‘The Book of M’: Seeking out others’ shadows


Graphic by Katie Erickson

This article contains a mild spoiler.

I have come to realize that a lot of great literature plays with figurative shadows. William Shakespeare infringes on his reader’s chaste loyalty in “The Winter’s Tale” by brewing a shadow plot of incest underneath the direct story, while Bronte thought it best to blunt a facet of Jane Eyre’s psyche — her passion — and light it ablaze in her ‘character double,’ Bertha, who lives literally and figuratively in Jane’s shadow.

Shadows, reflective of the obvious, are perhaps the essence of literature, conveying precisely what should be read between the lines.

Just as words dress the story being told in a novel, our physical bodies are often gleaned as words written by external spectators of our private story. Our shadows, the underlying nuances of the person behind the words, aren’t recognized, or at the very least, acknowledged.

Peng Shepherd explicitly uses the implications behind the conceptual shadow in her debut novel “The Book of M.” Set in a dangerously near future, Shepherd’s characters deal with the outbreak of a deadly epidemic: the disappearance of one’s shadow. While some believe it to be a newfound mystical strength, it’s not long before they realize it comes at a price: a lethal loss of memories, eerily labeled as “The Forgetting.”

In my head, when reading this novel, Shepherd’s premise conjured up an image of an intricately woven individual adorned with a cloak of memories.

As I entered the mind of protagonist Max, and started to experience her spiral into dementia, I began to see the image of the mystical cloaked creature as myself. I realized we are all witnesses to countless configurations of this image everyday, when we step out of the door into the sun and say “hi” to our own shadows. My shadow is a trail of my memories, a rich body of experience.

Shepherd’s focus on identity through the incorporeal image of the body forces the reader to contemplate the skewed judgment we have of others based on the purely physical. Her characters’ shadows reflected their memories and experiences, a core contributor in the formation of identity, and challenged the association we tend to have at first glance with one’s visible image and who they inherently are.

My morning ritual starts with a confrontation with my body through the mirror. That familiarity I feel being in my own skin is fueled by the consistency of seeing my reflection. I’ve tied the internal ‘me’ to my outward image, which Shepherd demonstrates through the displacement of Max’s shadow into another’s body, for a good reason.

But this familiar ease at which we see our outward image as a depiction of our self has given rise to a false comprehension of others’ personas when we are reading — or more accurately, judging — others.

Over time, our gaze focuses on ourselves as it would on others. Looking in the mirror, I take a step outside my body, look back at myself, and think: “My hair is looking sleek today, but the ends are getting dry. The zit on my chin has gone, but now the hyperpigmentation it left behind screams louder than ever. My skin is smoother than yesterday, but these three red bumps still distract the eye from my better features.” I see a blemish, and it can ever-so-slightly tarnish my self-perception.

Similarly, we meet someone new at a party, orientation, or a friend’s house, and we use their appearance as a point of judgment for their entire being.

A potential employee interviews for a job, and the employer’s snap impression is influenced by the candidate’s physical appearance. Rather than evaluating personality as a whole, we merely use it to mediate our initial judgment of one’s aesthetic.

After all, our brains are wired for instant facial recognition, so how wrong is it really to initially label people based on their appearance? It’s not. As Shepherd illustrates in her book, our physical form contributes to our self-actualization. What’s on the inside does count, but often so does the outside.

The issue lies in our occasional inability to deviate from the snap judgment and zoom in on the internal character. We take for granted the shadow underlying one’s physical body. Yet, without it, our bodies would be nothing but a spaceless, wide-eyed, frighted Jane or John Doe.

The internal persona and physical body work hand in hand in forming the holistic person we see in the mirror. Rather than diminishing the shadow behind it, the physical body should reflect the richness of experience and substance that has formed the individual.

It takes more effort to see the internal self, but it’s an effort worth pursuing. A shadow is not easily seen — only when there is light at the right angle. But it’s far more satisfying seeking out shadows than merely seeing the substanceless drab of what’s smack right in front of you.

Tarini Sipahimalani is an English major at Pomona College. She enjoys drawing, singing a cappella, and tennis, but mostly for social purposes.

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