Nowhere Woman

In our odd society, where everywhere is nowhere and nowhere is everywhere, Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, Whereabouts, is full of undefined realities. Its title is a bit vague, and the place is unnamed, as is the main character. The pervasive atmosphere is one of disconnection from the world. Most novelists these days are ideologues at heart, who use art as a vehicle to voice (mostly leftist) positions. But assuming this about Lahiri’s book would be a mistake, especially for a reader who is expecting Lahiri’s familiar style of writing, which is marked by deeply specific characters with a strong cultural, national, and linguistic identity, who are integral parts of family sagas. Whereabouts is a subtle and deep portrait of a single character: a woman searching for existential outlines so that she may feel more secure in an insecure world.

Lahiri was born in London to parents from India, and the family moved to the United States when she was three years old. She considers herself an American, and on one occasion has said that although “she wasn’t born here [in the United States], [she] might as well have been.” She sees herself as “an outsider but not a foreigner.” This is an important distinction, especially in the context of Lahiri being a writer and an immigrant. 

To be a foreigner is to be out of place in the country you find yourself in. You walk the streets of the cities and towns and you feel dislocated, disordered, and somehow out of sync with the physical reality that surrounds you. In addition, you can’t seem to connect to the people. This does not bode well existentially because encounters with others are the essence of life, and critical to one’s flourishing.  

Writing about one of her characters, Ashima (from the 2003 novel, The Namesake), Lahiri confirms this displacement. Ashima defines being a foreigner in her own way. It is a state of being that is akin to

a sort of lifelong pregnancy, a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

In contrast, to be an outsider is paradoxically to belong to the environment you find yourself in. You are an observer of the people, of the land, of inanimate and animate objects, and your voice is not lost in the sea of other voices. Being an outsider is a bit like being Tom Wolfe in a white suit: a person who distances himself from others yet belongs. This is an essential characteristic for a good writer, who often finds himself in a lonely place thanks to the vocation of writing itself.

The Great Displacement

Whereabouts presents a different kind of struggle from the one Lahiri showed in her Pulitzer-prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and her novel, The Namesake. Originally written in Italian and published as Dove Mi Trovo, Whereabouts was translated by Lahiri herself. It is a series of short but connected vignettes told from a first-person perspective of a nameless young woman, experiencing a different kind of dislocation from an immigrant. The environment she inhabits daily is unnamed too but it’s clear that it takes place in Italy, most likely in Rome. 

The woman is disconnected from everything that is around her: buildings, trees, and most of all people. This is not to say that she has no desires of her own or even that she is incredibly listless. On the contrary, what makes this woman interesting is exactly the fact that she is aware of her indecisions and somewhat poor choices. She is at the junction in life where the innocence and hope in people’s goodness have been replaced by a degree of cynicism, yet she’s not old enough to reach wisdom or have a renewed sense of hope. She is not happy, to say the least, and this is reflected in her work as well.

The woman’s dis-ease is not something that can be physically cured. Rather, she is suffering from a spiritual malaise of someone who doesn’t even care whether she has a spirit or not. 

She is an academic who doesn’t particularly love or hate her students. Lahiri describes the woman’s day: “I open the door, set down my bag, and prepare for the day. I answer emails and choose what book I’d like my students to read. I’m here to earn a living, my heart’s not in it…occasionally a brave soul knocks on the door to ask my advice about something, or maybe a favor. The student sits in front of me, confident, full of ambition.”

The woman clearly has enough distance from the intensity of her own emotions to relate to her students, but one imagines an interior dialogue during those student visits wholly different than what she is presenting. She could be cursing the school, the department, even the poor student for sitting in the chair, asking to be heard. But nobody knows because she keeps things to herself.

Lahiri finds poetry in the everyday and the mundane. The narrator finds an encounter between a father and a daughter a fascinating study in love and loss. It appears that the wife has left the father, and now the father and the daughter are trying to find their own way through life. The daughter doesn’t respect him and it’s unclear if she loves him. He makes several earnest attempts to connect and then he “gives in. He stops trying, this week, to convince her. Now he, too, looks at his cell phone. She only eats part of her dish, and he finishes it for her.”

