Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth is not only the title of Jhumpa Lahiri's second collection of short stories, but the theme of this work and perhaps her entire canon of work. For a woman born in London to Indian immigrants and spending most of her life growing up in the United States, the theme is appropriate. Her characters seem heavily drawn from her own experiences, all of them American born with Indian parents (usually born in India and raised in the United States). This sets up plenty of room for culture clash, not just between different nationalities but also between different generations and the two sexes. Lahiri's themes are largely universal because everyone deals with culture clash in some fashion, large or small, and everyone at some point in their lives must tread upon unaccustomed earth.

This 320+ page collection features eight mostly powerful stories that deal with characters finding themselves on new ground. While they are rather long for short stories, they rarely fail to captivate. "Unaccustomed Earth" starts the collection, a story about an Indian-American woman named Ruma, her widowed father, and her young son. The story spans a week, but it provides a lengthy glimpse into the lives of both major characters, including the heartbreaking details of the death of Ruma's mother. Her death sends both Ruma and her father into unaccustomed earth emotionally, though it's her father who makes a new man of himself, while Ruma can't seem to reconcile this change. The dual perspectives lend this story a lot of weight, and the story is particularly effective in portraying the love Ruma's father develops for his grandson, Akash. This story may be the collection's best, based on how intimately it lets the reader into the lives of these characters.

In "Unaccustomed Earth" there is a trope found in several other stories: a distant husband and father. Ruma's father was emotionally aloof from family life, and only the death of his wife changes him, as he suddenly realizes the dreams she is no longer able to accomplish. The trope of the distant father then grows into one of a father who learns to care. This trope appears as well in "Hell-Heaven," seen in the husband who agreed to an arranged marriage only for the sake of convenience, which leaves an emotional vacuum in his wife's life. "Only Goodness" has a father who keeps his mouth shut about his son's delinquent behavior until something needs to be said. And in "Nobody's Business," a woman is engaged in a long distance relationship with a man who wants their relationship as private as possible. "Unaccustomed Earth" has a second man, Ruma's American husband, whose only presence in the entire story is by phone. This distance (though stern with expectations) shapes the personalities and ambitions of the characters in these stories.

Many of Lahiri's characters are very similar. Her female characters are largely successful and ambitious, taking up prestigious, well-paying careers and starting up small families. The material success of these characters seems to come effortlessly, a PhD earned in the matter of a few sentences, but the emotional success of Lahiri's characters is less certain. No matter how wealthy, there are matters beyond one's control that shape their emotional states. My favorite story, "Only Goodness," is the only one with a character whose problems prevent him from entering this material success. The story is told from the perspective of Sudha, but it's her younger brother, Rahul, who becomes an alcoholic and drops out of college. Sudha's successes are continuously paralleled with Rahul's struggles, and seeing Sudha watch her brother descend into such depths is heartbreaking.

"Only Goodness" is one of several stories where the story's perspective character is not the one where the major conflict revolves around. It's Rahul the reader cheers for and wants to see do well, though we may sympathize with Sudha's feelings. Similarly, the main conflict in "Hell-Heaven" revolves around the perspective character's mother, and in "Nobody's Business" a college student finds himself interested in his new, and beautiful, roommate, who is clearly having some relationship troubles. Then again, this is not all that uncommon in stories. The intrigue in The Great Gatsby revolves around Gatsby, though the story is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway. And in Hitchcock's Rear Window, a crippled James Stewart imagines plots unfolding in his backyard as he spends his days watching his neighbors. Sometimes the source of greatest conflict happens to others and not to us, but it always has some affect upon us.

"A Choice of Accommodations" and "Nobody's Business" both feature male protagonists (the collection is split evenly between male and female protagonists), and each one is about the main character's fascination with a woman who is just out of his reach. In "Choice" Amit is a married man who has agreed to attend the wedding of a woman he had a large crush on in college. His wife harbors some jealousy over this woman, and despite his assurances otherwise he fantasizes about some sexual encounter with her. Paul, in "Nobody's Business," is perhaps the college version of Amit, though maybe more nerdy, with an infatuation with the new woman in his life, Sang, whose boyfriend wants very little to do with her friends. "Choice" works by looking nostalgically at youth, the regrets of sexual encounters that didn't happen, and it also ends on the collection's most climactic note. I liked "Nobody's Business" better because I relate more to the college student, and his troubles feel more real because they are not about a distant past.

"Hell-Heaven" is the only story that doesn't work. Told in the first person from the young girl, Usha, the story fails to provide a strong sense of her character. The central action is between her mother and the man her mother falls in love with, Pranab. The story never succeeds in engaging the reader with any character, except maybe the friendly Pranab. When Usha begins describing sexual feelings towards other men, it feels like a distraction from the main action, and when Usha's mother makes a startling reveal at the end, it doesn't feel like it was earned. Fortunately this story occurs early, and so its memories become buried in the wealth of the rest of the stories.

Unaccustomed Earth ends with three stories about the lives of two characters, Hema and Kaushik. The first story, "Once in a Lifetime," takes place when Hema was a young girl, and Kaushik's family lived with her family for several months. "Year's End" switches to Kaushik's perspective when he's a little older and shows the impact of his mother's death on himself and his family. Kaushik, an aloof wanderer, wants nothing to do with his new stepfamily at first, and ultimately his feelings lead him to becoming a traveling photographer for the New York Times. "Going Ashore" alternates between Hema and Kaushik, as both are approaching middle age, both with successful careers, and both inevitably wandering into one another. Of these three stories, the second and last are the best. Lahiri avoids pinholing her writing into a genre, such as romance. The romance is largely glossed over, and the final story doesn't end the way you might think, or want.

The only problem I have with Lahiri's writing is her heavy use of exposition. Interpreter of Maladies was an excellent collection of short stories, but I struggled to enjoy her first novel, The Namesake, because her use of exposition watered the story down too much. The stories here are longer than in her first collection, and sometimes the exposition feels like too much. Writers are always given advice to show, not tell, but exposition is largely a style of telling. Lahiri tells us endlessly about many details, large and small, about her characters. It's as though her character notes have been transposed onto the final product, and sometimes the reader doesn't get to discover details so much as be told them, which has less of an impact otherwise.

However, Lahiri writes superb exposition, and if one were to learn how to write exposition, she would be a perfect model. She still manages to evoke strong feelings through her expository passages, and slows down now and then to show some action, usually very strongly written. Lahiri has an attention to detail that is surprising. She notes all the little things a person might feel, and this makes her work feel true to life. Her characters feel real, and her plot works out as one might expect in real life, not always with surprises, though not necessarily predictably. The best writers always manage to contradict the conventional wisdom of how to write, and Lahiri does that by successfully evoking strong emotion through a style whose job is to tell, not show. Lahiri does not always uses exposition successfully, but her stories are so powerful and feel so evocative, that it doesn't seem to matter how she tells them. Her words are simply magic.

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