If you’ve read a book that was later made into a movie, it can be jarring if they get the casting completely wrong. Like, NO WAY. Dude was slightly built with dark hair and haunted eyes, NOT LEONARDO DICAPRIO!!! (For example.) That experience can completely destroy your enjoyment of a movie.
But what I never realized before is that the same thing is true for the voice of a book’s narrator. When I took my walk yesterday, I listened to a podcast of Selected Shorts, performed and recorded at Symphony Space, which is one of my long-time favorite podcasts and real-life experiences. Actors read aloud (and slightly perform, to varying degrees) short stories, each program organized around a theme. I’ve talked about this so many times on my blog, and I’ve also been so lucky to attend the performances at Symphony Space, especially easy since it’s located in my NYC neighborhood. I saw Stephen Colbert perform a story by T. C. Boyle and his professionalism was incredible — and, of course, he was funny. Just so many performances, and almost all good. It’s a mostly magical experience, sitting in the dark auditorium watching and listening to someone read a story aloud. It’s that old experience, the childhood experience, the people-around-a-fire experience, and I just love it.
So, to my point. The podcast featured Cynthia Nixon reading a chapter from Jenny Offill’s extraordinary book Dept. of Speculation, a kind of associational, dreamy novel about new motherhood, among other things. She has such an original eye for the detail that tells it all. The reading was from one of my favorite chapters in the book, no less. (There is a widget in the right sidebar of my blog that rotates through quotes I’ve saved in the books I read, and when a quote comes up from that book, it’s almost always from the chapter that was performed on the podcast.) (And note, I have nothing against Cynthia Nixon.) This is one of my very favorite quotes from the chapter:
“The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”
When I read the book, the narrator’s voice was quiet, interior, not really whispering but not much louder than that. It was a questioning voice, a complicated voice trying to find her way through this part of her life.
Nixon read it with exuberance! For a laugh! The quote above — read for a laugh! It was so completely wrong I couldn’t delete the podcast quickly enough. I pulled out my earbuds when she finished reading that line so I didn’t have to hear any more of it, and that was the end of it. Perhaps she hadn’t read the whole book and was just presented with the chapter, or perhaps that reading of the voice is entirely my own, born of my own dark, interior experience of new motherhood, but YIKES, man. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Until that moment, I hadn’t really realized that this was such a big deal. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me — voice casting is a thing.
Just in case you want to hear it (only if you haven’t read the book yet!), here is the episode. Golly I love Selected Shorts, even if this one rubbed up against my own imagination of the voice. Happy Sunday, y’all — book club meeting for me tonight with super smart, progressively-politicked, generous women to discuss Between the World and Me. It’s a bookish day in my little world.
P.S. if you’re ever in NYC and want a beautiful experience, head over the Symphony Space. For real. Here’s the calendar of events. It’s located at 96th and Broadway, on the west side of the street, and at a major express stop on the 1/2/3 line — Upper West Side all the way.