"Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Review by Vennila nr Kain
Ms. Lahiri's debut novel Namesake comes in a neat package. The actual tangible book itself is an object to behold. Its design meticulous, appealing and textured. Some might say the same about the contents of the book, packaged neatly as a "novel of identity". Namesake attempts to follow the travails of one oddly named Indian-American boy, Gogol Ganguli, named for the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, through suburban dyspepsia, followed by that particular prosecution of second-generation Indian-Americans -- hyper-achievement and Ivy-education. The novel's protagonist, Gogol, son of Ashima & Ashoke Ganguli, gets stuck with the pet name after his 'Good Name' given by his grandmother, gets lost in the postal void somewhere between India and America. With this promising start, the novel then follows Gogol's conflicting reactions to his name (before heading to college he changes his name to Nikhil for Nikolai, that his parents initially attempted to give him, which as a young boy entering grade school he rejected) and to the naming of names in general.
It is almost a relief to realize that most of the action in Namesake takes place in America. Ms. Lahiri has exceptional observational abilities, but when it comes to characters that are Indian in stories set in India, her observational abilities blatantly suffer from 'exotoxification'. Her India and Indians are clumsy, awkward, desperately out-of-place (even in their own country) as are Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli in Namesake. These transplants never strike root in America. They go the solid upper-middle-class suburban route, moving into a brand new "two-story colonial in a recently built development", moving in even before the landscaping is done. The Gangulis enjoy a solid middle-class white-collar lifestyle (Ashoke is an academic), the only fly in Gogol's ointment seems the fact that they are Indian -- rubbed in by the biennial trips to India, his parents' deliberate speaking of the English language so as to be understood, Ashima's continued wearing of her 'saris' -- all factors seem to slowly add up to a general sense of shame. However, the family adapts too. In what seems like pathological conformity, the Hindu Gangulis allow the children to pick 'American' food in the supermarket, put up a plastic Christmas tree in the window and wreath on the door, giving presents on Christmas and allow the children dream about Santa. "Éthe Gangulis, apart from the name on the mailbox, apart from the issues of India Abroad and Sangbad Bichitra that are delivered there, appear no different from their neighbors. Their garage, like every other, contains shovels and pruning shears and a sled."
The Namesake is a novel about the humble Naan bread wanting to be Wonderbread. Or one thinks initially. Namesake according to the blurb on the inside jacket fold, deals with "the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflict of assimilation, and, most poignantly the tangled ties between generations". However in reality it is a novel about the Wonderbread wanting to be a loaf of Balthazar's best. The novel is more about class divisions than cross-cultural confusion. The Gangulis are not clueless immigrants, but well (and already) assimilated immigrants very much living like Americans, albeit the majority of the Americans taking the suburban route. The Gangulis navigate the aisles of America using Walmart shopping carts. When the kids grow up and end in Ivy Leagues colleges, as proscribed for every second-generation middle-class Indian-American, culture clash erupts, no, evinces (the word erupt contains more action than the entire book does!). In Ms. Lahiri's writing events carefully 'unravel', they never tear abruptly. Things don't erupt, they erode. Nothing clamours, merely corrodes. And so the Ivy-leaguers come from upper crust American families and eat obscure European cheeses, shop at Dean & Deluca, and Madison Avenue boutiques. Whereas in their earnest attempt at assimilation, smack in the midst of Suburbia, the Gangulis eat Wonderbread sandwiches with supermarket deli cut Bologna and Kraft Singles. His relationship with the self-possessed Maxine and the borrowed life of sophistication he leads with her family (the cool Gerald and the suave Lydia Ratliff) in a Chelsea town home are the novel's most telling sections. Everything the Ratliffs are, the Gangulis aren't. This is the source of the culture clash in this book and the family merely happens to be Indian. One could just as easily imagine an Iowa farm boy being in similar awe, or for that matter any neighbor of the Gangulis in their Pemberton Road vicinity.
However, Ms.Lahiri and her publisher seem eager to jump on the 'immigrant' literature bandwagon. The literati especially of the New Yorker type are eager to anoint Ms. Lahiri as the voice of Immigrant America. Please. Her parents are immigrants. Not Ms.Lahiri. Claims such as these cause Ms. Lahiri's writings grate on this reviewer -- an immigrant of Indian origin herself. One is welcome to celebrate Ms.Lahiri as an American writer, but don't push her onto the immigrant ringside. She is not welcome. Part of what is extremely irksome about Ms. Lahiri is her complete lack of comprehension of most things Indian. Particularly the nuances that make us people. Her Rudyard Kiplingish characters are disempowered and out of date. More detrimentally she is providing as an Indian-American, a validation for all the circle-jerkers of Indophilia -the fictional exotic India of the Kamasutra and the Calcutta lepers, that is. It is not that one doesn't welcome negative portraits of India or Indians, abroad or elsewhere, it is merely that one expects the humanity of the population to prevail in any such portrayal and in particular avoid reiteration of already depicted cartoonishness. Writers of color have to evaluate this fine balance, and one hopes in presenting a nuanced portrayal, chip away at established alien images of minority sub-cultures.