The woman is fighting many feelings within, but one of the main themes that runs through most vignettes is the impending doom of inevitable mortality. “After turning forty-five,” the woman says, “after a long and fortunate phase of hardly ever going to the doctor, I grew acquainted with illness.” This illness, however, is just a “series of mysterious pains” for which the woman doesn’t have an explanation. Strangely enough, she is only in pain whenever she tries to relax, when she’s “expecting to feel at peace.” 

The pains don’t last long either but they serve as a nagging doubt about the state of her health. Her physical body is out of sync not only with herself but also with the physical space that she is trying to interact with. As a result, her body is signaling signs of a disease but of course, as Lahiri indicates and alludes throughout the book, the woman’s dis-ease is not something that can be physically cured. Rather, she is suffering from a spiritual malaise of someone who doesn’t even care whether she has a spirit or not. 

Existential Malaise in the Post-Human Age

Although Whereabouts is completely free of politics and any ideology (which is one of its excellent and positive aspects), it’s difficult not to imagine the woman in the book as part of a larger fluid consciousness that we are currently experiencing. Embodied particularities about each of us, our individual and collective culture, languages, and nationalities appear to be submerged under the murky waters of sameness. But the dread transcends any particular epoch and it paradoxically remains rooted in its lack of solid rootedness. 

Lahiri’s storytelling in Whereabouts suggests an existential dread we know from the likes of Camus, but she is also acutely aware of our current melancholia.

The woman feels this dread, but it is the only way that she can connect to others. She has transient romantic relationships; she expresses a yearning to once again speak to her father who is dead; she’s trying to understand her mother but fails to have a meaningful relationship that goes beyond the surface. The dread of the future is also visible in her encounters with strangers. Following her usual routine of going into the pool, the woman observes others in the same act of swimming. She imagines their lives to be awful and burdened (perhaps because every encounter is just a reflection of her own interior pain). The solace she feels from the pool suddenly takes on a tragic character: “As I take in these losses, these tragedies, it occurs to me that the water in the pool isn’t so clear after all. It reeks of grief, of heartache. It’s contaminated. And after I get out I’m saturated by a vague sense of dread…it burrows into my soul, it wedges itself into every nook of my body.”

We tend to think of existentialist literature usually in terms of French expression seen in the works of Albert Camus, and other French existentialists. Perhaps World War II was one of the breaking points in our time; a movement from one epoch to another that has nothing to with chronological time or a passing from one century to another. Perhaps it is this moment in time that gave birth to another form of acedia, colored by the darkness of the Holocaust and all the subsequent suffering that overwhelmed the world. Because of this impact, we have been unable to shake off a modern sense of dread. Now, we have shapeshifted into the reality that claims to be post-human. 

Lahiri’s storytelling in Whereabouts suggests an existential dread we know from the likes of Camus but she is also acutely aware of our current melancholia. Here, we see an honest and authentic exploration of one woman’s malaise and her inability to exit escape from her condition. The woman is fully aware of being in a space where she feels as though she is constantly drifting. She’s “always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.” She narrates, “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.” This, in essence, describes not only the woman’s condition but our current collective consciousness. 

Unmoving Ruins and Objects of Time

Is there anything then that is unchanged or untouched by the dread? Is there anything that the woman can hold onto? Ironically, satisfying her consumerist need, the woman buys the objects from the past. On some subconscious level, she is trying to relate to the past and the collective history. She buys “a magazine that was sold thirty-three years ago at a newsstand” to feel the imaginary possibility that the magazine was read by a person. “In the stark summer desert,” she narrates, “this oasis of objects, this ongoing flow of goods, reminds me that everything vanishes, and also reminds me of the banal, stubborn residue of life.”

What do we make of such a strange relation to the world? Should we have compassion for the woman or is this condition entirely of her own making? Maybe she’s the one that’s actually being honest with life, while the other people are sleepwalking through it. Or does she simply need to shake off the emotions she’s letting herself indulge in? Is she a foreigner or an outsider? Every reader may feel differently toward her but Lahiri brings out not only the woman’s perpetual dread but also a singularly human condition that has been called many different things throughout ages: be it acedia, melancholia, dread, sloth, or torpor, it’s the same restlessness that we carry within us.