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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.

Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith hasn’t had a new novel since 2005, so I was anxious to read this book.  I read On Beauty for a Contemporary British Fiction course I took at university, and read White Teeth just a few months ago.  I really like her writing style. Similar to Salman Rushdie, who I just read, she teeters on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, without making that annoying jump.  She is playful and engaging, sometimes traditional and sometimes challenging. I always enjoy the process of reading her books.

I have to say, unfortunately, that I was very disappointed with this one.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  After all, I like her writing so I expected to enjoy the writing.  I did enjoy the writing, the word choice, the playfulness, the scavenger hunt of dropped clues that gave hints of context, setting, and time. Her endings were never great, but I still enjoyed her other books.  Plus, as with White Teeth, this novel is set in Northwest London (hence the title), which is where Smith grew up.  It is also where I lived while I was in London.  This shouldn’t particularly matter, but I must admit I get a kick out of reading about characters wandering down Finchley Road or through Hampstead Heath, because I can picture it precisely in my mind.  I lived off of Finchley Road.  That area of London, as Smith herself points out, isn’t mentioned much in the history of English literature.  I’m paraphrasing horribly, but she says something like ‘Occasionally, Dickens would wander into that area, and (as I recently discovered) Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White meandered past the Heath.  It’s different from reading about Regent’s Park or Oxford Street.  It’s not as common and for whatever ridiculous reason, it’s special to me.

So maybe my expectations were just too high.

But the plot!  Her previous books were both well plotted, though the endings were iffy to me.  She doesn’t like to put too neat a bow on her works at the end, because life isn’t like that.  I can respect that.  But the other two novels followed the basic tenets of novel-writing.  This one, not so much.

Most obviously in the form of structure.  There are four parts to this book.  The first is about Leah, a young woman living in a council-provided (i.e. government assistance) flat with her husband.  She is depressed and lonely and being pressured to have a baby she doesn’t want.  She has a dog, Olive.  Spoiler***The dog dies.  Do not read this part while on a train. Part 2 revolves around Felix, a man trying to get and stay clean and improve his life. He has no interaction with Leah or any of the characters previously mentioned.  Part 3 is about Natalie/Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend.  This part is the longest, and it covers a period from the girls’ early childhood through present day.  Natalie/Keisha grows up, becomes a lawyer, gets married, has kids.  She seems to have it together from the outside, but up close she is a total mess.  Part 4 weaves the other parts together, sort of.  It’s not wrapped up much at all, and I was left with a lot of questions.  Smith doesn’t lay everything out for you, and that’s fine.  But by the end, I was wondering why we were given this glance into Felix’s life, especially considering what happened to him later.  And why did that happen to him? Since I’m given an intimate look at his life, I feel I should be able to answer it. But I can’t.

There’s also the actual structure, as in the paragraphs and chapters themselves.  Part 1 is Leah’s world, and the narration of her thoughts is told in traditional paragraphs. Dialogue, on the other hand is inset and bolded, single spaced.  Maybe this signifies the fact that her obvious depression means she is swallowed up by her internal thoughts and conversations with others take up less of her mental space.  Interesting idea, but hard to read, to be honest.  Parts 2 and 4 are the most traditional and easiest to read for that fact.  Part 3, Natalie/Keisha’s story is the strangest.  Each little segment of her story (usually 1-3 paragraphs) is told in a numbered sub-chapter, and there are over 180 of them. In them are sometimes little clues to tell you how old Natalie is, and what year it is.  It might say ‘this is the year everyone started saying …’ and you remember (if you’re old enough) that it was the mid-nineties.  Often the title of the sub-chapter is the key to its meaning and place in time.  I have a hard time reading titles–they tend to just not register with my brain.  So I would read the paragraph, and then if it didn’t make sense, go back and reread the chapter.  One chapter was about a musician dying and teenagers being devastated. I looked up at the title to see it was called Nirvana.  Ah, Kurt Cobain then.  early ’90s.  Another sub-chapter was about an incredibly gifted British singer, a woman with remarkable talent.  Title was ‘Beehive’.  This took me a minute, but of course, Amy Winehouse.  It’s almost like a game, a scavenger hunt.  If you were alive, you can piece together the slang or the events that are dropped surreptitiously into the mix and figure out where the story is in chronology.  I enjoyed this part, like a puzzle.  But I found that I was enjoying the game more than the story.

