October 7, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri: Unaccustomed Earth

Posted in Bloomsbury, Lahiri Jhumpa at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve heard so much about Jhumpa Lahiri in recent years, from praise for her debut (Pulitzer Prize-winning) collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, to the film adaptation of her novel The Namesake, that it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge. The publication of a new collection of stories in a fine edition and praise by trusted commenters on this blog, was the kick in the backside I needed.

The epigraph, and title, of Unaccustomed Earth comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Custom-House’:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

It’s perfect for the book: here are eight stories of people who struck their roots into unaccustomed earth, either themselves or by their parents: typically Indian roots in America, sometimes via England (as in the case of Lahiri’s own parents). Contrary to Hawthorne’s prescription, not all of them are thriving.

All this is beautifully illustrated in the title story, the longest in the book at almost 60 pages. Here Ruma, in her late 30s, struggles to balance independence and family loyalty when her widowed father comes to visit.

“You’re always welcome here, Baba,” she’d told her father on the phone. “You know you don’t have to ask.” Her mother would not have asked. “We’re coming to see you in July,” she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.

What Lahiri does so well in the story ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is present people who are perfectly individual yet utterly recognisable, particular to their culture but universal in their character. She really does have families down pat. She knows how a father is never quite the same as a mother: “[Ruma] had never been able to confront her father freely, the way she used to fight with her mother. Somehow, she feared that any difference of opinion would chip away at the already frail bond that existed between them.” She understands the greatest unrequited love of all, that of parents for their children, when she expertly slips into the mind of Ruma’s father (who has a few surprises in store for his daughter too in the course of the story), who remembers how “tormented” he had been by his growing children’s appetite for independence:

That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things. He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion that he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start.

(In a later story, another parent is “plagued by his daughters’ vulnerability,” without seeing his own.) Loss and frustration takes a more familiar form in ‘Hell-Heaven’, a contender with ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ for strongest in the book. Here we have not only a tale of unspoken love which keeps its powder dry right up to the last page – and then catches fire – but the recurring question of belonging. Just as Ruma in the opening story cannot understand her father’s handwritten postcards (“her own Bengali was slipping from her”), here the daughter-narrator protests when her parents make her wear a shalwar kameez, making her American friends “assume … that I had more in common with other Bengalis than with them,” whereas she feels herself to be not only her mother’s daughter “but a child of America as well.”

If I had a criticism of these early stories, all of which are superb, it’s that I would have liked some balance of emphasis on the older generation, those who feel less attached to America and more of a pull with their homeland.  We get this only a little, with Ruma’s father in the title story.

The later stories delighted me less. ‘Nobody’s Business’ seems too glib and clever with its tale of housemates, dodgy boyfriends and mysterious callers (though it’s a measure of how well Lahiri executes her effects elsewhere that this story would have pride of place in many other authors’ collections). The three linked stories which close the book, under the umbrella title ‘Hema and Kaushik,’ somehow failed to engage me at all, putting me off partly I suspect with the first story’s curious use of first/second person narrative. This may have been a simple case of story fatigue on my part – 330 pages of stories is somehow more demanding than a novel the same length – and I did wonder if some of the stories should have been shorter. The stories in Unaccustomed Earth average 40 to 50 pages each, which for me makes it a struggle to read each in a sitting (surely the means for getting the best out of any story). I see that Lahiri’s previous collection managed to fit nine stories into 200 pages, so the stories were half the length of these. One commenter did recommend reading the closing trilogy first, and that might have helped. Meanwhile, I’ll be grateful for the considerable – the unaccustomed – pleasure I had from it, and try that reverse order next time around.

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19 Comments »

  1. jem said,

    I might give this collection a go John. Sometimes I struggle with short stories being too short – I often prefer the long ones, so what is a weakness for you might be the strength for me. I like the way the stories seem connected by the theme suggested by the title. Great cover too!

  2. Mrinal Bose said,

    I have read Jhuma Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Her writing is kind of straight, formulaic, and devoid of any kinks. May be her MFA from Columbia has something to do with this kind of writing. But I’m amused she has her admirers, and was even awarded the Pulitzer prize for literarture some time ago.

  3. John Self said,

    I hope you’ll share your thoughts if you do try it, jem.

    Mrinal, an interesting view! I think I know what you mean by ‘formulaic’, though I would have said ‘traditional’ or similar. I haven’t read Interpreter of Maladies but others here have praised the opening story “A Temporary Matter” very highly – and others still have said this collection is an advance on her first.

