Lahiri has written two short story collections: Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008); also a novel, The Namesake (2003), which I have yet to read. If you have read any of these, please comment below, ideally before you even read this diary - then you'll add brand new opinions to the mix, instead of responding to my own.
Unaccustomed Earth entered the New York Times bestseller list at number 1, a rare feat for a story collection. But with her first book, Lahiri had already blazed like a comet across the literary firmament. Neither debuts nor story collections generally win the Pulitzer Prize. Interpreter of Maladies - which is both - won that and seven others. Since then, it's sold so well that it's been translated into more than 30 languages.
Interpreter of Maladies is an enjoyable and impressive collection. I found Unaccustomed Earth, to my surprise and delight, significantly better.
How does Lahiri write stories that are easy to read, that demand so little of the reader, yet they contain such subtlety and power? Her only unusual request for our attention is a willingness to learn about Indian customs and society. She manages her Indianness as she handles all the depth and strangeness she shows us: instead of demanding, she seduces her readers. India is sprinkled carefully through her fiction, so there is frequently enough spice to taste exotic, but never so much that it overwhelms us and becomes hard to digest.
This method is part of her greatest gift, her skill at shaping, or weaving, a tale. Lahiri has a marvelous intuition for what to tell, when to tell it, and how much. As you wander through her tale, she feeds you morsels of a world, its characters, their backgrounds, and the incidents that she weaves with. Her stories feel so true to life, so accidental, with people, words and deeds bumping into each other, and growing into unexpected patterns.
It is not all easy going. There are crises and epiphanies. By the time you reach these shocks, though, you are already living in her world, you feel her characters, so their triumphs and defeats hit you in the gut. Lahiri is a true magician of plot, and makes it seem effortless.
Like all great stage direction, you don't even notice this plotting when you read her stories. Lahiri weaves her subtle tapestry, and you just drink it with your eyes. What you notice instead is the second enchantment that permeates her work: her phenomenal and particular awareness of the wayward workings of the heart.
Lahiri sells so well because she writes stories with all the charms of popular Romance, but with far more insight and realism. She shows us every aspect of love, but she includes cancer, miscarriages, and people foolishly blurting out the wrong thing, which they can never take back.
So what is wrong with Interpreter of Maladies, that I preferred her second collection? Let's consider the title story.
There are six characters: the Interpreter, Mr. Kapasi; and the Das family, who he is driving to see the Sun Temple at Konarak. Mr. Kapasi is fully and subtly drawn. Next to him, the Das family seem more like caricatures, Indians who have lost their nature and dignity, and become shallow American tourists. From the first pages, they rub us the wrong way, and our sympathies lie with the Interpreter.
Mr. Kapasi drives the family, endures their boorishness, starts daydreaming about the charms and possibilities of Mrs. Das. A connection develops between these two, Mrs. Das confides in Mr. Kapasi. Then he tells her a simple truth, she doesn't like it, and Mr. Kapasi's daydream flutters away in the wind.
I'm not saying the story doesn't work. It did win an O Henry prize. It's just that, compared to her more recent work, this story feels heavy-handed. There was some monkey business which I saw coming a mile off. Also, the Das family. Yes, I beleive people just like this exist. But next to most of Lahiri's characters, they look like cartoons.
This does serve a purpose. We sympathize with the Interpreter, and perhaps we are meant to see the Dases as cartoons, since that's how they appear to Mr. Kapasi. But what slightly rankles, after seeing the finesse with which Lahiri handles her more recent work, is the moralizing she has woven into the story itself. We feel superior to the Dases because we, and Lahiri, judge their obvious flaws. In her later collection, characters suffer far worse fates, which they may well deserve. But we are not above them, we suffer right with them.
Lahiri is very good at endings, at tying things off with a small telling detail, an unexpected but fitting resolution. Most of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, as I finished them, I felt she'd gotten them just right.
Would you like to write a diary for Contemporary Fiction Views? I've enjoyed filling in for bookgirl, but it's proving too hard to maintain a weekly series with limited computer access at the Santa Monica public library. Next week will be my last diary here.I'll be diarying again in a month, writing a 'Books That Changed My Life' (Tristram Shandy) on January 25th, and then starting a new weekly series at 6pm EST on Friday, February 1st.
If you've read a recent book that's inspired you, you could write about it for 10pm EST on Tues. Jan. 1st, or Jan 8th, or...
If you'd like to weave a piece of this ongoing tapestry, please say so in a comment, or message me, or Limelite.