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.
Moushumi, who becomes Gogol’s grown-up love, is the strongest character in The Namesake. She is rendered keenly, absorbingly, from the outside in, with an intimacy that stirs and unsettles. And one comes away from the book uneasily still thinking about Moushumi–her Dunhills, her perfume (as Gogol smells it) “something slightly overpowering that makes him think of wet moss and prunes,” her drive for self-improvement and her gathering recognition that she is fundamentally adrift. A headlong willfulness is oddly mingled with reticence when Moushumi says, on their first date, arranged by their parents: “So, I’ve never done this before.” A rhythm of speech and almost a personality are in the comma. Something about Moushumi gets under the skin of this novel, and the novel is the better for it. She is a doctoral candidate in French literature. Why, to nerve herself for an adulterous affair, does she reread The Red and the Black in English? Because she would. It is one of those touches that when they are right earn a reader’s perfect trust in the novelist. This portrait, so gentle in much of its shading, is ironic in the sense that we are made to see things about Moushumi that she does not see about herself. The academic-bohemian milieu in which she moves is deftly rendered, bourgeois, postmodern, turning everything to style, instructed in all the relevant forms of care of the self. “I,” says one of her friends, “just have so much more energy if I stay off wheat.”
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.