Monday, July 07, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth"

Raising the Volume Quietly

In Lahiri's Pulitzer-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, the stories take place in a deliberately limited period of time: an electricity blackout ("A Temporary Matter"); a guided tour ("Interpreter of Maladies"); an academic season ("When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"); a baby-sitting job ("Mrs. Sen"); the beginning and end of an extra-marital affair ("Sexy"). This strategy gives a natural and aesthetic shape to Lahiri's material--the experiences of immigrant Bengalis in America--and the shape can impress the mind deeply, like an archetype, as in the poignant anthology-worthy piece "A Temporary Matter." 

In Unaccustomed Earth, her second collection, two stories follow the same strategy. The title story takes place during a father's visit at his married daughter's home. The occasion for "A Choice of Accommodations" is a high school reunion. The other three stories in Part One, and the three linked stories in Part Two, however, are plotted over a span of months, years even; they are shaped not by the exigencies of plot, but by those of life. "Only Goodness" traces the trembling uncertainty of a brother's alcoholism. "Hema and Kaushik," the chain of stories, begins when Hema is thirteen years old, and ends when she is in her mid-thirties. While the stories may lose the pleasures of predetermined form, they gain thereby the terror of indeterminable flux. They are scarier.

They begin quietly, as we have grown accustomed to in a Lahiri story, but, in a development of her material, they end at a more violent volume. "Hell-Heaven" concludes with a woman who douses herself with lighter fluid in her backyard. "Only Goodness" threatens us with a baby left alone in a filling bathtub. There is an actual fight near the conclusion of "Nobody's Business." Cancer infects "Once in a Lifetime," the first of the linked stories. The ending of "Hema and Kaushik" is too good to give away, but it more than fulfills, tragically, the promises of destruction in the earlier stories. 

Though not violent, the description of marital sex  in a high school dorm, in "A Choice of Accommodations," is a part of the potentially lurid material the writer is probing in this collection. This risky probe gives lie to the criticism sometimes directed at Lahiri, that she write about the same subject. Like the photojournalist Kaushik who learns his job in turbulent parts of South America and the Middle East, Lahiri is absorbing into her fiction the violence racking our world. 

What remains true in this book is that Lahiri is more penetrating on inter-generational immigrant experience, than on the experience of second-, or later, generation immigrants struggling with work, love, and raising a family in America. In "A Choice of Accommodations," the husband's revelation of his martial disillusionment feels mundane, though intended to be epiphanic.  "Nobody's Business," a story about the hopeless love a Bengali woman has for a philandering Egyptian boyfriend, just does not have the subtle psychology manifested in almost every sentence in "Unaccustomed Earth." The latter unravels the tensions underlying a daughter's betrayal of a father's hopes, the shared (and not quite shared) loss of a mother and wife, a father's growing love for another woman. 

These father-daughter tensions are conveyed through alternating third person points of view, a device not seen in the first collection. The alternating viewpoints appear again in the linked stories, but this time in the first person, as well as the third. The first story "Once in a Lifetime" is narrated by Hema, the second "Year's End" by Kaushik, the third "Going Ashore" by a third person narrator, and then, in its last section, by Hema in her own voice. The child's perspective, used so effectively in "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" in the first collection, is again completely convincing here in "Once in a Lifetime." 

The voice of Kaushik, a college senior in "Year's End," is less persuasive. I realized why only when I read the final story. The narrator, quiet, observant, poised, sounds like Hema recalling her childhood in the first story; in fact, she sounds like the narrators, whether in first or third person, in the whole collection. Lahiri's style, so beguiling and true, rings false in the mouth of Kaushik because it is insufficiently distinguishable from the writer herself. Compare Kaushik in "Year's End" with the narrator in "Unaccustomed Earth," both describing the aftermath of a meal:

[Kaushik] When we were done eating, Chitra cleared all the plates and took them into the kitchen, just as she had the night before, allowing my father and me to relax after dinner in a way that we'd never been able to during the last years of my mother's life. We no longer had to assume the responsibility of scraping the plates and loading the dishwasher so that my mother could rest. I sat finishing my drink, and Rupa and Piu slithered out of their seats and returned to the sectional to watch more television. My father got up and followed them, settling into his recliner with the newspaper. He opened it to a large ad for Lechmere that featured cameras for sale, circling things with a ballpoint pen. 

[Lahiri-narrator:] After finishing with the dishes he dried them and then scrubbed the inside of the sink, removing the food particles from the drainer. He put the leftovers away in the refrigerator, tied up the trash bag and put it into the large barrel he'd noticed in the driveway, made sure the doors were locked. he sat for a while at the kitchen table, fiddling with a saucepan whose handle--he'd noticed while washing it--was wobbly. He searched in the drawers for a screwdriver and, not finding one, accomplished the task with the tip of a steak knife.
In both passages, all the clauses begin with a proper name or a personal pronoun. Independent clauses are joined by the coordinate conjunction "and." If they are modified, they are modified by participial phrases (e.g., "settling into his recliner with his newspaper") or by subordinate clauses beginning with "when" and "after." The verbs are very common ones (finish, take, put, sit, make sure) and so the occasional colorful verb jumps out, for instance, "slithered." The diction is colloquial without being slangy, but a certain formality appears now and then, in the first passage in "assume the responsibility," and in the second in "accomplished the task." 

More than in grammar and diction, the style shows itself in what it chooses to observe. Both passages detail the numerous actions involved in clearing up a meal, actions usually ignored in other writers, or subsumed under a more general category. This precision in observation extends to the ordinary instruments the characters use for their ordinary tasks. In the first passage, Kaushik's father circles the ad with "a ballpoint pen." In the second passage, Ruma's father tightens a saucepan handle with "the tip of a steak knife." 

The tools deployed are not intended to be symbolic, I think, but their lack of symbolism serves an important function in the style. These simple, and yet easily missed, observations authenticate the realism of the style. They also mark its limitation. To convince us of its version of reality, the style has to be seamless, consistent. But how can such seamlessness convey different versions of reality, in other words, distinguish between what belongs to Kaushik and what to Lahiri? 

What belongs to Lahiri, and what she gives, is an uncommon sensibility. She is a writer who feels her way to the truth. Unbounded by any ideological outlook or literary allegiance, she travels this unaccustomed earth, with open eyes, ears, and hands.

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