Reviewing a book by Jhumpa Lahiri is like throwing pebbles at an elephant, or like showering it with peanuts. I intend no insult to the lovely Ms. Lahiri. Just consider the facts: Her first book, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999), won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year, and, were that insufficient proof of her talent, the Pulitzer. Her first novel, The Namesake (2003), was made into a movie by the award-winning Indian-born director Mira Nair in 2007.
So Ms. Lahiri crashed through the threat of a sophomore slump, turning everything she tusked into gold, and now she’s returned with Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf, 352 pages, $25), a collection of eight stories (three of which appeared in the New Yorker) bound to garner her unreserved praise from the likes of true believers Michiko Kakutani and Amy Tan. At the risk of being drowned out or flattened by that stampede, one must confess that the unaccustomed earth is in fact disappointingly familiar territory.
In a recent Bookforum interview, Ms. Lahiri tellingly said that her characters “don’t represent immigrants or anyone specific. They just represent the human condition.” It would be dismissive of her achievement to say that she aims to depict some blanket “immigrant experience,” though she acknowledges that she tends to write about Indians and the perils and pleasures of assimilation. But the admission that her characters don’t represent “anyone specific” is as distressing as it is palpably true. Set this book aside and you’ll find that her dramatis personae boil down to treacle in a melting pot of largely unmemorable frustrations and tragedies. If the salt of the earth should lose its savor, add saffron—but don’t kid yourself that it’s good old lamb and potatoes your “worldly,” “sophisticated” readers keep coming back for.
In the title story, Ruma, whose widower father has come to visit her in the United States, refers to her brother Romi as a sibling “with whom she had always felt so little in common, in spite of their absurdly matching names.” But these names wouldn’t be a bit confusing—no more so than, say, Jack and Jill—were her characters anything more than timid and anxious. Ruma’s role is to observe the unfolding of a blandly sentimental scene, her father “bonding” with her young son over a gardening project. When at last a misplaced postcard reveals her father’s secret romance with a woman he met traveling, the reader is grateful that someone, at least, is actively pursuing happiness rather than frowning and musing through his days.
This isn’t to suggest that nothing happens in Ms. Lahiri’s stories. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” a man brings his wife to the wedding of a woman he once loved, gets drunk, makes a horrifying comment to a fellow guest about the inevitable withering of the connubial grape, and nearly deep-sixes his own marriage. This is great storytelling, and includes great dialogue, which, it must be said, doesn’t exist in abundance in this book.
Nor humor. It seems the “human condition” has no room for laughter: In Ms. Lahiri’s three books, the only line that deserves a chuckle—a cruel, unintentional one—is “Daddy, the monkey’s hurting Bobby,” from the title story of Interpreter of Maladies.
As a general rule, Ms. Lahiri has an abstemious relationship to pleasure, which is more or less confined to sexual passion, often adulterous, and food. There is plenty of cuisine in Ms. Lahiri’s writing: Someone is always preparing samosas or a cassoulet or promising an English trifle. In “Once in a Lifetime,” our mouths water over a woman “deep-frying pieces of potato and cauliflower, melting sticks of butter in a saucepan for ghee.” Similar language governs Ms. Lahiri’s descriptions of sex: Younger women are “entered” expertly, though never without some connoisseurship of “skin and bone and hair.” It reads like soft-core for the Park Slope playground set, Eat, Pray, Love for those self-conscious souls who insist on joining a “salon” rather than a “book club.”
Hovering over this ornately rendered epicureanism is the specter of Death, wielding his award-harvesting scythe. The book’s big surprise is that when an infant is left alone with his mother’s alcoholic brother—oddly, one of a few truly sympathetic characters, in spite of his monstrosity—he doesn’t drown in the bathtub, à la Updike’s Rabbit, Run, but is left to be discovered just in time. The book’s big mystery is how this recently sober brother manages to put the baby in the bath, ransack the house for hidden booze, and drink enough to pass out, all in the space of his sister’s night at the movies.
No matter. We get the point. And we’re compensated for this near-death experience when another character, who once, in a bit of ham-handed foreshadowing, feared to swim out too far, is wiped out by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami: “I saw a massive surge of water moving so quickly that the tape seemed to be playing at an unnatural speed. . . . I did not know where in Thailand you were, only that you planned to be on a beach.”
Much of what leads up to this is genuinely affecting, or at least engaging. But this wrap-up remains a slightly exotic play on “then everyone got hit by a truck,” just as all the Indian line-prep is just a slightly exotic play on the kind of Independence Day barbecue that would bore the living Bud Light out of American readers. When you get past the imported ingredients, you find that the “human condition” can be pretty dull in the wrong hands. Ms. Lahiri’s prose is “exquisite,” as the jacket copy promises, but it’s a bit too much so. It can be wooden, resembling nothing so much as a stack of flawless college essays—true to the fact that half her characters are busy accruing degrees and writing dissertations—their cultural capital well spent, their epiphanies tacked on neatly at the end.
In Gogol Ganguli, the protagonist of The Namesake, Ms. Lahiri had a fully formed man, both sympathetic and repellent. Having taken care to name him meaningfully, Ms. Lahiri was committed to fleshing him out, not only to making him real but also to making us care—for the latter does not always follow from the former. One suspects that to discover another Gogol, Ms. Lahiri, despite understanding aspects of India, England, and the United States so well, just might need to get out more.