Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth

by Jess

Two words: snore city.

I’m “reading” this collection on audiobook, and listening to Sarita Choudhury’s mild, monotonous narration of Lahiri’s mild, monotonous prose is proving to be too much to handle.  (Ajay Naidu is moderately better.)  I wouldn’t be in danger of falling asleep at the wheel if anything ever happened in these stories.   Lahiri loves long, meaningless paragraphs of exposition, and she, apparently, just loathes a good vivid scene or, say, building character through dialog.  There’s lots of “When she was a child,” or, “In the summers,” or, “She was married by then.”

During “A Choice of Accomodations,” I grew so bored, I started skipping to the next track periodically.  And guess what?  I missed nothing.  In fact, I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you: a man and his wife leave their kids for the weekend in order to attend a wedding at his old prep school.  He drinks too much at the reception, wakes up at the hotel hungover.  She’s mad.  They have sex.  The end.

How about the title story, which is even better: an elderly widower goes to visit his daughter and her three-year-old son.  He plants flowers in her backyard.  He leaves.  The end.  Keep in mind, this is quite a long story; there is plenty of empty fluff to fill the rest of the time, but that is all of the present action.

After I read a book that I don’t like, I comb the Internet for reviews or author interviews to see if there’s something I’ve missed, some redeeming quality that will allow me to appreciate aspects I’ve overlooked.  That’s what happened with The World According to Garp.  But that didn’t happen with Unaccustomed Earth.  Don’t get me wrong, Lahiri has plenty of fawning admirers online, but they don’t really say anything substantial about her writing.  In fact, Liesl Schillinger’s summation of her prose style, which is meant to be complimentary but which sounds godawful to me, is this: “Reading her stories is like watching time-lapse nature videos of different plants, each with its own inherent growth cycle, breaking through the soil, spreading into bloom or collapsing back to earth.”

Dan Schneider to the rescue.  He wrote this review of her last collection, Interpreter of Maladies, but the criticism he levelled against her writing then still applies (I guess she didn’t learn her lesson):

Length does not equal intellectual nor artistic heft, yet I can imagine tales like this setting banal hearts atwitter with their loving descriptions of mustard seed and saris. Good writers know to tell only what is needed to serve a tale, and if a good writer gives a lot of detail it’s usually because he or she is writing of a tale where such description adds to the milieu or the personae of the characters. This is not so with Lahiri. Her writing is not original, because if you merely change the tales’ characters’ names you have the same stories told by a Sandra Cisneros, or an Amy Tan, or an Alice Adams before that. That is, she’s the New Yorker writer/flavor of a year- a purveyor of stock ethnic exoticism. In short, the only original thing in Lahiri’s overall mindset is something outside her own control, which is her ethnicity. Thus, most of the tales come off as slight variations on a theme of didactic lamentations of loss, an Indian History 101 lesson, or an Indian ethnic cookbook. Such may please a stomach, but not a mind. She makes mere zoo animals to be gawked at of her ‘exotic’ characters. Her tales also lack true passion, are too suffused in redundant details, are void of most poetry, a probing intellect to dig deeper under the banal veneer of life, and her endings are rather banal and dull.