Gogol is ashamed of his name, his heritage, his parents -- nothing seems to sit well on his Indian-American shoulders. "He avoids them [Indian American students], for they remind him too much of the way his parents chose to live, befriending people not so much because they like them, but because of a past they happen to share."
This phraseology is a good example of the kind of obfuscations that make Ms.Lahiri's views grating. How can one genuinely conclude that the lingering associations of the Gangulis with fellow Indian ŽmigrŽs is more because of the 'past' as opposed to the 'present' hurdle of navigating America in all its strange ways, and cultures, driving on the wrong side, and applying for visa extensions? "Was there a difference between a plastic rake and a metal one? Which was preferable, a live Christmas tree or an artificial one?" Things that the immigrants' life in India never prepared them for. "Each step, each acquisition, no matter how small, involves deliberation, consultation with Bengali friends." In implying that the associations are owing to a 'shared past' presents a picture of the Gangulis as backward and mired in memories. Whereas it seems from the same set of information that Ms.Lahiri presents, that the Gangulis are very much involved in the life that they have created for themselves in a faraway land. And have been eager to adapt.
Gogol's parents speak nostalgically of Boston implying a certain affinity and identity. They probably didn't think of themselves as awkward or unsure. The teenager's point of view that sees a parent as ungainly and unfashionable is universal. Most children are intensely ashamed of their parents at some point in time or another. All teenagers go through that, and grow out of it too. Whereas Ms.Lahiri's prose is stuck in that point of view when it comes to detailing the activities of immigrants from her parent's generation. And detailing is what she does well. The novel is filled with details, over laden to the point that one is almost craving for one clichéd line about how any of the characters actually feel. And clichéd is what we get! "It is as if a building he'd been responsible for designing has collapsed for all to see." This is the most inspired of her writing when it comes to feelings, in this case, regarding marital dissolution. Otherwise the writing style is sparse and many a fan of Ms.Lahiri's writing gushes about it in many of the rave reviews she got for her Pulitzer winning collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. However light the writing is, and effortless at first glance they seem to be, it gets trying and tiring after awhile.
Namesake is a very well crafted novel, as was the case of the earlier collection, fit for a graduate of fine arts in writing program. Ms.Lahiri seems to write with her arm outstretched, much like a painter of landscapes, elbow locked, sketching a picture from a distance, with an eye-closed. These distancing techniques while very effective (assuming they were intentional) leaves the characters somewhat hollow, wooden-like and yes, two-dimensional. Gogol meanders through life with a certain glassy-eyed detachment. No emotion high-enough, no death low enough, Ms.Lahiri is definitely a voice of 21st century America -- an America of the Prozac generation.
Ms. Lahiri's prose is as precise as a surgical blade. Not a chef's blade, in that it expertly cubes and dices florets and wedges of vegetables. More like a mortician's. The prose while so famously precise, the characters are dead on arrival. Even though the story is told in the present, the characters are already dead. There is a certain morbidity to their movements, a rigidity in their thoughts, that one suspects the river of Hades, but flows between.
The novel is as much about Namesakes as Name-dropping. The characters are over-educated and under developed. In this universe everyone goes to Ivy League and wants to be 'Normal' -- i.e. waspy, if slightly arty, or hippie, or society-page typey -- the white man's privilege. In this universe everyone goes to Princeton, Yale, Brown, Columbia and the odd one out goes to M.I.T.
The parts of the novel that seem to take off in some lively manner are when Gogol is embraced into the sophisticated lifestyle of the Ratliffs when he starts to see their pixieish daughter Maxine. While the description almost borders on that of upper-class intellectual-socialite's stereotype it is also engaging and 'real' in a way that the Ganguli's are not. And the narrative picks up when Moushumi Mazoomdar enters. Moushumi in many ways feels more the hero of this book than Gogol. We know more about her in fewer pages than about Gogol in the entire book. And when Moushumi is in the page, Gogol seems to vanish from sight. There are parts of the novel towards the end, Gogol does exactly that and it feels oddly displaced as though pages of two different novels got bound together by mistake. And I think personally I would have liked to have read that 'other' novel about Moushumi than this one.
The real tension in the novel is between Gogol's childhood aspirations for "..shake 'n Bake chicken or Hamburger Helper prepared with ground lambÉ" and at thirty for "a wedge of cheese from the Pyrenees, slices of soppresata, a loaf of peasant bread" or his adult tendency to be impressed by, "bouillabaisse and a bottle of Sancerre" ordered with the right accent.
The novel Namesake may also possibly titled "The model minority's guide to social climbing" or "The model minority's attempt at sophistication and the resulting angst" and this review, more truthfully titled "I hate Jhumpa Lahiri's writing. And this is why".
Vennila nr Kain is an actor, poet and yogini. She is found at www.vennila.net.