Come back if you can

Christopher Tayler

  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
    Bloomsbury, 340 pp, £16.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 4088 2811 3

‘Read all the Russians, and then reread them,’ the hero’s father, Ashoke Ganguli, recalls his grandfather telling him in Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake (2003): ‘They will never fail you.’ These wise words, spoken in West Bengal, don’t address the language problem. But ‘when Ashoke’s English was good enough’, we’re told, he took his grandfather’s advice. It’s a nice set-up for the confusions in store for Ashoke’s son, who will grow up in America with ‘Gogol Ganguli’ on his birth certificate. And it’s a token of the sedulous way Lahiri has written herself into a craftsmanlike tradition running back from William Trevor and Alice Munro, via Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield and Dubliners, to the Russians translated by Constance Garnett. She has been admired since the beginning of her career for her restraint and the air of naturalness she gives her effects. It isn’t hard to imagine her tacking lines from Chekhov and Isaac Babel above her desk, like Raymond Carver, or exclaiming, as Tolstoy is said to have done, of a businesslike sentence from Pushkin (‘The guests were arriving at the dacha of X’): ‘How charming! That is how one ought to write.’

Lahiri was born in London in 1967 and grew up in New England, where her Calcutta-born father had found work at MIT and then the University of Rhode Island. After training as an academic, she made her name with Interpreter of Maladies (1999), a story collection; The Namesake and a second collection, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), spent time on the American bestseller lists. Each of these books deals with – but isn’t wholly defined by – the middle-class Bengali emigrant experience as it has played out for her and her parents’ generations. The older characters tend to have had arranged marriages and to be benignly uncomprehending of their children’s Americanised ways, while the children learn early on to pay attention to the differences between their home and school lives, and are intermittently pained by outsiders’ curiosity or ignorance. Yet the parent figures aren’t unadaptable. They’ve generally moved to the US to advance their careers as doctors, engineers or professors, and their offspring slip easily into a cosmopolitan upper middle class in which social and educational credentials are more important than ethnicity. Damage and disaffection largely manifest themselves in elegant Chekhovian impasses; there are few depictions of materially deprived emigrants or noisy family showdowns.

So it’s a bad idea to wrestle Lahiri’s writing towards a notion of ‘immigrant fiction’ if that’s understood as meaning either boisterous exoticism or Naipaulian rage. At the same time, it’s not quite fair to complain – as people sometimes do – that she avoids pigeonholes of that sort only to end up turning out stories about the problems of sensitive Ivy Leaguers. It’s true that her fiction is heavily populated by PhD candidates: in The Namesake it’s clear that Gogol’s wife, Moushumi (French literature, NYU), is going to have an affair with Dimitri (German literature, Heidelberg) from the moment she sees him ‘striding across campus, alone, holding a copy of The Man without Qualities’. But Lahiri’s feel for the surfaces of comfortable lives doesn’t rule out a charge of non-editorialised irony. We don’t need to be told how to feel about a couple who ‘swear by … a certain butcher on Mott, a certain style of coffeemaker, a certain Florentine designer of sheets for their bed’. And she’s attuned to the workings of class and ethnicity. ‘Were he not Indian,’ a husband thinks of his less poshly raised white American wife in ‘A Choice of Accommodations’, ‘Megan would have probably avoided someone like him.’

Another complaint that’s sometimes voiced about Lahiri’s writing is that it’s rather stiflingly tasteful, MFA-friendly, solemn and joke-free. Again, there’s a germ of truth: she isn’t much given to humour, though the light comic touch she deploys in scenes of cross-cultural miscommunication – scenes another writer might have gone to town on – works well. (A registrar tries to persuade a newborn child’s parents to go against Bengali tradition: ‘“You can always name him after yourself, or one of your ancestors,” Mr Wilcox suggests, admitting that he is actually Howard Wilcox III. “It’s a fine tradition. The kings of France and England did it,” he adds.’) As for tastefulness, I can see how some might find her stories too perfectly carpentered to the templates of upmarket American short fiction, realist division. At its best, though, the level tone she habitually uses isn’t so much solemn as means of calling up a kind of hush that lets small inflections of voice carry a long way. Along with her command of narrative placement and patient approach to detail, it helps her pull off the trick of getting you where she wants you to go without your noticing the means of transportation.

