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August 19, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | August 19, 2008 |

All right, let me just say upfront that I haven’t read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other works. And, judging by some cursory research, I’m one of the few who were totally unaware of her existence prior to this review. So it is with no preconceived notions about the virtuosity of her writing and her grand place at the forefront of modern literature that I say: this book bored me to nothing. It bored the nothing out of me. There was no shit, no tears — phrases too strong to really describe the utter apathy I felt after reading Unaccustomed Earth.

Sorry for harping on that point, but it’s hard to write a review when a book so drains you that you don’t really feel like moving, let alone writing. Say what you will about Nicholas Sparks, but two pages of The Notebook were enough to get me to write a fucking dissertation on the many ways in which he sucks shit hunks. Alternatively, I could write pages singing the praises of Kurt Vonnegut. My reaction to Lahiri, however, was a resounding meh.

Of course, having thoroughly not enjoyed the book, I would love to go off on a scathingly bitchy rant about how awful it was, but I’m denied even that pleasure by this most boring and energy sapping of tomes. Or, to put it another way, there’s no real pitiful lack of talent or infuriating inflation of ego on display here, so a full-on attack feels uncalled for.

Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight contemplative short stories with melancholy endings. The first five are unrelated, and the closing three form a trilogy of related short stories featuring the characters Hema and Kaushik. Each story is written competently, in clear, elegant prose. Each character is presented as a subtle and complex human being with conflicting but relatable emotions. Meals are described in exquisite detail. And then nothing happens.

The book’s jacket gives the following summary:

In the title story, Ruma, a young mother in a new city, is visited by her father, who carefully tends the earth of her garden, where he and his grandson form a special bond. But he is harbouring a secret from his daughter, a love affair he’s keeping all to himself. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a couple’s romantic getaway weekend takes a dark turn at a party that lasts deep into the night. In “Only Goodness,” a sister eager to give her younger brother the perfect childhood she never had, is overwhelmed by guilt, anguish, and anger when his alcoholism threatens her family. And in “Hema and Kaushik,” a trio of linked stories - an intensely compelling elegy of life and death, love and fate - we follow the lives of a girl and a boy who, one fateful winter, share a house in suburban Massachusetts. They travel from innocence to experience on separate, sometimes painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later in Rome.

You can take it that everyone, their parents, and their gold fish has a PhD or masters from MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Penn, or Swarthmore (and if they don’t, they’re an unredeemable alcoholic loser). If I learned one thing about the immigration experience from the narrow scope of Unaccustomed Earth, it’s that they give PhDs away on arrival at the airport, a nugget of information I feel will serve me quite well in the near future.

Lahiri’s style, while similar to Hemingway in its unadorned simplicity, seems also cold and clinical, which allows for some interesting character study, but distances the reader. I dreaded the end of each story not because I was enjoying it so very much, but because I didn’t want to have to expend the energy required to get into another one. It wasn’t worth it — there was no payoff or reward for spending time with these characters, not even in the simplest or subtlest of ways.

It might be helpful to compare this to another book I just finished - Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley. It too takes meaning from glimpses into the smaller moments of people’s lives and approaches realism by not supplying any stories with complete and final endings, but there was a certain charm, grace, warmth, or even humanity, to his writing that gave it a purpose — all things I thought were lacking in Unaccustomed Earth.

Why did these stories need to be told? What justifies the use of the paper they’re printed on? I’m not entirely sure even Lahiri knows the answer. It’s like the book was written because words were needed on the publisher’s desk by Tuesday, not because Lahiri actually had anything new to say.

The only exception to this, I found, was the short-story “Hell-Heaven,” which ended with a beautifully understated acknowledgment of mother-daughter bonding which gave the story a purpose and direction.

People have called Lahiri’s intricate descriptions both a grocery list of Indian food and closely observed, minutely detailed literature. I don’t see the latter. Description is all very well when setting a scene or trying to entice a reader into a newly imagined universe, but I certainly don’t see any grand metaphor behind pullao and lamb curry. And don’t you try to tell me that the food is a metaphor for thought, despair, inspiration, loneliness or what have you because: bullshit.

All narrators, first and third person, male and female, sound exactly the same. They’re all privileged, educated, first -or second- generation Bengali immigrants adjusting to life in America. They care about and describe the same things in the same words, and I don’t actually care whether this was meant to convey the shared struggle of immigration and the ultimate unity of our plight as human beings or whatever a Pulitzer Prize-winning author has to put in a book in order to keep up appearances. It just felt unimaginative.

In hindsight, however, the biggest problem I had with Unaccustomed Earth is its almost total lack of humor. “Comedy and tragedy step through life together,” said Sean O’Casey, and the best of literature reflects this. But with Lahiri it’s all subtle tragedy. Sometimes misery can be valuable as a depth of feeling that substantiates life, but Lahiri’s work is so restrained and detached that the tragedy doesn’t feel deep, it just feels pointless.

After reading Unaccustomed Earth, I did a little research on Lahiri and was not at all surprised to find that she was a London-born, American-raised, Ivy-league educated woman of Bengali origin. Clearly, she lives and worships by the “write what you know” doctrine. This could have been an interesting opportunity for her to describe contrasting reactions to similar circumstances, but instead, the same theme was explored ad infinitum in each tale. The collection reminded me of nothing so much as “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel, who has been quoted as saying about the theme of his piece: “I’m going to try and repeat it a number of times without any development, gradually increasing the orchestra as best I can.” Lahiri doesn’t even increase the orchestra.

Donna Sherman works in a bookstore, and is now writing book reviews. She predicts she has two more months before she gives up on English and begins speaking in tongues, and she can’t summarize to save her life. Contact her at [email protected]

Tepid Orchestration

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri / Donna Sherman

Books | August 19, 2008 |

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