I used to be a hipster. In the hipster bookstore I worked in, Jhumpa Lahiri was not considered cool. "Middlebrow," too respectable, "NPR fiction," you know. I had never read her work but I bought into this line of reasoning.
I finally read "The Interpreter of Maladies" and it's incredible. She reminds me of Chekhov. There is this calm, authoritative subtlety to the prose that I rarely see with contemporary authors. I'm teaching this to a classroom of 9th graders and many of them love it. They're limited in how they can praise literature, but they are often wowed by how "descriptive" it is, pointing to various passages that made an impact, little telling details. I can't think of another collection that would do a better job introducing the art of the short story.
Is she mostly just using the tools of 19th century realists? Yes, of course. But that is encouraging to me today; it makes me feel like our lives might *not* be so bent out of shape that they can't be represented using the old tools. Maybe we can know ourselves, just a little better, if we look at our lives carefully and quietly, like Chekhov did.
― treeship., Sunday, 28 March 2021 23:26 (eight months ago) link
This collection is from the 90s and I haven't read anything else by her. It's possible she'd have a harder time writing about characters whose lives are as fully mediated by technology as ours are. Certainly, the distances -- cultural and geographic -- between west bengal and the US would feel somewhat different now, and that is one of her big themes.
― treeship., Sunday, 28 March 2021 23:28 (eight months ago) link
i remember tao lin, specifically, was super opposed to jhumpa lahiri, believing she was too invested in the sense of loss experienced by immigrants as they navigate from one cultural context to another. this was sentimental to him, soft, and i think he felt it was disingenuous because he didn't really, personally, feel that he was out of place because he was taiwanese-american, he thought he felt out of place for "existential" reasons, because that was the human condition. he even said his novel, taipei, was partly an attempt to show how taipei and new york were the same. wherever you go, life is hell. (in that book the main character goes back to the city his parents grew up in, but he pointedly does *not* try to reconnect with their former lifeworld. he just drowns his consciousness in drugs).
in any case, i find the tao lin reading of jhumpa lahiri douchey now. many of my students are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and many of them really responded to her story "when mr. pirzada came to dine." they liked the idea of a kid trying to find their way between two cultures, curious about the world her parents left, which is the premise of that story. i think their response kind of proves, like, the story was speaking to something authentic.
― treeship., Sunday, 28 March 2021 23:35 (eight months ago) link
I still dig her stories.
― So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 28 March 2021 23:37 (eight months ago) link
are the novels good?
― treeship., Sunday, 28 March 2021 23:37 (eight months ago) link
They're okay, the usual story of a natural story writer adrift keeping up the pace of a novel.
― So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 28 March 2021 23:38 (eight months ago) link
i can see that. i saw the film version of the namesake years ago and wasn't impressed, but after reading her fiction i am curious about it.
― treeship., Monday, 29 March 2021 13:50 (eight months ago) link