The Lowland isn’t like that. Instead of allowing a few images to drift gently forward from the flow of observation, it tangles them up in metaphors in an effort to sell the reader some pretty plonking epiphanies. In one scene, a daughter reflects that her mother had radiated ‘an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed’; the daughter was aware of it ‘as one is aware of a mountain’. Then the signal/mountain was removed:

In its place was a heavy stone, like certain stones embedded deep in the sand when she dug on the beach. Too large to unearth, its surface partly visible, but its contours unknown.

She taught herself to ignore it, to walk away. And yet the hole remained her hollow point of origin, the cold crosshairs of her existence.

She returned to it now. At last the sand gave way, and she was able to pry out what was buried, to raise it from its enclosure. For a moment she felt its dimensions, its heft in her hands. She felt the strain it sent through her body, before hurling it once and for all into the sea.

What’s strange about The Lowland is that Lahiri seems to have backed herself into writing in this way by pushing too hard at the qualities – spareness, poise, dislike of obvious structural gimmickry – that make her short stories memorable, and by trying for a confluence of Indian politics and bleak New England seascapes.

The main point of confluence is the lowland of the title, a scrap of vacant land in Tollygunge, Calcutta, which floods after the monsoon and fills with water hyacinth. (Later, it will be called to some of the characters’ minds by the tidal flats and marshes of Rhode Island.) Among the children who use it as a shortcut in the 1950s are Subhash and Udayan, a clerk’s sons. Subhash, the older brother, is obedient, reserved and somewhat colourless; Udayan – as we’re shown early on when he masterminds some trespassing at the British-built Tolly Club, an adventure that gets Subhash beaten by a policeman – is independent-minded, stubborn and charismatic. Each has a gift for science. They rig up a radio and follow the news as the years go by: the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the 1966 World Cup, a Maoist-inspired peasant uprising in Darjeeling. After the authorities crush the rebellion, shooting villagers in Naxalbari, Udayan is drawn to the fledgling Naxalite movement; Subhash concentrates on his studies. Brothers divided by the cruelty of politics: the plot possibilities aren’t hard to see. Having set us up for one sort of novel, though, Lahiri proceeds counter-conventionally.

In the event it’s Subhash who makes the first decisive move. A scholarship whisks him to Rhode Island to do postgraduate work in oceanography. He cultivates his quietist politics – ‘It’s not my place to object,’ he tells an acquaintance who invites him on a protest after My Lai – and has a brief affair with a young mother who’s been left by her husband. When Udayan, now a teacher, informs Subhash by letter that he’s got married without consulting their parents, Subhash realises that he assumes that choosing his own wife isn’t his place either. Then a telegram arrives: ‘Udayan killed. Come back if you can.’ In Calcutta his crushed parents won’t tell him what happened, so he gets the story from his brother’s widow, Gauri, a former student whose role in the family home has shrunk to menial duties in accordance with tradition. Udayan had involved himself in revolutionary violence; during a police raid he hid in the lowland, but was hauled out and shot in full view of the neighbourhood. Gauri is pregnant and, appalled by his parents’ plan to send her away while keeping the child, Subhash marries her and takes her back to Rhode Island.

At this point, about a third of the way through, the novel’s central matter seems to have come into focus. Again we’re encouraged to see likely avenues of development – accommodation with the past, and perhaps the flowering of love, against a backdrop of immigrant life in New England – and again Lahiri swerves away from the expectations she’s raised. After brooding for months and being confounded by ‘something called cream cheese’, Gauri rips up her saris, hacks off her long hair and begins to explore the campus, haunting the library and going to philosophy classes. Caring for her daughter, Bela, enforces a degree of intimacy with Subhash. But she starts sleeping with him only because ‘it had become more of an effort not to,’ and she’s unable to love the child. By the time she’s 12, Bela has grown used to her mother’s absences and impatient outbursts. She isn’t surprised that Gauri doesn’t join them on a visit to Calcutta, where Subhash agonises over whether to tell her he isn’t her biological father. He doesn’t, and feels even less able to when they return to the US to find a note from Gauri explaining that she’s left to teach philosophy in California and wants no further contact.