  4. Paul said,

    Enjoyed reading your review as ever John.

    I actually found the interlinked closing three stories, which almost form a novella by themselves, to be the most powerful and profound and moving, perhaps alongside Hell-Heaven. The one story I felt did not quite coalesce was the one about the thirtysomething guy visiting his old boarding school to attend the wedding of his teenage crush. I just felt it didn’t come together quite as well as the others, but then, she sets such a high standard that by any other hand you wouldn’t even mention it.

    I just finished reading The Interpreter of Maladies and thought it to be outstanding. You mention the desire you felt to read more about the parents generation and their experience; there are a couple of stories in this collection which do just that very sensitively and subtly.

    The abiding tone I recall from her work is a sense of melancholy, loneliness, fragility and vulnerability. She transmutes the particular into a universal human sensibility and vision of life. She really is a very talented writer.

  5. I loved The Interpreter of Maladies, John, particularly the first story, as you note above. For some reason I haven’t picked this one up yet though. I think it was because by the end of Maladies, which I read all at once (perhaps a bad idea with a book of short stories following a similar vein), I was a bit tired. Sounds like this one might do that same thing. At any rate, it’s about time for me to read this one (and reread for the umpteenth time “A Temporary Matter,” which has much less to do with immigration than marriage).

  6. Isabel said,

    I didn’t like the Namesake for the same reason that you mention for this group – too much emphasis on the American side.

    I liked hearing the immigrant experience of the mother, but Gogol, the son who was born in America, was such a brat, that I felt like slapping him at times.

  7. KevinfromCanada said,

    Excellent review, John — I think Lahiri has affected you in the same way she touched me. It is also important that you included the epigraph in the review, because it makes it very clear that she is trying to write about the world that is, rather than that that was. I think this collection does an excellent job of exploring how the diaspora and dislocation effects the second generation.

    For those who haven’t read both books of short stories, Maladies does concentrate more on the actual immigrant generation — Unaccustomed Earth does focus on the children of that generation. I did read an interview somewhere with Lahiri where she noted that she was criticized in the first book for not paying enough attention to the new world; then got criticized in this one for paying too much attention to the children. She somewhat grumpily (I’ve seen indications elsewhere that her personality is quite a bit more agressive than her writing) observed that that was what she was trying to do.

    I’d also agree with Isabel that her stories are much better than her novel. What Lahiri is good at is exploring a specific facet of the experience (which a longish short story ideally suits) — for me, her novel tended to become unfocused. I would agree that her writing is not kinky — for me that is one of its great strengths. Her books are about her stories, not flashy writing.

  8. Stefania said,

    Am I the only who enjoyed “The Namesake” more than “Interpreter of Maladies”?
    Maybe it’s because I tend to struggle with short stories, I never seem to get close to the characters. Longer stories may help…

  9. bmurali80 said,

    I have to say that I’m yet to finish the Hema and Kaushik part. The first 3 pages of this second part is extremely tedious using only pronouns.

    The first part of the stories were deep and I could related the places because I now live in Massachusetts. Not relating to places has always been my problem in reading fiction. I’m glad I was able to do it in the Unaccustomed Earth!

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Usually a writer needs to have a lot of books behind them before we get such varied favourites, but it seems every Lahiri book is someone’s plum. I must admit Stefania, that I’d plan to read her other stories before The Namesake. (Speaking of the latter, has anyone seen the movie?)

  11. Paul said,

    John, I’ve just started reading The Namesake and they have the DVD at my local library so I’ll watch it as soon as I finish the novel and let you know my thoughts.

  12. Kate said,

    After reading the title story, my initial reaction was, “Wow.” Although it’s no longer “Wow,” I still give Lahiri credit for her straightforward writing that’s devoid of gimmicks. And I certainly don’t mind that she writes about Bengali-Americans. Alice Munro writes about Canadians, William Trevor writes about the Irish, why shouldn’t Lahiri write about those who are Bengali-American? I see no reason why not.

    I also commend Lahiri for writing about “real” people and “real” problems. However, I’m not one who fell in love with this author’s work or was bowled over by it. I think far too much praise has been lavished on her and she’s gotten lazy or sloppy in her writing. After loving the first story, I found the others quite underwhelming and pretty superficial, and to my surprise, I found many, many grammar mistakes, elementary ones, such as constantly using “one another” when writing about only two people. I expect more from a prize winning author. I not only expect great stories, I expect that they be expertly told.

