One-Person Book Club: Jhumpa Lahiri Double Feature
It’s 1999. I’m working for the then-giant Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company. Even in the college textbooks division, the halls are abuzz with talk of this new short story collection that’s winning awards and mountains of praise. So I use my employee discount to buy a copy of “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri, to see what all the fuss is about.
I read it during my lunch break, sitting outside next to the reflecting pool at the Church of Christ Scientist mother church. It might be the only time I’ve ever read a book while sitting in a location described in said book. But even with this remarkable physical connection, I just didn’t feel emotionally connected to the stories. I wasn’t bored. Lahiri is an engaging writer. The stories were interesting (albeit depressing), and she describes her characters and their settings enough to make me feel like I’m sitting in the room with them. But as a reader, I want to be in her characters’ heads, not observing them while standing against the wall.
While the detached, lifeless feeling ran through all of the stories at different levels of intensity, “Sexy” was especially guilty of it. Miranda’s motivations were a mystery to me. Why was she so drawn to sleep with a man she knew was married? Why did she suddenly embrace her skankiness by buying a bunch of hooker clothes? It was like watching a movie with a mannequin standing in for an actress.
But here’s the thing: Everyone I knew loved “Interpreter of Maladies,” and I was too embarrassed to admit that it was too dry and detached for my taste. I decided that something was wrong with me, not the book. So I convinced myself that I loved it, too. Over the years, whenever I saw a reference to it, I thought, “Oh yeah, that book I read back when I worked at HMCO. It was good…I think.”
Well, 12 years have passed. Lahiri deserves another chance.
A friend lent me “The Namesake,” both the book and the movie. The child of Indian immigrants, he bears an intensely personal connection to the story. I don’t have that connection, but I know how gut-wrenching it feels to read a great writer articulate your cultural experience. Whenever anyone criticizes Sandra Cisneros, the very core of my heart bristles with anger. Insults about her work feel like insults about my family. So I completely recognize that I may have missed some important cultural touchstones in my analysis of both these books. Try not to take it personally.
Much of ”The Namesake” is excellent. There are passages of such intense, painful clarity that I sobbed while reading them. My family’s been in south Texas for over 200 years (seriously), so I don’t have first-hand experience with being an immigrant; but Lahiri verbally illustrates what the discomfort and uncertainty must feel like. Unlike in “Interpreter of Maladies,” I was in the characters’ heads and their breaking hearts, torn between two continents and the family members dying far away from them.
But at other points, Lahiri writes the way my mother sometimes tells stories (sorry, Mom) — backtracking further and further on different tangents until I couldn’t remember the original point. And then there are the clichés. Multitudes of them. We’re all guilty of using easy turns of phrase now and then; but come on. She won the Pulitzer. She shouldn’t rely so heavily on devices like that.
In the second half of the book, Lahiri becomes especially guilty of name recognition. As Gogol grows up, Lahiri relies too heavily on names and their associated values, substituting them for actual descriptions. Several of the characters went to Ivy League schools, but that’s most of what we know about them. All the adult woman Gogol meets are incredibly beautiful and thin, and not much more than that. The characters visit specific places in Boston or New York; but Lahiri doesn’t explain what makes these places unique, or why her characters seek them out. And almost everyone with an artistic job that probably pays very little lives in a ridiculously lavish residence (or what David dubbed “the ‘Friends’ trap”). Sure, Gogol has to use all his wedding checks to pay the deposit on his and his wife’s fancy new apartment; but paying for it after that never seems to be a problem.
Ultimately, the only fully formed characters were Ashima, Ashoke, and (to a lesser extent) their son Gogol. Everyone else just ended up shallow and lifeless, a pile of labels without a heartbeat underneath them. Yes, I realize this was probably intentional; but it bugged me. Not every character in every book can be fleshed out as much as the protagonist(s), but I would’ve enjoyed the second half of the book way more if it had felt as real as the first.
(Side note: The movie was pretty well done. The ending was far too abrupt, but the actors did a fantastic job — especially Tabu as Ashima and Irrfan Khan as Ashoke, with an honorable mention to the seriously underrated [and seriously hot] Kal Penn as Gogol.)
After journeying through “The Namesake” both on paper and onscreen, I felt obliged to reread “Interpreter of Maladies.” Maybe it was way better than I remembered it, I told myself. After all, parts of “The Namesake” had been incredible, even if the book as a whole wasn’t.
Upon a second reading a dozen years after the first, “Interpreter of Maladies” still felt a little cold and clinically observant, though it didn’t suffer from the clichés and flat character found in the second half of “The Namesake.” The Boston location name-dropping was still there, but it didn’t seem to be as much of a crutch. And there was no jerky, backtracking-too-far storytelling in it. I still hated “Sexy,” though. Some things don’t change.
But many do. The second time I read it, “The Third and Final Continent” became a near perfect story. Every character in it felt real, flawed, and earnest. The narrator’s struggles — his milk spoiling on the ledge, his reluctant acceptance of having to get a better apartment, his irritation with Mrs. Croft coupled with obligatory respect — leapt to life.
But even though I’ve come away from “Interpreter of Maladies” with a new respect for it, and even though I liked several angles of both it and “The Namesake,” I don’t feel that tempted to pick up her 2008 book, “Unaccustomed Earth.” I’m not sure why. I’m not bored by her material, though I think she’s always going to write about Bengali people immigrating to and assimilating in American (or their children’s assimilation). That’s fine. Every author has their pet subject matter. Look at Richard Russo and academia/small east coast town life. Alice Munro and sad women in Canada. John Irving and New England/writers.
Maybe it’s the sad shadow cast over all of Lahiri’s stories that makes me want to depart from them for a while. Characters that aren’t melancholy are shallow, oblivious to the pain their partners, friends, or families are experiencing. The non-shallow characters, meanwhile, are sad and resentful, unable to find their new places in the world. Regardless of origins, we’ve all experienced that. But I don’t know if I want to immerse myself in it for a third time right now. I’ve just been through plenty of depressing incidents in my own life. I need to read something entertaining as well as inspiring for a while. I’ll pick up “Unaccustomed Earth” eventually. But not just yet.
Copyright 2011, Sarah at ThatsAGirlsCar.com and TotesMcGoat.com. All rights reserved.