[8 May 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If the moment Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection Interpreter of Maladies was a surprise, then the attention she’s garnered since isn’t. Those stories stormed onto the literary scene and were universally celebrated. And while that sort of complete adoration of a work can seem suspect, for Lahiri it was hard earned.
Her stories, often about immigrants from India living in America, were filled with rituals and elaborate meals conducted amidst great worry and sadness. Her ability to select detail, to exploit images for all they’re worth, while retaining an economy of language, was a staggering feat. She had some of the same success with her first novel, The Namesake, though its episodic nature and strange shifts in time made it feel more like stories than a novel. Still, its ability to illuminate cultural and personal struggles simultaneously was as strong as Interpreter of Maladies, making for another book as rich as the meals these characters serve each other.
Now, Lahiri has returned to stories with Unaccustomed Earth, but the collection finds Lahiri a bit stuck, again, between story and novel. She often confuses size with scope, hoping that by making her stories long they will achieve some sort of literary heft. Instead, the opposite is true. These stories—most are at least 40 pages—unravel as they go, often stripping the stories of any urgency that would keep the action pulled taut around these familial crises. The one story here that is actually short-story length, called “Hell-Heaven” reads as unfinished in comparison with these mammoth stories surrounding it. It feels cut off, not only because it ends arbitrarily with a revelation unnecessary to the story, but also because all these other stories are given such space.
Nowhere are the successes and missteps of the book more apparent than in the title story. “Unaccustomed Earth” is an uneven telling of the relationship between a Bengali woman and her father over the course of a week. He comes to stay with her in Seattle, while her husband is away, and makes himself at home. He befriends and bonds with his grandson, he does the dishes and helps out as his daughter, Ruma, is pregnant. He plants a flourishing garden in the backyard. What we know and Ruma doesn’t is that, on his travels since his wife died, he’s met another woman.
The tension of the story hinges on their inability to communicate. She wants him to move in, he doesn’t want to move, and neither can articulate exactly why. This gives their small talk around the table, and the way they travel separately through the house an effective and permeating tension. You can feel the characters almost talking to each other as they pass in the hall. But the story stretches out over nearly 60 pages, and makes the week in which the story takes place seem interminable more to the reader than the characters.
Lahiri isn’t rooting deep into moments here, but instead trying to fit too much into the story. As a result, when she tries to remind us of details she gave us earlier in the story—particularly the hiding spot of an important postcard—they feel buried rather than carefully placed. And where Interpreter of Maladies illuminated the connections between lost characters and household details, here the details fill in for insight rather than provide it.
We get so much about Ruma’s house, and her life inside that house, that when we see her revelation at story’s end, we don’t quite understand her reaction. We know she feels closer to her father, and we know the comfort she sometimes feels when being left alone in the house, but Lahiri runs out of room to tell us if she feels differently in the face of her father’s hidden life, or the imminent return of her husband.
In other places in the book—like the “Hema and Kaushik” trilogy of stories that close the book—perfect details are wasted and lost in the stories. In “Year’s End”, the main character notices the serving ware on the table has gone to pot since her mother’s death. “A Choice of Accommodations” uses a burn hole in a formal dress as a heavily weighted image of obligation in marriage. And while characters often have honest and subtle revelations, they feel flimsy in stories so uncontrolled. A husband and father, for example, is weighed down by the realization that the birth of his children is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, that from here on out there’s nothing left to wow him, he’ll be content but never floored. It is an honest and complicated reaction, but that sort of economic moment is rare in this book.
Lahiri’s writing remains beautiful on a sentence level, and her details are spot on. Of Ruma’s excuse for bring her father to live with her, Lahiri writes that “…in Seattle, there were rooms to spare, rooms that stood empty and without purpose.” This economy—to render Ruma’s own ennui, weave it through the image of the house, and present it in such a careful cadence—is Lahiri’s sharpest tool, and it goes unused too often here.
Her control of language and surgical choice of detail were the elegant platters on which Lahiri presented her rich and satisfying stories in Interpreter of Maladies. But in Unaccustomed Earth, those platters are merely decorative, left hanging on the wall, beautiful, but without function.