previous fiction (two novels, The Lowland, 2013, and The Namesake, 2003, and two collections of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, 1999, and Unaccustomed Earth, 2008), identity and place are central interests. Those works chart the frictions of immigrant characters and settings in which they’re often out of place, nuances of relationship that may or may not cross cultural boundaries, and the complications of family histories as generations acclimate to new cultures and ways of being. In Whereabouts, the author sets aside those interests and writes from a place that has always inhabited her work: a deep melancholy that operates as a thematic through line.
Character revealed with tactile and visual detail
The novel centers on an unnamed woman of a certain age—neither young nor old—and in chapters titled by the character’s proximity to places—On Vacation, In the Street, In My Head—she narrates the events of her daily life in an emotionless, almost flat affect. She meets an old lover in the street, travels to the seaside, goes for coffee or lunch, visits her mother. These instances feel episodic, almost generic in character, yet become vivid in the melancholy that undergirds each moment and action, and in the fine detail Lahiri is known for, she renders her characters’ consciousness through tactile and visual detail.
In Whereabouts, Lahiri dispenses with names, culture, identity, specific places, and settings. The resulting atmosphere is austere and works to great effect in revealing the unnamed speaker’s state of mind. Unmarried, adrift, sometimes single, other times not, she inhabits life in an emotional past and present, one in which people and things are objects for contemplation and vehicles for biography. We learn of the fraught relationship with her father through his love of the theater, and the regret she feels at the performance they never saw due to his death. She recalls a dinner party when she momentarily lost patience with an opinionated guest and berated her. Most often though, the unnamed narrator occupies a world in which things signify other things: memory, regret, longing.
Out shopping, she observes: “I grow sad looking at all those brand-new suitcases, all of them empty, waiting for a traveler, waiting for various things to fill them, waiting for someplace to go. There’s nothing else for sale. Just suitcases. But then, right at the entrance, I notice a bunch of umbrellas, big ones and small ones, of the cheapest quality, bait for desperate tourists caught in a downpour, those pathetic umbrellas that almost always end up in the garbage can after the storm, shoved in with a certain fury, looking like tortured herons.”
Adrift in place
Originally published in Italian, titled Dove mi trovo, and translated into English by the author, there are bits of Italian language throughout—piazza, trattoria—that locate the general place as Italy (Lahiri has said she wrote most of the novel while on visits to her second home in Rome), but otherwise, like the speaker, we’re adrift in place.
I love Lahiri’s writing, and have always appreciated the melancholy strain in her work that evokes William Trevor and the stories of Chekhov, finding in it a kind of meditative quality. Though most surprising about Whereabouts is how Lahiri uses absence as a subject itself. In her previous books, identity, and setting were central concerns, so it was a revelation here to see her erase them, to tell a story without those qualities. And indeed, toward the end of Whereabouts, the speaker tells us:
“Because when all is said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference whether I’m under a clear blue sky or caught in the rain or swimming in the transparent sea in summer. I could be riding a train or traveling by a car or flying in a plane, among the clouds that drift and spread on all sides like a mass of jellyfish in the air. I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.”
Character as setting
For the speaker, objects hold the power of connection—a brooch of her mother’s, a chipped plate bought at a garage sale, an address book she thumbs through. Even as she searches her apartment for stray ephemera, she knows “they’re somewhere of course.” Everything and everyone is somewhere, but how and when we find ourselves in these places is a mystery, seemingly subject to random movements in time in space.
This haunting novel, which isn’t so much about its character but a subject that’s always been central to Lahiri’s work, transience and impermanence, turns the story chestnut of setting as character on its head and shows us the inverse, character as setting. In Whereabouts, the unnamed speaker’s view of the world, and her responses to people and things, is the locus, the geography of this story. “Is there any place we’re not moving through?” we’re told late in the novel. “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.”
Read a recent interview with Jhumpa Lahiri in which she discusses place here.