"Low-Key Dramatic" (part 1)

Jhumpa Lahiri and Aziz Ansari’s latest projects stunningly transcend their signature styles.

This article, a review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel Whereabouts, is part 1 in a two-part series about a literary turn toward minimalism. Stay tuned for next week’s follow-up on season 3 of the Netflix series Master of None.

It’s always fascinating to me to watch a successful, well-established artist make a clear and conscious choice to push past the stylistic signatures that brought them fame and acclaim.

The Beatles more or less exemplify this phenomenon: initially just kick-ass participants in the British Invasion of popular music, they could have easily coasted through the 60s releasing one album after another of breezy and bluesy pop, maybe making a slight turn—as many of their “classic rock” contemporaries did—toward hard rock and psychedelia as the decade wrapped up. Instead, they went from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to the stoner folk of Rubber Soul to the visionary, LSD-saturated Sgt Pepper to the postmodern freakout pastiche of The Beatles (i.e. The White Album) with almost no evident concern for reproducing past successes. There is a clear sense that they embraced Ezra Pound’s artistic mission statement: Make it new!

Other artists, of course, even really excellent ones, simply don’t have the creative will (or ability, perhaps) to transcend their own successes. I am a big fan of Explosions in the Sky, an instrumental “post-rock” band whose work you probably know even if you’ve never heard the band name. Their music takes misty-eyed catharsis to levels I didn’t know were possible when I first got ahold of one of their records in 2010. I used to go for late afternoon runs in Medford with this song in my headphones, and the emotional heft felt so profound and energizing that I sometimes thought I would, well, explode into some paradoxical mess of joy and despair.

And yet, Explosions in the Sky has never really moved much beyond the exact sound—ever-unspooling soundscapes marked by tension between ambient drone and Phil Spector-grade avalanches of multitracked, reverb-drenched fortissimo—that they started with. They have some albums that any fan of modern instrumental music ought to own, but you really don’t need to own all of them to get the point. As a reviewer at Pitchfork put it about their 2011 release:

One could argue that the music here is predictable and even a bit old-hat. We've lived with this sound for well over a decade now, and we have classics to compare it to, including Explosions in the Sky's own work. And that argument holds some water. But the simple fact is that Explosions in the Sky are very good at this particular thing, and it seems as though no matter how many crescendos and diminuendos they play, there remains a certain amount of cathartic power to their music. 

This reviewer strikes a remarkably diplomatic note, especially for a publication known for withering critical perspectives: Yes, this sounds like the other Explosions in the Sky records. No, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because Explosions in the Sky records are really, really good.

And this is a big part of why I find it so admirable when established artists move deliberately beyond the style they are known for: they often don’t have to.

This brings us to Jhumpa Lahiri and Whereabouts, the uncompromisingly intimate novel that she wrote in Italian in 2018. Last month, with very little fanfare or promotion, her publisher released an English translation. Lahiri, who I would argue is the greatest living American short story writer, a genius of deceptively complex realism, found mainstream success years ago with a clearly-defined stylistic brand. She has two story collections and two novels that engage, almost without exception, with a monolithic motif: the tension experienced by second-generation Bengali immigrants between the cultural expectations of their family and those of modern American society.

Lahiri’s stories have also, until now, embraced a sort of underlying maximalism. It’s not that her style was plagued by Infinite Jest-style digressions and tangled thousand-word sentences—on the contrary, it’s generally been defined by a Hemingway-like simplicity—but that her storylines encompassed years or decades and that her subject matter and character development were emphatically global. Lahiri’s most memorable protagonists are cosmopolitan and worldly, excessively-educated and well-traveled. They’re foodies and polyglots. They attend foreign language poetry readings and then drink a martini or three. It is not unusual for a Lahiri character, facing a personal crisis or just feeling a sense of wanderlust, to pick up and move to a different continent. What’s remarkable is that they nonetheless feel urgently fragile and real, and almost never like dry archetypes of bougie angst.

