Jhumpa Lahiri’s new collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, rocketed to the top of the New York Times‘ Best Seller list. It’s since been knocked down to the second spot by an empty book by Mary Higgins Clark, but Lahiri’s brief appearance on the top of the hardcover fiction list was startling and gratifying, offering some degree of hope for serious American fiction, even as the stories themselves invite both pleasure and skepticism.
Lahiri is best known for her Bengali background and a prose style that makes you hold your breath. The foundation of the style is the eccentric syntax of Indian immigrants, which Lahiri gently parodies from time to time. "We are very much appreciating," declares a young Indian girl who has been in the United States for a week or so. Lahiri takes the trailing verb pattern and refines it into a literary style that’s at once poised and constantly self-correcting. Here are three samples, all taken from the collection’s title story.
How freeing it was, these days, to travel alone, with only a single suitcase to check.
Ruma feared that her father would become a responsibility, an added demand, continuously present in a way she was no longer used to.
The sight of her father’s rental car, a compact maroon sedan, upset her, freshly confirming the fact that she lived on a separate coast thousands of miles from where she grew up, a place where her parents knew no one, where neither of her parents, until today, had set foot.
The style is more expository than colloquial, and for all its elegance, it isn’t very expansive. It works best when it is focalized on her second-generation, upper-middle-class immigrants. The weakest story in the collection, "Nobody’s Business," is told from the point of view of a hapless American graduate student with a crush on his Bengali housemate. Not coincidentally, the story is also the most emotionally overwrought. There’s no older Indian figure in the story to calm things down and offer a clarifying perspective. There’s no figure upon which Lahiri can build her elegant sentences.
The style perfectly fits characters like Ruma, the heroine of "Unaccustomed Earth," who has left soulful Brooklyn with her American husband and young son for the arid Seattle suburbs. Ruma’s large house and stay-at-home mother lifestyle are frictionless but incomprehensible to her. It isn’t until her widowed father comes to visit that she can begin to examine her life through someone else’s eyes. Relaxing one evening after dinner her father looks around his daughter’s home and declares, "This is a nice house, Ruma." From this point forward Ruma and her father feel much more comfortable in their chosen lives.
Comfortable, but not especially happy. If they never wholly embrace American culture, Lahiri’s characters also can’t return to India. The Chouduris, who immigrated to the US during the optimistic New Frontier days, return to live in Bombay for a while. They return to Massachusetts, where they settle into an International-style home. The home is the most important setting for "Hema and Kaushik," the stories that make up the second half of the collection. The Chouduris’ home is an alien, trans-cultural space where the cultural and generational clashes of immigrant families play themselves out most starkly. Lahiri’s distinct style returns in full force here after fading during some of the middle stories in the collection. Hema and Kaushik share the narrative chores, re-enacting Lahiri’s characters’ need to see their lives through the eyes of other people exactly like them. Hema is a blushing pre-adolescent when Kaushik and his parents return from Bombay, and she worries constantly about how her American teeny-bopper life will look to the older boy. For his part, Kaushik undergoes a rough re-entry into American culture, so he keeps his distance from Hema’s family, with their careful balance between the Yankee and the Bengali.
The intertwined stories of "Hema and Kaushik" offer plenty of room for Lahiri to stretch out her sentences and even indulge in a little humor. It’s worth reading to this section to dissipate the feeling I had at certain points that Lahiri is the Gish Jen of the 2000s, auditioning for inclusion in the Heath Anthology of American Literature. Jen’s biography is almost identical to Lahiri’s, and so are her settings and her themes. Lahiri’s prose style is more refined, but, unlike Jen’s Chinese immigrants, Lahiri’s Bengalis never seem to work, so they seem more cloistered and flatter. Lahiri’s strength isn’t characterization. Her Anglo characters are invariably blondish, and her Indians reticent. It takes a while before they appear to be something more than props in a well-worn cultural conflict.
But there are moments when Lahiri offers a glimpse into a world many of us have never seen before. One such moment takes place when Kaushik takes his new stepsisters to Dunkin’ Donuts, leaving his new stepmother alone in the sleek modernist home for the first time. "’I will be safe alone, in this house?’" she asks. Kaushik is "stunned that it would be the first time, nearly laughing at her." A veteran of the immigrant narrative, Kaushik retains his ability to be surprised at the incongruence, and the optimism, of American life.
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