    All in all, with the exception of the first story, and then only because of the character of Ruma’s father, I found the book quite underwhelming.

    I’ve read Lahiri is writing another novel now, and that’s a shame because the short story really is her strong point. But she needs to correct that grammar.

  13. Paul said,

    John

    I finished The Namesake last week, and watched the movie over the weekend.

    Just a couple of thoughts about the novel. I enjoyed it, and there is some brilliant writing in it. I think it is basically two novels; the story of the main character’s parents move and adjustment to America, and their sons coming of age. As such, I really think it may have worked as two separate novel length works. Because as absorbed as I was in Gogol / Nikhil’s story, it was his mother and father who seared themselves into my mind, it was in their moments that I was most moved. I mean, I could actually feel that tectonic plate, I could feel the expanse that each of their stories could have filled in a separate novel. The parents tale is one of immigration, wistful, delicately observed and painted like a miniature, a love story. The son’s tale a bildungsroman, the story of a young mans coming of age, and the join is perceptible.

    As for the movie. Again, it is absorbing and reasonable, as absorbing and reasonable as any adaptation of an accomplished and sensitive work of literature ever can be. It is directed by Mira Nair, who made the excellent Monsoon Wedding, but in contrast to that exuberant film, The Namesake, in keeping with the source material, is subdued, cool. Once again, it was the parents who stay in my mind, and they really are played with great subtlety and achievment by Irfan Khan (who was in A Mighty Heart, the Michael Winterbottom movie about Daniel Pearl), and a Bollywood actress called Tabu. They really do give outstanding performances. You know how sometimes you watch an adaptation and the actors just don’t fit with your mind’s eye vision of how the characters should look? Well, these actors really do fill the imagination well, they are very good, very well cast, but very good performances too.

    Finally, overhanging it all, the quiet, almost inchoate melancholy that is a signature of Lahiri’s work, the melancholy that hangs over every detail and moment of the worlds she creates.

  14. John Self said,

    Thanks for your thoughts and insights, Paul. I think I will nudge The Namesake (in book form, anyway) a little further up my wishlist.

  15. B said,

    John,

    I dont get it why ppl are praising this one so much-does it deserve it?
    The common theme of Jhumpa’s stories are characters(migrants?) slightly adrift in foreign lands as they grapple with multiple identities, finding themselves belonging neither here nor there.

    Hell-Heaven was nice with a very unexpected confession at the end. It was about adults gaining a different perspective on people from their past.

    I wouldnt recommend this book although I would highly recommend the other one-The Interpretor of Maladies.

    This current book really has nothing much to say with the exception of one story-Hell heaven. All the other stories are strictly so-so and I dont get it why people are praising this book as there is nothing else to salvage the stories. I found most of the stories in this one boring as well as quite adrift as the characters themselves. I am for one very dejected as I had expected Jhumpa to write a collection as good as her other book-The Interpretor of maladies.

  16. [...] book marathon included, among other things, the following three fabulous books: Three Cups of Tea, Unaccustomed Earth, and [...]

  17. [...] and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Temporary Matter’, which was praised by readers here last year when I wrote about Lahiri’s new collection, and which I was eager to read as a result. With [...]

  18. Sam said,

    The writing – sentence for sentence – is as beautifully plain and exact as it was in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. And Lahiri’s fictional world continues to consist of highly-educated offspring who shop at ‘small gourmet groceries’, listen to ‘Nocturnes by Chopin’ and search for ‘Etruscan references in Virgil’. Lahiri seems all set to become the Anita Brookner of the elite Bengali-American experience.

    I found the collection disappointing. Each piece centres around the burdens and strains of familial fealty, the stories boiling down to little more than a few unrequited longings, a few missed opportunities. The same could be said of her previous two books – which I remember loving – so my reaction to this latest work is probably nothing more than a change in my requirements as a reader, which, of course, may and in all likelihood will change again (but such is the slippery and unreliable business of book-commenting). It’s the risk of thought in Lahiri’s writerly brain that disappoints, and for this reader at least, at this moment in time, great writing has to offer more than a handful of sad epiphanies.

  19. John Self said,

    Lahiri seems all set to become the Anita Brookner of the elite Bengali-American experience.

    Ah well, my first Brookner will be covered here next week. I think I know what you mean though.


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