The Man Without Qualities
Almost all the characters have been given something of Lahiri's own sensitivity to the surfaces of things--the poetry of brand names, for instance, as they strike a person who is beginning to know English well: "Skippy, Hood, Bumble Bee, Land O'Lakes"; or the attractiveness to a bookish girl of "the Modern Library emblem, the dashing, naked, torch-bearing figure." The foreground of Gogol's technical training as an architect, the colleges around which parts of the book are set (Harvard, Yale, Columbia), all the necessary qualifying details are finely observed without ostentation. It is not clear why Moushumi would xerox a page of Flaubert for students to translate on the first day of beginning French, but possibly this is a joke about Moushumi, or about the teaching of French, too subtle to be detected by an ordinary ear.
Children played a major part in some of the best stories in Interpreter of Maladies--"Mrs. Sen's," "Sexy," "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine"--saying their blunt or chastening things or else watching the grown-ups with speechless wonder. In view of those stories, it is curious to reflect that Gogol, whom the novel leaves at the age of 30, makes no firm impression even as a child. He is a passive character, from all we see of him, a fit vehicle for a story that means to show the accidents that add up to a life. Nor does the author altogether love this hero. She says about him, with an uncharacteristic omniscience, that the "Tomorrow" speech of Macbeth that he memorizes for school will be "the only lines of poetry he will know by heart for the rest of his life." The prophecy is clearly earned, but the knowledge is predigested. The truth is that Lahiri is a little restless in Gogol's company. She can see all the way to the end of him.
This is not a novel written to a thesis. But Lahiri does occasionally pause to address preoccupations that, one cannot help thinking, matter less to her than to serious people whom she feels that she ought to respect. So we are shown Gogol dining with Gerald and Lydia, Maxine's parents, suddenly prey to the disturbing thought that "he cannot imagine his parents sitting at Lydia and Gerald's table." The urgency of such a detail does not properly belong to Gogol's thoughts. It "belongs" to the situation from a sociological point of view. A book full of such moments would become what The Namesake is not, the story of a predicament rather than a person. Another sort of prodding comes in the form of thematic mindfulness. Seeing a picture of Moushumi as a child, Gogol tries to remove it from a scrapbook and finds it will not peel away but "clings stubbornly, refusing to detach cleanly from the past." Again, when Moushumi's previous boyfriend is heard in a flashback speaking lightly of her Bengali relations, we get a paraphrase of her feeling: "It was one thing for her to reject her background, to be critical of her family's heritage, another to hear it from him." The real workings of the process of individuation, the sense of the past and present, and the arousal of defensive pride are neither so conscious as this nor so transparent. Still, the didactic pressure in The Namesake comes to very little; in Interpreter of Maladies, it was even less.
When a master of the short story publishes her first novel, reviewers who have never written a story or a novel may affect a preposterous tone of mellow practical wisdom. This review will now take full advantage of that prerogative. A novel plumbs deeper than a story and can evoke many of the shadows and doubts that fill a life. Though it is the longer form, it gains more from the force of the unsaid. A good short story concludes; a good novel cannot do that--it resists the episodic way of putting things in nutshells. The humor of Lahiri's stories, usually reserved, but with its own gaudy patches and flares, is mostly absent from The Namesake. This was not inevitable; it emerged from her choice of a hero. Yet her novel touches us almost everywhere with the truth of more than one life, and it does not lack the vulgar appeal without which art stops short at a decorous success. There are scenes you do not want to let go of, subsidiary characters whom you would like to hold on to much longer. We say young writer, but an accomplished writer is ageless, and in this second book Lahiri's pace and accent are unmistakable: somber, unrushed, acute in the exposure they offer to life's injuries and to its inroads of hope. Far from using the expanse to riot in melodrama, she remains, here as in her stories, almost the reverse of a dramatic writer.
Her gift is a power of sympathy that makes us concerned with the luck of her characters even when she is letting us know that the luck will end. It is a mark of self-possession that there are no magnificent climaxes here. The great changes in the story--a death, a separation, the beginnings of self-recognition in the hero--all take place offstage. As in life, the provocations to feeling or to action do not occur in step with the conscious thoughts of the characters. Yet a nice formal symmetry, lightly cued, is completed when a story that began with Ashima's journey to America ends with her journey back to India. Meanwhile, Lahiri has sailed quite free of the hazards of the generational novel, in which the lives of immigrant parents loom up as a series of anxieties and the lives of first-generation Americans as a guilty fulfillment. Growth, this novel says, is the reward of nothing but time, and time takes away too much.