Monday, September 10, 2007

The Namesake

Review of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Toronto Star, fall 2003.

Jhumpa Lahiri made her name four years ago with her first book, the superb short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Impressive for its crisp prose and close attention to physical and emotional detail, Lahiri’s work also showed a strong grasp of the narrative economy of the short-story form. But these days it’s assumed that young writers will “graduate” to novel-writing as quickly as possible, and she’s done so with her second book, The Namesake.

While the novel shares no characters or plotlines with the nine stories in Lahiri’s debut, it flows so naturally from its predecessor that it still has the feel of a sequel. Interpreter of Maladies is full of Indian immigrants and their Westernized children, settled in the northeastern U.S. and struggling with cultural confusion as well as faltering relationships. The closing story, “The Third and Final Continent,” has a tone of resolution: the narrator’s acclimation to America, and the wary first days of his arranged marriage, give way to a warm but believable declaration of love for both his adopted country and his wife. Still, The Namesake shows that Lahiri isn’t done with the dilemmas explored in the collection.

The novel centres on Gogol Ganguli, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968 to recently arrived Indian immigrants. His father, Ashoke, is a young university professor; his mother, Ashima, dotes on memories of Calcutta while regarding her new home with suspicion. Gogol grows up surrounded both by American white-bread culture and by his parents’ ever-expanding network of Bengali-American friends. His unusual name springs from family history – Ashoke, a devotee of Russian literature, credits his absorption in Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” with saving his life during a train wreck – but to Gogol it only represents one more obstacle in his quest for self-assimilation.

The story follows the first 30-odd years of Gogol’s more-or-less-ordinary life. He discovers the Beatles, graduates from high school, changes his name to the less conspicuous Nikhil, becomes an architect, falls in and out of love, and copes with a death in the family. Each chapter tends to skip a few years ahead of the last, but that doesn’t mean the story moves from one dramatic pivot to another. In fact, not much actually happens; for a book about identity crisis, the conflict here is pretty low-key. Gogol’s parents aren’t particularly oppressive, the travails of his struggle to fit in not especially stinging. After all, the central drama of the first 100 pages is a teenager not liking his name – hardly stop-the-presses stuff.

Yet The Namesake is surprisingly readable, propelled by Lahiri’s expert description. As in her short stories, she snares the reader with a patient layering of detail – from the dirty lining in a kitchen cupboard to the layout of an apartment complex – that never slips into mere information. At her best, she combines that detail with sharp observation of character, making for bold insights, subtly presented. Probably the book’s strongest section recounts Gogol’s affair with a pampered Manhattanite WASP who lives with her rich parents – fully Americanized at last, he’s dating a lifestyle as much as a person. An episode near the end of the book also convincingly captures the pain and confusion of a collapsing marriage. And although these bits stand out, the entire novel is extremely well-written.

Perhaps, in fact, a little too well-written. Throughout the book Lahiri relies on an excessively formal tone, evident in small word choices that start to add up: “contain” rather than hold, “obtain” rather than get, “converse” rather than talk. (When the conversing is especially good, one character even “expresses interest.”) That the novel includes a textbook-ready phrase like “a practice of Bengali nomenclature grants, to every single person, two names” is telling; that the wording hardly seems out of place is even more so.

It’s not that Lahiri’s writing is either clunky or showy. On the contrary, her prose carries undeniable grace, and she’s confident enough to avoid the kind of capital-W Writing with which so many young authors overinflate their work. But the ever-careful language tends to hold us at a reserve, limiting our emotional investment. As the critic James Wood has complained of John Updike, we are not immersed in the characters’ experiences and feelings – rather, we get an author’s very elegant essay about those experiences and feelings. (The book’s summary-style structure, in which many pages pass with little to no dialogue, doesn’t help in this regard either.) At its worst, the disconnect is comical: “He is shocked and discomfited by the news.” Not shocked and discomfited!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a dry, detached style. But it’s unsuited to a novel that’s meant to showcase a central character’s inner journey. Finishing The Namesake, no reader could fail to admire Lahiri’s skill in exploring her themes, in balancing various motifs, in closing the story with a tidy nod to Gogol’s past and his family history. But all that admiration won’t erase the nagging wish that we’d gotten to know Gogol a little better, come to care for him a little more.

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