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The Namesake cover; right, Jhumpa Lahiri.
In almost every page of
his writing,'' the critic Edward Thomas once complained about
Walter Pater, ''words are to be seen sticking out, like the raisins
that will get burned on an ill-made cake.'' Such is the state
of literary prose these days: it is often so fine, so self-conscious,
so unappeasably literary that it is awful, a cake baked almost
exclusively from burned raisins. But an antidote for all these
shticky, overprized Big Fiction doorstops quietly appeared in
1999, the short-story collection ''Interpreter of Maladies,''
by a young writer named Jhumpa Lahiri. Written in an elegant hush—even
upon rereading, there isn't a single burned raisin in the mix—Lahiri's
stories traced out the lives of various Bengali-Americans suffering
through various stages of lovelorn distress.
Lahiri herself was born
in London, raised in America and is of Indian descent. With a
background similar in outline to that of Zadie Smith, she nonetheless
arrived at an entirely different imaginative enterprise. She renounced
the writerly flourish, never once played the exotic and—perhaps
most astonishing—scaled her characters to actual human existence.
(In a typical Lahiri story, we find ourselves milling in and around
Harvard Square. Her eye is keenest for that pleasant, humdrum
drift of academic life when one is not an eminence.) Self-effacing
as it was, ''Interpreter of Maladies'' became a word-of-mouth
phenomenon and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. It was that rare
success: remarkable for being so thoroughly deserved.
Just where did that melancholy
poise come from? ''Read all the Russians,'' Ashoke Ganguli's grandfather
tells him in Lahiri's new novel, ''The Namesake,'' ''and then
reread them. They will never fail you.'' On his way to visit his
grandfather in Jamshedpur, Ashoke is dutifully rereading his favorite
story, Nikolai Gogol's ''Overcoat,'' when his train derails. Lying
amid the wreckage, almost passed over for dead and clutching the
surviving pages of his book, Ashoke manages to wave meekly. As
a result, he is rescued. And as a result, he lives, he marries,
he moves to America and has a son. Faced with hospital red tape—the
infant cannot be released without a proper birth certificate—Ashoke
is forced to name his child before he has received instructions
from his grandmother, who must be consulted on this vital decision.
At a loss for words, Ashoke mutters ''Gogol.''
How like Lahiri to have
a name passed down along such a peculiar and delicate chain of
accident. Significant as it is for the reader, ''Gogol'' only
fills the young American Ganguli with feelings of dissonance and
shame. Like Stephen Dedalus, who stared at his signature on the
flyleaf of his geography book, most of us slip through childhood's
first existential porthole and find our own names profoundly alien.
But the feeling infiltrates young Gogol's entire life.
When a high school English
teacher assigns ''The Overcoat'' as homework, our Gogol approaches
the class with a ''growing dread and a feeling of slight nausea.''
Upon discovering that his namesake was a severe depressive --
a ''queer and sickly creature,'' as Turgenev once described him
-- who slowly starved himself to death, Gogol feels freshly betrayed
by his parents. If you suspect that all this involves more than
its share of juvenile caprice, so does his father. As Lahiri tells
us, Gogol's father ''had a point; the only person who didn't take
Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person
chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his
name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished
it were otherwise, was Gogol.''
Like its hero, ''The Namesake''
is perhaps a little overawed by the power of names. As he enters
adolescence, Gogol, along with his friends -- Colin and Jason
and Marc—like to ''listen to records together, to Dylan
and Clapton and the Who, and read Nietzsche in their spare time.''
Dylan, Clapton, the Who—yep, right, check, dead on. But
these, the staple names of American male puberty, color the episodes
of Gogol's high school years more than Colin and Jason and Marc.
(Oh, for one half-mumbled snotty aside or flurry of acid repartee
that might bring them alive as actual teenagers.)
