Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Unaccustomed Earth; Jhumpa Lahiri

Written by Jibade-Khalil Huffman
Since books, unlike pop songs, take a long time to digest, it is imperative that we choose wisely (not to mention the fact that, according to a New York Times essay, people sometimes base our relative kiss-ability on our literary choices—so the stakes are obviously great). If finding good reading material concerns you, check out Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, Unaccustomed Earth.
Since books, unlike pop songs, take a long time to digest, it is imperative that we choose wisely (not to mention the fact that, according to a New York Times essay, people sometimes base our relative kiss-ability on our literary choices—so the stakes are obviously great). If finding good reading material concerns you, check out Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, Unaccustomed Earth.

At the moment, Lahiri is most famous for her best-selling novel, The Namesake. It was her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, however, that brought Lahiri attention on a national level. Awarded, among other distinctions, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri appeared poised to be the next big thing. With The Namesake bringing her work to the attention of people who may not have necessarily read its source material, she delivered on this promise.

Despite her previous success, when Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s third book and second collection of stories debuted at number one on the New York Times best-seller list, it still came as a shock (imagine the pop charts, dominated as they usually are, by, well, pop, suddenly featuring M.I.A. in the number one position).
 
To say that Unaccustomed Earth opens with a bang probably contradicts almost everything that has ever been written about Lahiri’s prose. Quiet has been her way and is her way still. Her characters in Unaccustomed Earth however seek to break out of their inner lives; as the stories progress, they try to escape the quietness of the writing and carry on in and as something else entirely. Lahiri (who we can presume as being too cool a customer to care about the charges anyway) is wholly past the (graduate) workshopped quality of her earlier short fiction.

The real lives of her characters are fully formed and able to stand on their own. In the title story, the very adult anxieties of a young-ish mother are paired with the almost teenage wavering of her widower father committed to his visit with her and her son in Seattle, and yet with his mind mostly on his newfound love life. Though the focus is on assimilation and the narrative of the kind that Lahiri probably mastered years ago, there is a new suspense at play; instead of beating us over the head with the lushness of her work, she lets it do the work for her (and for us, though in the least condescending way possible).

With Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri’s place in the so-called contemporary canon should become more settled. Now that Alice Munro has retired from making books (though one hopes for a Jay-Z-like return to the game), Lahiri is nearly peerless in her standing as our best and brightest creator of conventional short fiction.

Lahiri is wise enough to, one might say, let somebody else in on the privilege of telling her stories. In “Nobody’s Business,” a (presumably) Anglo graduate student, lovelorn in and away from the presence of his new housemate, finds himself involved in what could be, in less capable hands, a hokey domestic drama. The inversion of the gaze—the outsider (the author) looking at the insider (the depressed protagonist), looking at the exotic outsider is a masterful move on Lahiri’s part. The author’s sympathies towards Paul, pale as any person stuck in frigid Boston, doing the thankless and hyper-specific work of any graduate student, are clear, though Lahiri is more interested—as Paul and as we are—in just what this new and beautiful addition to his world is up to.

When the dust settles and all the glossy magazine profiles are tucked away, Lahiri’s achievement may come down to her characters—who, having finished the hard work of making it in America, are shown the privilege of a more accurate and nuanced portrayal. That we are let in on any of this is a pleasure as great as one may find in the current cultural climate; it is a gift that we are lucky to have.

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