Smith hasn’t lost her ability to write, in any way shape or form. There’s beauty in all her writing, and there’s a fun in it that you won’t find in most writers of ‘literary fiction’. What I will say is that she’s taken another step toward being too-experimental to be comprehensible (to my limited abilities, anyway).  She’s venturing out of the Beatles and into the Plastic Ono Band, and if she continues, I’m not sure I can follow her.

Book Review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

After hearing about this book a few times through my life, mostly in connection with the fatwa and ensuing controversy surrounding its publication, I finally bought The Satanic Verses a few months ago.  In September, after the horrible attacks at the US Embassy, Salman Rushdie was in the news again. Firstly, because he has a new memoir that just came out, called Joseph Anton, all about the time he spent under guard once the Ayatollah announced the bounty on his head.  Also, because a religious group in Iran has somehow decided to blame all of the horrors connected with The Innocence of Muslims and ensuing violence on Salman Rushdie and his nearly 25-year-old novel.  I’m not sure how they came to that connection, but I am extremely ignorant about fatwas in general.  At any rate, they decided to increase the reward for killing Rushdie from 2.8 million to 3.3 million dollars.  If you’re going to kill someone for a crazy religious reason then money shouldn’t be that big of a factor, should it?  Also, if you’re going to kill someone for money, and 2.8 million isn’t enough for you, why would 3.3 million be? I mean, it’s a lot of money, but…I’m confused by their motives.  And their logic.  It does not resemble our earth logic.  Anyway, I decided now would be a great time to read the book and see what the fuss is about.

First a warning to everyone thinking of reading this book: It’s not an easy read.  I’m not saying it was unpleasant; I actually really enjoy Rushdie’s style, which verges on stream-of-consciousness without crossing the line into Joycean incomprehensibility. What the book does is demand a lot out of you.  You have to really pay attention. You have to remember and keep track of lots of characters from modern London, modern India, 7th century Arabia and a few other places, times, and people. It’s a lot of work.  There is slang, references, and symbolism that is not something the average American would know, and I think unless you’re intimately familiar with Muslim culture and Indian culture a lot is lost on you.  I spent half my time on the Wiki for the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, Muhammad, Rushdie, India, Mecca, etc. etc.  If you want to get even half of what he’s talking about, you have to either know it already, or look it up. You can’t just ignore a lot of it and hope it wont be brought up again.  On the other hand, even though I get the feeling that I only understood about 30% of the cultural references Rushdie makes, I don’t feel like reading the book was at any point a waste of time. It was a learning experience, and his writing style is rewarding enough on its own that you don’t feel bad for not knowing what the fuck is happening half the time.  Just know that he is, like the best college professors, going to talk fast and expect you to keep up. You have to put the work in with this book.

The story starts with two Indian men, both actors, falling from the sky. One (Saladin Chamcha) characterizes himself as an Englishman (right down to the bowler hat on his head as he falls), the other (Gibreel Farishta) is a Bollywood/Indian cinema superstar. Above them, a commercial airplane has just been blown apart by terrorists over the English Channel.  They fall to Earth and they live.

Just take in that beginning for a moment and you’ll notice quite a few things that characterize the book.

1-Multiculturalism.  This book takes place in different settings and times and deals with multiple religions.  Like London, and like Rushdie, it is an amalgam of different cultures and the struggles inherent when they coexist (or try to).

2-Magical Realism. I think Rushdie must be a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and similar writers.  This is not a realistic novel, and that’s obvious even from the tiny description I’ve given you.  The book also features a man transformed into an angel with a trumpet that shoots wrath-of-god fire and brimstone, a man transformed into a demon/satyr with hooves and horns, a woman clothed in golden butterflies, a ghost riding a flying carpet, a ghost of the first man to try to climb Everest solo, and the parting of the Arabian Sea.  I sometimes think magical realism is science fiction without the explanation.  If when strange and crazy things happen in fiction you feel you require an explanation, a logical reasoning, then this book is not for you.  You sort of just have to let go and accept that this main character is now sprouting horns and fur, or controlling the weather of London.  But at the same time, there’s never any real way of telling what is truly happening and what is just metaphor or allegory or schizophrenic delusion.

