Since I rarely follow directions anyway, I chose to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of fictional short stories presumably written in Brooklyn about Bengalis and their experiences mainly living outside of India.
You might choose to read this one on the Kindle, since the cover art with red foil serif lettering and gold jewelry awash in the swirling tide (you learn later the gold jewelry represents a significant bangle bracelet) promises a highbrow romance—until you spot the other gold circle on the cover, labeling the work as “a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year.”
The tension between an author celebrated in English-speaking circles, keenly aware of the American literary appetite and an appointed cultural interpreter of Bengali-American lives ripples throughout, pointing up the universality of alcoholism as a family secret, the well-intentioned phone calls with old news about family friends, while staking a curious feminism in the triad centerpiece series that anchors the whole, culminating in protagonist Hema’s indulgent Eat Pray Love-type affair with luscious Italian pasta and childhood crush Kaushik before her steely resolve carries her onto a plane to India and an arranged marriage that will allow her to continue her professorial work studying Etruscans, the culture that bequeathed a lifestyle the Romans perfected into carpe diem. The narrative uses “I” in these three stories as a device to alienate the reader, suggesting the intrusion omniscient narration always carries, and causing discomfort when the “I” becomes particularly intimate, when the Reader knows she/he is not the lover to whom the confessional narration is addressed.
Instances of aborted delivery of media abound and become the true link between the stories–from the wedding placed at the exclusive private boarding school that tucks public phones nicely away from campus visitors to scanning disaster photo credits to ascertain proof of life to an unmailed postcard taken by a child and planted in a garden freshly dug.
The collection opens with a Hawthorne epigraph;
Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
And so it is a trifle heavy-handed in the opening story for a child to be planting a letter–in dirt that’s just been turned–written by one generation but not delivered, handled by the generation he begat, and implanted by the youngest generation just taught Bengali words.
Like Hawthorne’s work, Lahiri’s pieces rely on the everyday nightmarish excesses of the American Gothic, on tales told twice (which is to say: beautifully narrated, deeply felt, and tediously redundant) with fastidious framing that works as a device to take us far from what could be a deeper understanding of a group of people she seems to usher into and through a Custom House (the introductory setting for Hawthorne’s famous Scarlet Letter and another reason for the title) that works as a sieve, leaving dry characters straining against cosmopolitanism while Lahiri’s lilting prose laps over the pages—though, as a caveat, I’m spoiled by Global Voices, a model with local bloggers attending to issues in their national purview that works quite well.
If there’s any golden ring to reach for in this overwhelming stream of content, truly local narratives that stand alone and are placed in context alongside narratives from and about other (sometimes nearby, something distant) localities seems to me a bright, shiny one—
More reviews in the kthread reads section.
Leave a Reply
Posted by Kristen Taylor on Friday, May 22nd, 2009, 6:30 am * Filed in Books. * Tags: #gvbook09, book, earth, jhumpa, kristen, kthread, lahiri, reads, short, story, taylor, unaccustomed. Follow responses through the RSS 2.0 feed. Leave a response, or trackback from your own site.