Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer who knows her strengths. In her Pulitzer Prize?winning story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, her novel The Namesake, and now a new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, she has taken what would seem a narrow slice of the immigrant narrative and sent it sprawling. The characters that populate Lahiri’s fiction tend to be of a type; more often than not, they are second-generation Indian immigrants, the children of middle-class Bengalis striving to remake themselves as middle-class Americans. Unaccustomed Earth is, in this sense, not a departure. Its eight stories find Lahiri retreading this familiar ground yet also staking out new territory — the difficult landscape of American adulthood.

Lahiri’s particular brand of prose, at once rich in detail and strikingly economical, plays best to the formal requirements of the short story. The Namesake, while impressive for a first novel, has a meandering quality, as if its author were unsure of how to maintain the momentum of her characters’ lives over a full spread of pages. Her stories, by contrast, are commanding; Lahiri knows how to exploit the seemingly infinite resonance of a well-chosen image carefully placed. In the story “Hell-Heaven,” the crushing collapse of a platonic romance happens, as it were, offstage. The narrator, a young Bengali girl who watches her mother fall in love with a family friend, remarks the following when he asks her parents for their approval of his chosen bride, a white woman: “My mother nodded her assent, but the following day I saw the teacup Pranab Kaku had used all this time as an ashtray in the kitchen garbage can, in pieces, and three Band-Aids taped to my mother’s hand.” This teacup, which had earlier signaled Pranab Kaku’s assimilation into the family, comes back to quietly mark its fracturing.

“Hell-Heaven” is just one instance of how Lahiri, with Unaccustomed Earth, has harnessed her talent for the elegiac. Her stories are threaded together by a current of loss — of lovers, of parents, of home. In particular, the three interlinked stories that finish the collection draw the atmospherics of absence to the fore. Hema and Kaushik, the title characters of this trilogy, move into and out of each other’s lives, their presences lingering long after they have parted ways. Lahiri’s interest in the elegy is more than a passing mood, and in these three stories she invokes its tradition of direction address quite deliberately. “I had seen you before too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life,” Hema opens the story “Once in a Lifetime.” That a separation and a beginning are inextricable becomes a reality neither Hema nor Kaushik will ever quite shake. Just as the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage launch Kaushik into an itinerant adulthood, so too the end of an affair becomes the hinge that forces Hema to begin anew.

As in the case of the teacup, there are no histrionics. Lahiri’s narratives tend to be situational rather than specifically plot driven, the tension more likely to emerge from the wordless spaces between people than from any singular event. The stories of Unaccustomed Earth are, on average, considerably longer than those of Interpreter of Maladies, and Lahiri seems to find her ideal rhythm in the structural liberties of the long short story. She avoids both explicit dramatic pivots and the sagging weight of a full back-story — the essential details must make their own case. It is when she tries to build her stories from a more conspicuous premise that she falters. “Only Goodness,” the collection’s single weak link, finds Lahiri falling into the trap of exposition. The very skeleton of the story feels didactic — the perfect immigrant child reeling in guilt over her younger brother’s alcoholism. “I can’t fix him. I can’t fix what’s wrong with this family,” Sudha proclaims, the dialogue unable to resist the tropes of teenage melodrama.

More often, in these rare instances that Lahiri allows her stories to explode, they do so with all the force gathered over their restrained build-up. In “Nobody’s Business,” another standout, a graduate student’s brooding fixation with his female roommate, Sang, finally bursts into a physical confrontation with her unfaithful boyfriend: “It was easy for Paul to pin Farouk to the ground, to dig his fingers into his shoulders. Paul squeezed them tightly, through the thick wool of the sweater, feeling the give of the tendons, aware that Farouk was no longer resisting. For a moment, Paul lay on top of him fully, subduing him like a lover,” Lahiri writes. This is her genius — she waits patiently for her stories to run their natural course. Here, all of Paul’s longing for Sang, all of his loneliness and sexual desperation, find unlikely release in a violent, almost sensual encounter with her boyfriend.

Like so many of the characters in Unaccustomed Earth, Paul exists in the grips of stasis. Where Lahiri’s earlier stories dwelt, more often than not, on men and women starting out in the world, her new work turns its attention to people slightly further along in life, catching them at the moment where their lives — romantic, professional, emotional — are beginning to plateau. Most affectingly, the title story finds Ruma, a 30-something woman who has left her job at a law firm to raise her young son, adjusting to life in a new city and mourning the death of her mother: “By allowing her to leave her job, splurging on a beautiful house, agreeing to have a second baby, was doing everything in his power to make Ruma happy. But nothing was making her happy; recently, in the course of conversation, he’d pointed that out, too.” The story is an artist’s rendering of a case study in depression. Similarly Amit, in “A Choice of Accommodations,” has somehow found himself carrying out the unremitting patterns of domesticity alone, raising his two daughters while his wife toils under the medical resident’s inhuman schedule.

If this sounds dismal, it isn’t. Unaccustomed Earth may dwell in the experiences of paralysis and loss, but Lahiri’s prose also lends itself to the rhythms of awakening. Her broken, multi-clausal sentences catch her subjects in the throes of realization. For instance, here is Ruma, blaming her husband for the fact that both his parents are still alive: “It was wrong of her, she knew, and yet an awareness had set in, that she and Adam were separate people leading separate lives.” Through Ruma, Lahiri has given voice to the sentiment — neither positive or negative, simply true — that cements her collection. Perhaps, in the end, these stories are not sadder, only wiser.