BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 2, 2008
The fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri is a strong indication that the great American melting pot is in tip-top shape. That’s not just because Lahiri, an Indian-American, is extremely popular, although she is: Knopf has printed 300,000 copies of Unaccustomed Earth, her new story collection, an astoundingly high figure for a writer whose work eludes any comparisons with that of James Patterson or John Grisham.
Lahiri writes largely about the American-born children of middle-class Indian immigrants, but in doing so, she also nails the mores of affluent, educated Americans, both Indian and non-Indian. Unlike earlier writers of “immigrant fiction,” who captured their characters’ outsiderishness, Lahiri’s characters are in many ways consummate insiders. Accomplished, affluent, and coastal, her characters could have been plucked from The New York Times’ wedding announcements. Not, of course, the wedding announcements of old, when the Times focused on the bride and groom’s “pedigree” (ancestry, prep schools, club membership), and thus almost exclusively featured WASPs—but the more colorful Times’ wedding announcements of today, where alma mater and professional status are the predominant signifiers. (“Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches Rhodes,” as David Brooks put it in Bobos in Paradise. “You can almost feel the force of the mingling of SAT scores.”) It is this new America that Lahiri so skillfully evokes, the milieu in which brown skin matters exponentially less than a degree from Brown, and Jews and Asians outnumber WASPs.
This niche was the setting for Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s stunningly successful debut story collection—which not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, but was also a commercial success, an extreme rarity for a book of stories—and The Namesake, her bestselling and equally acclaimed follow-up novel, which followed the life of Gogol Ganguli, a second-generation immigrant, from his childhood in a cookie-cutter housing development in suburban Massachusetts, through his time at Yale, and into his young adulthood as a hip, up-and-coming Manhattan architect. In Lahiri’s thoughtful and intelligent rendering, Gogol’s Indian-ness is not unimportant—his parents very much identify as Bengali and consider their “community” to be comprised of fellow Bengalis in America and back at home—yet, for Gogol, his ethnicity is neither personally determinative nor socially limiting. Gogol can choose to embrace his Indian heritage as much or as little as he likes. In fact, at Yale, he’d have been more unique if he’d come from a working-class home rather than simply another middle-class South Asian one.
Compare that to the world conjured up a generation ago by another author who made his reputation by writing about members of his ethnic group. Forty years before Lahiri published Interpreter of Maladies, Philip Roth won the National Book Award for the collection Goodbye, Columbus. Like Lahiri, Roth is adept at illuminating tensions between older generations and their more assimilated offspring. In the title novella, for example, Roth depicts protagonist Neil Klugman’s bemused and not-wholly-unaffectionate frustration with his family’s uncouthness. Neil’s aunt—the head of the household—serves dinner to each member of the family separately, at different times of the evening (Neil at six, his uncle at 6:30, etc.) so that everyone can eat exactly what he likes. When Neil suggests it might be easier for his aunt if they ate together, she replies, “Sure, I should serve four different meals at once. You eat pot roast, Susan with the cottage cheese, Max has steak. Friday night is his steak night. I wouldn’t deny him. And I’m having a little cold chicken. … What am I a workhorse?” Neil is skeptical: “There is nothing to explain”—the dinner arrangements—“beyond the fact that my aunt is crazy,” he says.
Lahiri’s characters tend to feel a similar admixture of tenderness for and irritation with their families’ provinciality. When Gogol, for example, has dinner with a girlfriend’s chic Manhattan parents at their Chelsea townhouse, the “four of them go quickly through two bottles of wine, then move on to a third. The Ratliffs are vociferous at the table, opinionated about things his own parents are indifferent to: movies, exhibits at museums, good restaurants, the design of everyday things.” Gogol’s family wouldn’t serve wine with dinner, let alone go through bottle after bottle, any more than Neil’s would. And even if Gogol and his girlfriend brought their own, they couldn’t drink it as his parents don’t own a corkscrew.
But this example also highlights the big difference between Neil Klugman’s world and Gogol’s: Neil’s universe was wholly insular—all Jewish. Roth painstakingly depicts a divide between Jews who’d “made it” financially and those who hadn’t, but the characters themselves never interact socially with anyone who isn’t Jewish. Lahiri’s Bengalis, in contrast, interact constantly with other types of Americans.
Sure, the immigrant parents in Lahiri’s stories might prefer it if their children were confined to Indian social networks, but that proves to be an impossible hope in this new America, the one in which Neil Klugman’s children would have grown up alongside Gogol Ganguli and George Herbert Van Wasp III. In this world, dress matters, home decor matters, and a Brooklyn vs. a Manhattan address says something about who you are—artsy or professional—but judging someone because of the language their parents speak at home? Totally gauche.
That’s Lahiri’s starting point. From childhood on, her second-generation Indians befriend and are befriended by their white classmates; they go with them to parties and smoke cigarettes and pot and get drunk and compete for spots in the Ivy League with them. And, eventually, many of Lahiri’s characters date, sleep with, marry, and have children with non-Indians.
Occasionally, they also go to WASPy weddings at New England prep schools they attended, as happens in “A Choice of Accommodations,” a story from Unaccustomed Earth. In it, Amit, a Bengali raised in Winchester, Mass., until he is sent to prep school, is married to Megan, an American-born daughter of a policeman, the oldest of five children. They met at Columbia Medical School, although by the time the story begins Amit has dropped out to write for a medical journal. Megan, on the other hand, is completing her residency. But even though she is a doctor, “Megan’s ordinary background displeased [Amit’s] parents,” who are from a higher social class in India, Lahiri tells us. Not that Amit’s parents’ attitude matters all that much to the couple; they are adults, after all. The story is rather about the pressures of raising two young children in Manhattan and about a husband and wife drifting apart. “It disappeared,” Amit says of his marriage. “I guess it does to everyone, sooner or later.” Perhaps it is because Megan had the more high-powered job and works longer hours, perhaps it’s because their parenting styles are different. Lahiri doesn’t pose an answer, but she does present a very believable picture of a relationship’s slow decline in a very recognizable urban and professional setting.
And that’s precisely what Lahiri does well. Her tales of marriage, divorce, becoming a parent, and grappling with the death of adult parents are the opposite of exotic; her fiction winds up painting a very intelligent portrait of upper middle class life. They aren’t immigrant stories, not in a traditional sense. Rather, Lahiri is a literary heir of Anthony Trollope in her ability to capture the way we live now. And that’s a testament to the way society has changed—the gradual diminution of ethnic boundaries, at least among the educated elite—but also to Lahiri’s skill at evoking this world empathetically and unironically. This is a demographic that is used to being mocked—even to mocking itself. Who, after all, proclaims proudly that he or she is a bobo?
But Lahiri reminds us that there are worse things to be. Bobos are, at least, an inclusive, cosmopolitan bunch.
Adelle Waldman has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Observer, and Time Out New York.