3-Struggling with immigrant identity. This is a huge part of Saladin’s story. He comes to England at a young age and hopes to be truly assimilated.  Throughout the story, though, he fails to become truly English. He isn’t treated as an Englishman, even though he feels more stereotypically and quintessentially English than a lot of others he meets.  After decades of trying to fit into this new culture and have this new culture embrace him (right down to marrying an English woman with noble connections), he finally realizes that it’s not working.  He has to acknowledge India as a part of him.  Other characters, English, Indian, etc., seem to struggle with accepting or rejecting the culture into which they have born. Rushdie does an amazing job of illustrating the constant remaking of our own identities.  Several of the English people (especially the women) want to distance themselves from English culture, seeing only the bad in it the same way that Saladin sees the good.

Other themes spread out through the book, taking on whole chapters, and then disappearing, only to resurface toward the end.  We drift in and out of time and space, reality and not.

The most controversial parts of the book were about Muhammad himself, only he is known as Mahound in this novel.  There are stories about his early life, and what seems to be an increasing corruption throughout his years.  There is another religious figure in the book, though I think she is purely fictional.  She is an epileptic prophet. Both of these characters claim that the Angel Gibreel (Gabriel) comes to them and speaks the word of God.  Rushdie makes it clear that what is happening is that their desires and their ideas pour into Gibreel and he echoes back what they want to hear.  Almost like they are demons possessing him, and when he has parroted back what they wanted the answer to be, they go skipping off and declare they have heard the word of God.  There is a particularly sacrilegious bit where Salman, a follower of Muhammad and the man chosen to write down these declarations from God, begins to alter them slightly to see if Muhammad will notice.  Surely he will notice if the written accounts don’t match what Gabriel has told him?  But he doesn’t, and Salman then knows that Muhammad is a fraud.  I can see why this would upset Muslims, though…overreaction much?

There is no way I can explain this entire novel.  There is no way I even understood this entire novel.  There is a whole section about this Imam, an exiled leader.  Apparently this is a thinly-disguised portrait of the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, but I was eight when he died and can’t say that I know much about him. So I completely missed out on this entire reference.  I have the feeling I only ‘got’ about 20-40% of the references in the book.  So I’ll just share a few of my thoughts as I read:

-There are literary mentions and little tidbits everywhere. There are quite a few Shakespeare references (especially Othello, which fits with the various couples comprised of Middle Eastern men and white English women), and he is clearly a fan of 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights.  Rushdie assumes his audience is incredibly well-read, and he drops in lines and references that most people wouldn’t get.  It was nice that I got some of them, and it did give me a feeling of being in on a conversation that incorporated lots of literature written over the last 500 years.  Similarly, there seems to be an ongoing conversation with immigrant stories and myths, referenced throughout the book.

-Rushdie and Zadie Smith–I haven’t done any research to back this up, but I’m guessing Zadie Smith is a Rushdie fan. I found a lot of similarity to her work in this, particularly White Teeth, which I read recently. Both are tales of modern London and the immigrants and English people living there. Both have large ensemble casts and speed through time and space from WWII to colonized Jamaica to 1980s Willesdon Green.  White Teeth features two characters, brothers, that reminded me somewhat of Saladin and Gibreel.  One embodies many of the clichés of the English, and becomes an atheist intellectual (much to the horror of his father, who sent him to India to become a proper Muslim), the other becomes a strict Muslim and takes up with a group of bow-tied young men who burn The Satanic Verses in protest (without reading it).  Since I haven’t researched it, she may have included this in her novel because she hates him, for all I know.  Either way, there are similarities.  I also think there are similarities (in both White Teeth and The Satanic Verses) to Dickens, and other Victorian novels that feature a huge range of characters and the ever-evolving London.  As Dickens was to Victorian London, I think these two (and probably others that I am not familiar with yet) speak for and about London and all of the history (good and bad) that makes it what it is today–a wonderful, dizzying, terrifying place that can contain the best and worst of humanity, with immeasurable depths of struggle and tension constantly boiling beneath the surface.