Lahiri’s tendency toward the global is especially evident at the end of the emotionally obliterating short story “Only Goodness.” The four main characters, parents and adult children who begin the story together in small-town Massachusetts, wind up separated by thousands of miles. The protagonist ends up in London, her parents in Calcutta, her feckless little brother in upstate New York. And this configuration reflects not only the ability of her characters to move freely and comfortably throughout the world, but the little brother’s role as an irascible black sheep. Being consigned to the American hinterlands, rather than to a major world city, is presented essentially as a punishment for failing to live up to cultural expectations.

Lahiri’s stories, almost without exception, hinge upon what the narrator of “Only Goodness” calls “The Grand Circle of Accomplishments” (my emphasis), her term for the relentless parental pressure concerning education and high-level career tracks that is stereotypically associated with Asian-American immigrant culture. At one point, the narrator notes that when the protagonist, Sudha, was fourteen, “her father had written to Harvard Medical School, requested an application, and placed it on her desk.” Once she finishes graduate school, Sudha is described as being one of many “Bengali children across the country” excelling as “surgeons or attorneys or scientists, or writing articles for the front page of the New York Times.” In other words, the only thing as important (and, often, anxiety-provoking) as hard work, in Lahiri’s characters’ universe, is to perform that work, to be consequential, on a large and highly-visible scale.

Similarly, in the story “Nobody’s Business,” the secondary character, Sang, is an unmarried Harvard dropout who is repeatedly pursued by would-be suitors. Lahiri carefully notes that these men come from “as far away as Los Angeles, as close by as Watertown,” setting up a vast geographical plane as the site in which ancestral cultural norms—what critic Judith Caesar calls “the Bengali Grapevine,” a set of mutually-understood and efficiently-disseminated expectations and markers of achievement—most effectively function.

In Whereabouts, this inclination toward thematic and geographic expansiveness is dramatically reined in. The entire novel takes place in an unnamed city and presents its story through tersely fragmented vignettes told in first-person by an unnamed protagonist. The choice of point of view—Lahiri previously tended to favor close third-person perspectives—and the decision not to name her protagonist hints that the novel may be semi-autobiographical, but that’s beside the point. In her previous work, names are frequently discussed or offered up as means of character development. Sometimes it’s done subtly. In “Only Goodness,” Sudha “envied [her brother Rahul] because people could call him ‘Raoul',’ that he could introduce himself in crows without questions.” In “Nobody’s Business,” Sang introduces her roommate Paul to her boyfriend Farouk:

“Paul, this is Farouk” . . . she kissed Farouk on the cheek.

“Freddy,” Farouk said, his words directed more to Sang than to Paul. She shook her head.

“For the millionth time, I’m not calling you Freddy.”

He glanced at her without humor. “Why not? You expect people to call you Sang.”

She was unbothered. “That’s different. That’s actually a part of my name.”

“Well, I’m Paul, and that’s pretty much all you can call me,” Paul said. No one laughed.

But nowhere is this motif more prominent than in Lahiri’s first novel, aptly titled The Namesake, whose running plot thread is the protagonist’s struggle to accept his given name (Gogol, after the great-but-troubled Russian author, yet another example of Lahiri’s characters’ aura of cultural refinement) and its connection to his father’s traumatic youth. Late in the novel, at a dinner party during which academics and artsy Brooklyn bohemians are discussing baby names, the narrator says of Gogol:

he can’t help but recall a novel he’d once picked up from the pile on [his wife’s] side of the bed, and English translation of something French, in which the main characters were simply referred to, for hundreds of pages, as He and She. He had read it in a matter of hours, oddly relieved that the names of the characters were never revealed. It had been an unhappy love story. If only his own life were so simple.

In other words, Lahiri presents here a wistful longing for simplicity and anonymity, or perhaps simplicity as a byproduct of anonymity, from a character whose life has been defined by globalism, diaspora, bigness. In Whereabouts, it’s as though she has herself discovered, and committed to, a sense of scaling down.