*

The rest of the novel details the consequences for the three of them, shifting the point of view around more often and increasing the tempo until each character’s story has reached a resolution of sorts in the near-present. Lahiri’s aim appears to be to unfold her plot as a single action, with as few flashbacks as possible, and it’s hard not to admire the determination with which she conceals the manipulation of time: until close to the end, what the Russian Formalists called the syuzhet – the sequence in which events are narrated – is mostly made to resemble chronological order. But it’s also hard to avoid a feeling that the centre of emotional and narrative gravity is Gauri’s decision to cut herself off from Bela. Bringing the characters to terms with that, rather than wringing further resonances from Udayan’s death, comes across as her main business as she winds the story down (it also gives rise to her most overcooked writing). Lahiri could have opted for cornier but more suspenseful treatments: a grown daughter’s flashback-heavy investigations, a father’s late-life monologue. At times it looks as though she took a novel like that, unscrewed it, and laid the pieces out along a timeline.

A similar air of slightly bogus austerity hangs over the style she’s developed for the book, a style that’s very different from the smooth flow of her earlier work. Paragraphs rarely run to more than a few sentences, the sentences are shorter and there are some odd new mannerisms. Dialogue doesn’t get quotation marks. Commas function as caesuras or glue sentence fragments together. Quick-fire repetitions recall, of all people, James Ellroy: ‘They were dissidents of the CPI(M). They were demanding ownership rights for sharecroppers. They were telling peasants to till for themselves.’ At one point, parsimony with an ‘of’ mutilates Bela’s feet (‘the nails of her fingers, then her toes, were pared off with a blade’). But the thriftiness is only apparent. There are many pseudo-precise poeticisms: a group of birds, for example, ‘beating their wings in a steadfast direction over the bay’. (What’s a ‘steadfast direction’? And don’t wings beat up and down?) Here and there the writing shoots for both terseness and Shakespearean elevation: ‘At first she tried to picture what might be happening. But the pieces were too fragmentary. The blood of too many, dissolving the very stain.’

The storytelling, by contrast, really is austere. Sometimes Lahiri introduces minor characters too thoroughly, as if concerned she’ll be suspected of withholding information. But she does an impressive job of telescoping dramatic action and making sure that high-temperature happenings are mostly rendered only by implication. Gauri’s depression, and her guilty exhilaration as a new parent stealing away for a few moments to the corner shop or typewriter, are expertly done, and there are some nicely underplayed observations: a driver sent to take Gauri to a conference who mistakes her for a servant, Bela’s confused responses to the way the household works in Calcutta. In aggregate, though, it’s all a bit airless, with little of the pleasure in episode and anecdote that makes The Namesake – a more rambling, less ambitious novel – chug along. And because everything’s so stripped back, there are few details and events that don’t draw attention to the heavy work of symbolism and foreshadowing. The early sections, in particular, are too busy setting stuff up to generate much traction. Even the boys’ games of soldiers are premonitory in a way that’s somehow understatedly overemphatic:

Ready?
Clear.
Co-ordinates?
Unknown.
Survivors?
Two.
Losses?

Thanks to frequent bulletins on world events and the history of the Naxalite movement, there is a sense that one is being fed a massive dose of backstory. The novel starts to feel less inert once the action has shifted to the US, but the political material doesn’t pay off. Lahiri engineers a kind of parallel between the Indian state’s response to the Naxalites and historical massacres of Native Americans. We don’t get much more from that than an idea that both were very sad, and the overriding view of politics is that it’s like weather or a natural disaster. Udayan’s Dostoevskian offstage activities serve primarily as a cause of American unhappiness for two academics and an organic gardener.

The one large bit of narrative manipulation that Lahiri does allow herself, a revelation withheld until a closing flashback, tries to adjust the balance. I’m not sure it succeeds, but it’s fitting that it is done from Gauri’s point of view, because she’s the best thing in the book. It’s brave of Lahiri to hang so much of the novel on a character lots of readers will dislike: a woman who is brought in as an object of pity and then allowed to be less nice and more interesting than that. Pre-California, she’s a sufficiently intense figure to bring the story fully to life for a while, and Lahiri keeps up a commitment to her complexity even while compensating Bela, at the end of her journey, with a boyfriend from central casting (‘green eyes, a few creases in the skin, salt-and-pepper hair that stirred in the breeze’). It might not be enough to rescue the novel from being a noble failure/potential Booker winner, but it’s a reminder of what Lahiri can do when she’s feeling artful rather than arty.