Unaccustomed Earth--Jhumpa Lahiri


It's unfortunate how being published in a certain place tends to shape what you write. Jhumpa Lahiri has had the mixed blessing of publication in The New Yorker, and the downside of that blessing shows in her latest collection of short stories.

The title is taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Ms Lahiri, in an interview published elsewhere lists as one of her influences. Her prose is still strong and lovely, her ability to sketch in people and place, remarkable. All that fails here is the relentless similarity of all of the pieces. Disaffected, alienated, spoiled, wealthy upper-class Bengali children spend much or all of their time in Ann Beattie territory--angsting over identity, wealth, lack of wealth, girlfriends, boyfriends, lack of communication, sex, you name it.

The charm of some of the earlier stories in Interpreter of Maladies is gone almost completely, replaced by a relentless parade of disaffected, unhappy, bratty Bengali offspring who are worried about their status in the world, their education, or any number of other things. The New Yorker patina of these stories (even if published elsewhere) is more a stain than a coating and I'm afraid it runs deep, so deep that I will be hard-pressed to bother myself with any more of Ms. Lahiri's brand of angst.

Perhaps this was present as well in the first collection--if so, I did not notice. But here the pressure was relentless and there was no escape from it. Ultimately, despite the beautiful writing, nothing is said that hasn't been said before and better, or that cannot be said in a way that provokes more insight or sympathy than Ms. Lahiri's characters can command.

Are there no Bengali's who have never shopped in Harrod's? Who have come to America and not had the money to get home? Are there no second generation Bengali's that have retained some sense of who they are? Who have some alliance with the past? Is everything wiped out in a single generation? If not, Ms. Lahiri has chronicled a true tragedy, but a tragedy of choice not of requirement.

Needless to say, I was profoundly disappointed by this book. While the prose still sparkles and jolts and the authorial command is impressive, the beat of the stories is a dead one--that poor old horse should be buried.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 27, 2008 9:42 AM.

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