Yesterday the National Book Foundation announced the finalists for this year’s National Book Award. This announcement happened to coincide with my finishing one of the finalists: Jhumpa Lahiri’s newest book, The Lowland. I had been anxiously awaiting the release of The Lowland because Lahiri has historically published really, really excellent work; in fact 1999’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies is one of my favorite books of all time, featuring one of my favorite short stories (“A Temporary Matter”). The fact is, Lahiri is quite good at turning a phrase. For instance:
“She watched his lips forming the words; at the same time she heard them so clearly that she felt them under her skin, under her winter coat, so near and full of warmth that she felt herself go hot.” (Interpreter of Maladies, “Sexy,” p. 91)
“‘Try to remember it always,’ he said once Gogol had reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater to where his mother and Sonia stood waiting. ‘Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.’” (The Namesake, p. 187)
“There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.” (Unaccustomed Earth, “Unaccustomed Earth,” p. 27)
So obviously the woman is no dummy when it comes to her craft. She is deft at creating both characters that are compelling and stories that smack of truth. More than that, she makes me care about India, which as an American lit buff is extraordinarily impressive. I get the sense when I read her stories that she is smarter than I am (a quality I require in good storytellers—and I’m not even suggesting that I’m particularly smart in requiring this) and is in complete control of how much she lets the reader in on at any given moment.
And so, over the last week, I read her newest book, The Lowland. What has been true of Lahiri so far remains true: she is an excellent writer. I don’t mind admitting that sometimes when I’m reading a sub-par author I won’t read every word on the page. My roommate assures me this is the author’s problem and not my own—not my fault if you can’t keep my attention, right? But I read every word of Lowland, in order. Without even really knowing what had happened, Lahiri had completely captivated me, compelling me on through every vignette. Note how she manipulates the passage of time:
“She became a widow, as Gauri had become. Bijoli now wears white saris, without a pattern or a border.” (p. 182)
Sitting on a plane to Birmingham, I nearly needed to stand up on my seat mid-air and applaud her use of tense. I was so hopeful that she would blow my mind in the remaining half of the book. But I finished the last page and closed the book yesterday more than a little unsatisfied. I wanted more from this master writer. Sure, she had engaged me with her deftness; she had compelled me to read her every word. She even created characters that made sense to me, displaying both compassion and distance in her portrayal of them. But ultimately, what was this story for?
It’s like Lahiri took me on a tour of her hometown. The nature of her attention to detail in the story tells me she’s very proud of her hometown and is honored to be taking me on the tour. She points out the history of that building, and which of her most memorable life events took place on that street. She provides touching anecdotes for the townies passing by, sure to warn me of which ones I should avoid. She is just that good at giving tours that this is one of the better tours I’ve been on; I want to come back for another visit some day. But she never lets me get out of the car to deeply experience the sights and smells, the townies, the historic places for myself. She painted a really pretty picture and demonstrated aptly that she can paint well. But she didn’t evoke anything in me.
And because she didn’t evoke anything in me, I am left to conclude that she didn’t tell me the truth. Harsh? I don’t think so. Isn’t that what we require of our artists, to magnify beauty and to bring the audience into that experience? I’m just an amateur, but I would contend that you haven’t told the truth if you’ve only done one of those things without the other (more on that another time). On Lahiri’s end, she has only met half of her contract as an artist: she magnified the beauty of these characters and the subtlety of their stories, but she did not bring me into that experience. Buechner writes that the story of one of us is the story of us all. An artist has told the truth when the story of their characters speaks to the author’s story and speaks to my story as well. Somewhere in the middle of the book Lahiri writes:
“Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren’t the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.” (p. 151-152)
This is what was lacking in Lowland: if the purpose of the world is what isn’t there, Lahiri has distinctly fallen short. It’s all well and good to tell me that blindly envisioning the there-ness of the future is ultimately purposeless. But as a writer you should know where you’re going even if you don’t take me there, holding my hand. You should still leave behind a thread for me to trace so that if I wanted to come with you I could. Instead, she magnified the not-there-ness and then conceded to it. She let the void have the final terms without wrangling the outlined definition of the not-there-ness she was esteeming (because really, every void at some point has the thick coloring book lines defining it. Even voids are created things). Ultimately her story was untethered. It didn’t conclude—in fact, at best, the very last chapter ends where the story purports to really begin, which could have been an excellent maneuver of inverted storytelling, but at that point I had already forgotten why I was supposed to care.
If you’re going to magnify what isn’t there, you as the writer should at least know what is there in the space of the not-there-ness. And my problem with the book is that the not-there-ness of her subtlety got the last word, and not in a good way. The story she told was not my story. Some of her characters were recognizable, but her crafting of the story did not illuminate the parts of me I needed help in understanding. And really, that’s the mark of good storytelling.