The hero of The Namesake is an American of Bengali parentage named Gogol Ganguli. Odd names are hard on a child, and Gogol, at a hint from his parents, changes his first name to Nikhil: a doubtful improvement. But what was he to do? Gogol’s father believes that he owes his life to Nikolai Gogol, the author of “The Overcoat,” the book in his hand when he was rescued from a train wreck. The great Russian story, a fantastic proof of the adage that “clothes make the man,” has inspired Jhumpa Lahiri to draw a delicate moral. Clothes and all the things that clothes may stand for–custom, habit, culture–are not enough to make a man. They tell you everything except what you need to know. Lahiri is an intuitive writer, very sparing in her use of the external shorthand of street names, family trees, the evidence of taste or pedigree. The backgrounds of her characters are apt to emerge in a turn of speech, or a memory that does not admit itself to be a memory. And yet, by the end of The Namesake, we have come to know Gogol Ganguli as well as we know most people. We know him well enough to stand back. His name and nationality, the job he works at, where he has lived, the people he has known–these data exhaust his case but they do not explain him.
The people in Lahiri’s fiction–the stories in Interpreter of Maladies as well as this novel–often find an obscure comfort amid their larger dislocations. It may come as a prompting from habit or fetish, or from bodily necessity. So at the start of this novel, before the birth of the hero, Gogol’s mother, Ashima, “wonders if she is the only Indian person in the hospital, but a gentle twitch from the baby reminds her that she is, technically speaking, not alone.” The same charm against loneliness is shared in some fashion by Gogol’s father, Ashoke. Yet the story is narrated in the present tense, which can seem to maroon people in the present moment, so that art becomes even slower than life. The experiment must have appealed to Lahiri because the present tense may also bring to mind the contingency of action and suffering, the things people do and the things that happen. It suggests a world without design, in which nothing is decided before it occurs. This is part of the freedom of Lahiri’s characters, a freedom she does not confuse with happiness.
Lahiri is an efficient narrator but a born writer of scenes. The chapters on Gogol’s childhood have an attractive economy of detail–as when his sister Sonia grips his hand on their first return to India, where the parents have shown themselves to be bolder and louder than the children have seen them before; or when we are told that Sonia’s “braces have come off her teeth, revealing a confident, frequent, American smile.” Yet no one will wish these chapters longer. In the latter two-thirds of the book, as soon as two characters meet and start to talk, the pages seem touched by magic. This is especially true of the scenes between Gogol and the women in his life, Ruth, Maxine and Moushumi. Lahiri has a fine tact for the foreshadowings of love–the hand pushing back a strand of hair, the longer pause before good night, the impartial question that allows no possibility of small talk. “What’s Calcutta like? Is it beautiful?” Gogol’s falling out of love with Ruth when she returns from a stay in England is captured in the very sound of her speech, laced with its new locutions, “I imagine,” “I suppose,” “You could come as well.” When he goes to dine with Maxine and her parents at their house, he is surprised by the ease of the family and “feels a pleasant ache at his temples, and a sudden gratitude for the day and where it has brought him.” A lesser writer would have elaborately described all this. Jhumpa Lahiri shows it.
Most love comes out of an arbitrary mood that one person or maybe two have cherished without seeing that they ever made a choice. Ruth is a contemporary, someone beside whom Gogol learns of the world. His love for Maxine goes deeper because both are older, but also because it is a dream and mostly a happy dream. It is not only Maxine that he cares for but her parents and their way of life in New York: familiar, generous, both private and outgoing. He is enchanted by their summer place in New Hampshire, where he first sees the night sky in the country, the stars “crowded together, a mess of dust and gems.” He leaves Maxine when the death of his father reminds him that he has never felt her to be a sharer in his family. This is the book’s only conventional piece of plotting.