And though having an unnamed protagonist is one time-honored way of gesturing toward minimalism, this drive for simplicity extends to elements of characterization and plot, especially when compared to The Namesake. In that book, Lahiri devotes nearly 60 straight pages to Gogol’s relationship with a wealthy woman named Maxine. She and her family, the Ratliffs, are essentially Edith Wharton archetypes, Manhattan WASPs with buckets of money, whose unapologetic appreciation for luxury and highbrow culture is almost numbingly reiterated over this section of the novel. Nothing is ever introduced to challenge or contradict these fundamental traits. One detail after another is piled on, both broad Whartonian strokes about their wine preferences and posh dinner parties and odd little moments of hyper-detailed humanity, such as this description of Maxine’s grandfather sitting by a lake:

[he] always brings a small volume of Greek poetry to read, his long sun-spotted fingers curling over the tops of the pages. At some point he gets up, laboriously removing his shoes and socks, and walks calf-deep into the water, regarding the surroundings with his hands on his hips, his chin thrust pridefully in the air.

And for all of this attention to detail, to constructing people who are somehow at once stock characters and uniquely realized, once Gogol and Maxine break up . . . they’re gone. They are artfully and painstakingly created for a significant portion of the novel, even though they play no role whatsoever in the novel’s endgame.

Such transience is the rule, rather than the exception, in Whereabouts. Each brief chapter is less a development of a larger plot than an impressionistic sketch of a moment in the narrator’s life. Secondary characters are offered as absolutely restricted to the narrator’s perspective and experiences; this is the case with many first-person-narrated novels, but Whereabouts takes the principle to its limit. Whereas in Lahiri’s earlier work, we would often learn the complete biographical history of a character—sometimes even going back multiple generations, given the persistent emphasis on geography-defying family and cultural ties—here, Lahiri offers only the most minimal descriptions, and, in some cases, goes on to comment frankly and disinterestedly about that very minimalism. Here is the description of a character with whom the protagonist has a brief affair:

At 5:20 I went back to the bar. He was seated at a small table, waiting, as if he were expecting someone at the airport, waiting and doing nothing else. I’ll never forget the warmth in his eyes when he saw me walk in. He was unhappily, permanently married. We had a fling. He lived in another city, and he would come down from time to time, for the day, for work. What else is there to say?

Well, in earlier stories, Lahiri would have found plenty more to say. We might have learned about his favorite wine, some idiosyncratic way that he wipes his mouth after a meal, where he has traveled, the obscure topic he wrote his graduate thesis on, a distinctive birthmark, his preferred sleeping position. There is a stark contrast between this rigorously concise paragraph and the expansive plotting and characterization of Lahiri’s earlier work. In writing Whereabouts, Lahiri has not only tried something new; she has essentially abandoned the most distinctive and engaging aspects of the stories that built her career.

Whereabouts is therefore not exactly a page-turner. It lacks the melodrama and pitch-perfect details and romantic upheaval that made The Namesake so engrossing. It seldom feels like much is at stake, which, of course, ought to be the death warrant of almost any piece of fiction that wishes to be commercially viable. And yet, there is an elegance to the minimalism and simplicity, a lack of contrivance that makes the protagonist’s understated exploits feel like the literary equivalent of a still life painting suddenly imbued with animation. Even the most poetic moments are solitary and frank, rather than the set-up for some larger narrative development. One chapter ends with:

I’ve always felt in someone’s shadow, even though I don’t have to compare myself to brothers who are smarter, or to sisters who are prettier. There’s no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season. Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast. That said, there are time I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.

In other novels, such an elegiac, confessional, elegantly-rendered passage might reasonably be expected to shape the narrative. Perhaps, a reader might sensibly expect, the protagonist will resolve to be more sociable, to find and commit to friendships, perhaps to seek a romantic partner. In Whereabouts, it is more of a fleeting thought that might reverberate at certain moments later on, but by no means, despite its seeming importance, should it be taken as an indication of where the novel will go. Because the novel is interested in the minutiae of experience, not in a grand narrative like The Namesake or the thematically-potent geographic sprawl of “Nobody’s Business” and “Only Goodness.”

The events of Whereabouts do not add up to high drama, as Lahiri’s earlier work always did; however, taken individually, those events dramatize the unruly and contradictory and fleeting and lonely desires of the modern individual.

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Part 2 of this series, a discussion of season 3 of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, will drop next week.