Review – Lahiri, “The Namesake”

Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Namesake” (2003) (read aloud by Sarita Choudhury) – I cheated a little; usually, for my contemporary literary fiction audiobooks, I only go back as far as 20008-2010 or so. I let this one in on the idea that Jhumpa Lahiri and her stories of upper-middle-class immigrant angst do play an important role in our contemporary literary landscape.

This is the story of the Gangulis, a Bengali Indian-American family. Ashoke and Ashima leave Calcutta for Cambridge when Ashoke goes to MIT for grad school in the late sixties, then moves to the Massachusetts burbs when he gets a job as an engineering professor. They have a son. They tried to follow a Bengali naming tradition where an elder relative names the child, but due to slow mail speed between the US and India and some health crises, they do not get a name from the intended grandma. Pressed by the bureaucratic imperatives of American life, they have to improvise a name, and the little shaver winds up with the handle Gogol Ganguli. The Russian satirist is Ashoke’s favorite writer and he was reading him during a traumatic moment in his life, so. 

A fair amount of young Gogol’s first-generation-cum-Gen X angst gets channeled towards annoyance with his weird name. He’s a brown kid in a white town. He’s far from poor and has a stable and loving family, but has to deal with a certain amount of racism and also back and forth between his parents insistence on preserving at least a little of his Bengali cultural heritage and fully embracing Americanism, and the fact that even if he commits to either option, he doesn’t quite fit in with either culture. He does ok, though, becomes an architect and all, and finds something resembling balance towards the end, but has to go through some difficulties to get there. 

I will say… as someone who grew up in Massachusetts in the late twentieth century, and had South Asian classmates whose first names did strike us white kids as odd and amusing, we wouldn’t get or care that “Gogol” was any different from any other “weird-sounding” name. I guess the Gogol thing maybe more gets something else across. If the MIT career path didn’t let you know, these are smart, cultured people. America is impressive to them for its material wealth (though they’re a little miffed by how uncommon domestic help is, compared to West Bengal where they never had to sweep their own floors!), not for its cultural accomplishment. It’s not just sentimental attachments that lead the Ganguli parents to cling to Bengali ways- American ways seem cheap, rootless, no weight of past or custom behind them. It’s not just supposedly timeliness customs, either- it’s also things like the expectation that educated people will develop degrees of culture that even rich, educated Americans mostly don’t bother with. I’ve run into this with similarly-situated immigrants or first-generation Americans in my life, not just from South Asia but from all over. 

So, there’s stuff to say and to think about, here. “The Namesake” says some of it, in inoffensive prose. The book isn’t great but it’s not terrible. It’s a little boring, but, I try to project myself to what a thirty year old in 2003, when it was written, might think. Depending on where this literate Gen Xer lived and what they did, they might, or might not, already be used to families like the Gangulis, to the existence of third-culture kids, to the idea that immigrating to the US isn’t always a picnic even if it isn’t always a nightmare compelled by desperation, either. But any educated American twenty years later is already profoundly accustomed to these elements of twenty-first century life, through knowing neighbors, classmates, coworkers, through numerous Netflix shows and comedy specials, just the general back and forth of life… or else, they don’t want to be used to it, likely out of bigotry (that’s not to say a Hari Kondabalu fan can’t also be bigoted, but you get what I mean). That’s not to say that the lives of professionally comfortable but existentially somewhat fraught immigrants and their kids isn’t worth examining. And there’s surely worse examinations- among other things, you can now find numerous YA-type novels to instruct you on the realities of people not dissimilar to the Gangulis, the appropriate subject positions that their mostly-white readerships can take towards people like their characters and authors, on and on. It’s just not a revelation, now, to me anyway. 

I will say that reading this did seem to give me a better idea of what is going on in contemporary literary fiction. To the best of my knowledge, Lahiri isn’t a big target of critical-social-media bile. But reading this helped me get the idea that, in the background of what a lot of contemporary literary people are trying to rebel against, stands the sort of big, bourgeois novel of diversity, ala Lahiri, Zadie Smith, and whoever else that became such a big thing in the 2000s. I’ve had some peeks at Gen Z literary culture — if a middle-aged nerd like me knows much about it, it can’t be that cutting edge, but I see a little — and as far as I can tell, their big models are the closest you’d have to an alternative from this same period (or maybe a little later- five years is a long time, for non-historians). They seem to idolize “alt-lit,” spare, divorced (supposedly) from politics (especially cursed “identity politics”) and moralizing, notionally avant garde but also, you know, easy to read, and easier to posture around. Bret Easton Ellis’s idea of literature, as opposed to Lahiri’s. They see a few things — long novels, moralizing, progressive politics, sentimentality, cuteness — as tics of the millennial literati they despise (despite the fact that alt-lit was a millennial thing, too, really- historical facticity isn’t their strong suit… anybody’s strong suit, seemingly). 

Presumably, people on both sides of this half-unconscious generational literary squabble would be confused, if they bothered to listen to a clout-less middle aged man like me, when I denounce glazed-over “alt” “lit” types such as Ellis and Tao Lin in the same breath as moralizing bourgeois chonk-writers like Franzen or whatever is left of the new-sincerity McSweeney’s types, because an opposition between these camps seems to structure their idea of what literature is… Lahiri’s work doesn’t quite fit, but, it’s earnest, literally about multicultural life as practiced, and over three hundred pages long, so, would presumably be in that millennial camp. Man! Imagine if you thought those were the options! Then consider that that’s how some of the people who are supposed to be the voices of an upcoming generation see the matter! ***

Review – Lahiri, “The Namesake”

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