Review of Interpreter
Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/17/06
Were Jhumpa Lahiri in a writing group I ran I would tell her the stories that comprise Interpreter Of Maladies, winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, make for good first drafts, generally, but that, of the nine short stories, six of them exist simply because the characters are Indian, and Lahiri feels this makes them a compelling enough subject. It’s for this reason, including her prolixity, which includes mainly a need to overdescribe everything from Indian food stuffs to toe nail polish, that I felt that reading the book was like being an attendee at a zoo: ‘Ooh, see that- they are Punjabis; and there’s a Bengali; and, oh, look at that weird Muslim!’ If these characters were named Anderson, Klein, or Mills there would be no reason for most of Lahiri’s tales to exist, because the equivalent American activities, and how they are rendered, would bore most good readers silly. This is not to say that Lahiri lacks talent- she has it, and it shows in the book’s first two, and last tales, but a Pulitzer Prize worthy book this is not. Yet, alack, because she has been feted so early in her career, and for such a manifestly mediocre book (I’d give it a passable 65-70 out of 100), the woman has absolutely no incentive to improve as a writer. Granted, I, like all great writers, seek improvement from some well within, but those who merely have that potential, well, there are alot of variables, and those for Lahiri bode ill. Add to the fact that, at the time of the award, she was an attractive young woman from a chic ethnicity (Indian) and it takes no genius to see that the award was granted for who she was, not what she wrote. Of course, if editors nowadays actually did what they are supposed to draw their paychecks for they would have returned her manuscript with a polite note saying she had potential but these stories needed to be reworked, and depth needed to be added.
Too often Lahiri’s tales work on just one or two levels, tops. And she is not such a poetic prose stylist that that lack of depth is compensated for by her spellbinding eye’s insights. A Temporary Matter, the first tale, has moments, but is too long. It is about the dissolution of a marriage, which comes to a head during a series of enforced blackouts on their block, and there are enough universal touchstones that the couple’s ethnicity is not an issue. But, there is too much listing of foodstuffs and over description that the 22 page tale could be cut by two thirds, and be much better for the denser prose and heightened descriptions. When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine is also a solid tale, but with a weak end. It follows the travails of a Bengali man who dines at the house of a family in America, during the Pakistan-India war of the early 1970s, the independence of Bangladesh, and the memories of a little girl who relates them. Yet, even this passable tale Lahiri’s overdescription kills. Here’s Mr. Pirzada’s reaction to news coverage of the war: ‘As he watched he had an immovable expression on his face, composed but alert, as if someone were giving him directions to an unknown destination.’ Not a bad sentence, out of context, but in the tale the character’s situation has been thoroughly portrayed and this comes off redundant, not to mention self-consciously ‘mysterious’- and this infects all of her tales. Imagine a tale of a lonely woman who finally marries her beloved, and then a sentence says, ‘And she was happy, beyond all measure of joy she could have aspired to.’ Well, aside from stating the obvious you’d be overstating it, with overdescription, to boot. Good writers know that detail and length do not equate with excellence.
Then come six forgettable tales that, if of Americans, would never have seen print. This is the ‘zoo effect’, as I call it. The title tale, Interpreter of Maladies, follows an Indian tour guide, who also interprets at a doctor’s office, dealing with a returning Indian clan to the homeland, and his impressions of them, especially his hours-long infatuation with the mother. There are some moments that a better writer would have expanded to highlight emotional depth, but Lahiri misses them in favor of prolixity, a number of ‘collapsible scenes’ which, if excised, or merely skirted over, would have had the same effect on what the tale is about, with less overdescription. A Real Durwan is a pointless ‘slice of life’ tale, Sexy is a paint-by-numbers tale of a mistress who comes to her senses that, at 27 pages, is about 20 pages too long, Mrs. Sen’s is even more vapid than A Real Durwan, and This Blessed House is a tale told just to show how funky culture clash can be when Indians move in to a place larded with Christian iconography. Of course, nothing of any depth is revealed within. The penultimate tale, The Treatment Of Bibi Haldar, is a plain old silly tale, the details of which elude me only a few hours after reading it. I would say this makes it the worst in the book, but I honestly cannot recall a thing about it.
That leads into the best and last tale, The Third And Final Continent, the only tale that can be said to be a good to very good story, about a man whose first room in America, in 1969, is with a weird old centegenarian woman enraptured with the moon landing, and her national pride in the achievement. The ending, after she has died, is very good, and suggestive that Lahiri could become a good, if not great writer. Now, refer back to what I said in paragraph one about rewarding writers of promise, not accomplishment, too soon. Cross your fingers, I guess.
This is because the six stories that tank do so because of a very workshoppy approach to writing- that is to describe everything as if it were of import. Length does not equal intellectual nor artistic heft, yet I can imagine tales like this setting banal hearts atwitter with their loving descriptions of mustard seed and saris. Good writers know to tell only what is needed to serve a tale, and if a good writer gives a lot of detail it’s usually because he or she is writing of a tale where such description adds to the milieu or the personae of the characters. This is not so with Lahiri. Her writing is not original, because if you merely change the tales’ characters’ names you have the same stories told by a Sandra Cisneros, or an Amy Tan, or an Alice Adams before that. That is, she’s the New Yorker writer/flavor of a year- a purveyor of stock ethnic exoticism. In short, the only original thing in Lahiri’s overall mindset is something outside her own control, which is her ethnicity. Thus, most of the tales come off as slight variations on a theme of didactic lamentations of loss, an Indian History 101 lesson, or an Indian ethnic cookbook. Such may please a stomach, but not a mind. She makes mere zoo animals to be gawked at of her ‘exotic’ characters. Her tales also lack true passion, are too suffused in redundant details, are void of most poetry, a probing intellect to dig deeper under the banal veneer of life, and her endings are rather banal and dull.
Lahiri needs to grow up, and move to a more universal realm, as well dash the impulse to safely genericize her tales to a workshop/New Yorker mold, and take real artistic and narrative risks, or else she will be ‘another of those writers from the millennium who were only published because of their ethnicity, not their talent.’ Thus seems to have been the case with the rather cold reception of her follow up novel. This pattern happens over and over. A raw writer is feted for mediocre work, made into an icon of something they are really not, and this delimits their potential future audience, artistic growth, and publisher interest after their still mediocre follow-ups do not do well. The public is fickle and you can only fool them once or twice with generic pap. Then they move on to the newer flavor. The old flavors, however, are often dropped after a third or fourth book fails to make money, and are swiftly forgotten about- pariahs in an industry that cares not of real talent and nurturing writers of great scope and vision, and which has killed all midlist writers, yet is content to toss a hundred bad chic/hot/hip writers against a wall and pray one sticks with a moneymaking career, as that is initially easier, but far more costly- in true economic and real artistic senses- over the long run, to writers and readers. My advice: start counting your change, Jhumpa!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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