Later, as a New York architect,
Gogol will fall in with a circle of friends headed up by a couple
named Donald and Astrid. These people haven't been named, we think,
so much as branded -- he's supposed to sound like the son of a
do-right corporate preppy, she the daughter of a wannabe Beatle
girlfriend. Guggenheim-leeching artistes, they form—together
with their baby, Esme—a little bobo ensemble we are plainly
meant to detest, down to their Florentine sheets and their stainless
steel stockpots. Lahiri, however, is not a wit, and her tonal
commitment to that trademark hush never wavers. Absent proper
kinship ties, she seems to be saying, this is how Americans feel
most at home: among their things. Refined as it may be, consumerism
has touched these characters to the core; they merit nothing better
than such status descriptors.
As Gogol moves into young
adulthood, he becomes that classic case: the charmingly spazzy,
high-achieving mild depressive who doesn't yet comprehend how
alluring he is to women. It is women -- of varying caliber, but
pistols one and all—who take him by the lapels, shake him
awake to life's charms and inject the chronology of his life with
some zest. We get Moushumi, who announces, at 13, ''I detest American
television,'' before returning to her ''well-thumbed paperback
copy of 'Pride and Prejudice' ''; Kim, who, reeking of nicotine
and college, first inspires Gogol to re-dub himself Nikhil; and
the elegant and sly Maxine Ratliff, whose parents—old-money
culture snobs who have mastered the art of inconspicuous conspicuous
consumption -- slowly take over Gogol's life. Here Lahiri's narrative,
as it portrays the Ratliffs' stupefying commitment to the good
life, takes on a dash of Edith Wharton. How they love their Antonioni
double features at the Film Forum and, in New Hampshire, their
Adirondack chairs and farmstand corn. They induce in the reader,
and in Gogol himself, a pleasant trance, through which aversion
heroically fights its way to the surface.
Tantalizing as life in
the Ratliffs' townhouse is, Gogol is committed to wafting -- out
of Maxine's life and into a marriage (with Moushumi, his Jane
Austen-reading childhood friend), ending up finally as an oblivious
cuckold. It is not a good sign that when Gogol exits his life
story for the entire duration of his wife's love affair we hardly
miss him. The reader has begun to suspect that, graceful and spare
as Lahiri's prose is, the simply put does not always equal the
deeply felt. How much steely equipoise, after all, can one novel
stand? Lahiri is a supremely gifted writer, but at moments in
''The Namesake'' it feels as though we've descended from the great
Russians to Nick Adams to the PowerPoint voice-over. ''She orders
a salad and a bouillabaisse and a bottle of Sancerre,'' goes the
description of one of Gogol's dates. ''He orders the cassoulet.
She doesn't speak French to the waiter, who is French himself,
but the way she pronounces the items on the menu makes it clear
that she is fluent. It impresses him.''
Its incorrigible mildness
and its ungilded lilies aside, Lahiri's novel is unfailingly lovely
in its treatment of Gogol's relationship with his father. This
is the classic American parent-child bond—snakebit, oblique,
half-mumbled—and in Lahiri's rendering, it touches on quiet
perfection. As a young boy at the beach, Gogol wanders off with
Ashoke one day in search of a lighthouse. (The echo back to Virginia
Woolf is surely intentional.) They walk and walk, ''past rusted
boat frames, fish spines as thick as pipes attached to yellow
skulls, a dead gull whose feathery white breast was freshly stained
with blood.'' Finally they reach the lighthouse, only to discover
that they have forgotten their camera. ''Will you remember this
day, Gogol?'' his father asks. ''How long do I have to remember
it?'' Gogol asks in return. ''Try to remember it always,'' his
father replies, leading him back across the breakwater. ''Remember
that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place
where there was nowhere left to go.''
It's as if Lahiri were
saying: in America, where so little is suitably customary or ceremonious,
there might at least be this. Memory, unaided by even a photograph,
lays a claim on us that is so much more exacting for being so
perishable. This is my novel, such as it is, Lahiri is also saying:
in a world of eroding kinship, the story of one modest, haphazard
stay against oblivion, summed up best, of course, by the name
[Editor’s Note: Stephen Metcalf
is a freelance writer. Review from The New York Times Book
Review. This book is the first novel by Indian-American author,
Ms. Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer with her first collection of
short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies.]