Simultaneous Shuffle

Hold your eye-rolls while I quote my own kicker:

A heightened awareness of how art is constructed can breed new interpretations.

–some dumb motherfucker

Allow me to add: as can juxtaposing different artistic mediums, to understand how each operate, and how a medium’s distinct means of expression changes the possible forms a story can take therein.

Take, for instance, Colson Whitehead’s new book Harlem Shuffle.

First off, writing about him is a fool’s errand, despite the endless avenues to roam paved by the immensity of his ingenuity. That’s a part of the problem: short-form cannot hope to exhaust all these avenues, and choosing merely one runs the risk of erroneously implying that the bustling metropolis that is his literary wit can be boiled down to just one puny little street, in comparison.

Plus, you try matching the pure quality of his writing; good luck on a losing effort.

And yet, here I am, telling you that Harlem Shuffle is about — !!! AT LEAST PARTIALLY !!! — the divide between how we see ourselves, and how our actions portray us to the world. In his head, which we’re continually privy to throughout the novel, Ray Carney considers himself an upstanding member of his community. And yet, from an onlooker’s view, his actions are crooked at best and criminal at worst, no matter his spin.

Which isn’t to say he’s completely unaware of his own liminal criminality. But perhaps he’s more forgiving of himself, and less likely to define his illicit pursuits as representative of his overall character, than we’d be, without the privilege of his inner perspective.

And this dissonance, between Ray’s self-diagnoses and his outer (mis)deeds, is intimately tied to the literary form. The book oscillates between descriptions of his self-surveys, and descriptions of his actual behavior, and the reader reckons with the contradictions; the written word helps to create this concurrently clashing multiplicity.

Meanwhile, the camera — or, for live theater, the audience’s static vantage point — remains firmly external. Gestures can indicate towards a character’s interiority, or dialogue can hypothesize over it, or voiceover can give voice to their thoughts (probably the closest to a novel), but the cognitive blurriness caused by this inside-outside incongruity is almost impossible to replicate on the screen and/or stage.

Sure, you can show multiple versions of events (Rashomon alert), or suggest the first-person-tainted surreality of what’s depicted, but these variations exist side-by-side, usually successively — there’s only one screen/stage at a time — while literature can pull it off simultaneously.

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