And a last note on Rushdie and women.  I read a lot of women authors.  I find that a lot of male authors either marginalize women into a few overused tropes (the virgin, the whore, the bitch)  or write them as men with breasts and long hair.  Salman Rushdie’s female characters are not the center of this book, but in every one of them there is a depth, a humanity, and a vulnerability that makes them whole and unique human beings.  He treats them all with respect, and expects the reader to do the same. I know he’s been married something like four times, but if his writing is anything to go by, it is obvious to me that he respects women and sees them as they are, not as something other or different or in any way able to be categorized and pigeon-holed. So I am glad for that.

After this epic long post, you may be wondering something.  What the fuck are the Satanic Verses? What’s with the title?  I had to look it up before I started, but it is also sort of explained in the book.

Muhammad was in the habit of going to the top of a mountain to meet the Angel Gabriel/Gibreel and receive instruction/the Word.  He and his followers were very disrespected in the beginning, coming from a polytheistic culture and advocating the belief in one god.  A local big wig offered Muhammad a deal–he should acknowledge the three famous local goddesses as part of his religion. These goddesses would be declared the daughters of Allah and would still be worshiped alongside him.  If Muhammad did this, their religion would be accepted and cared for. Muhammad went up to the mountain and talked with Gibreel and decided that sounded good to him. He repeated the new edict to his followers, who thought it went against everything he had told them thus far (fair point).  Pensive, he went back up the mountain and asked Gibreel about it.  He came back and announced that everything he had said before had not come from Gibreel but from Satan, speaking through him.  So the Satanic Verses are those words declaring these other goddesses to be real and to be worthy of worship in Islam.  I believe in Muslim cultures it is more commonly known as The Story of the Cranes, but that makes a far less interesting book title.

Obviously this was a challenging book, and I am not well-versed enough in much of what was discussed to pretend that I ‘got’ it all, understood every reference or allegory.  What I will say is that I enjoyed reading it, I love Rushdie’s style, I like his humor and his truth, and I feel that even if I can understand 10% of what he’s talking about, I will still think he’s worth reading.  I will also say, however, that the ending disappointed me.  It didn’t pull everything together into a cohesive whole as well as I would have liked.  I don’t need a happy ending, but this seemed like there were just too many balls for him to juggle and he dropped a few at the end.  But I highly recommend it, if you’ve got the energy to keep up!

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I just finished this novel yesterday. I was excited to read it because I love Zadie Smith. I read On Beauty during a Contemporary British Lit class a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Smith is a great writer, and has the ability to combine snarky humor, some really complex themes, and and beeeautiful prose. After reading this, I have a serious girl crush on her. This was even better than On Beauty.

White Teeth is a really unique novel, in my opinion. Or, unique for this century. In a way, the book is really Dickensian. Let me explain. There are dozens of characters, a lot of which are related. There are characters from diverse social backgrounds and from different countries (which is I think the modern equivalent of Dickens’ habit of having lowly orphans rubbing shoulders with rich gentlemen). There are presumed-dead characters who return years and years later to be important plot points.

I know that Smith is a fan of late Victorian literature, because On Beauty was based loosely on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. So this can’t just be my imagination.

The book is hard to summarize because there are so many characters, but I’ll give it a shot. There are (roughly) three families involved: The Jones’s, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens.

The Jones family: Archie (English), his wife Clara (Jamaican Mormon), their daughter, Irie.

The Iqbal family: Samad (Bangladeshi Muslim), his wife Alsana (Bangladeshi Atheist), and their twin sons Magid (atheist) and Millat (fundamentalist muslim).

The Chalfen family: Marcus (Jewish geneticist), his wife Joyce (waspy as fuck), and their son, Josh.

Confusing enough? It gets moreso. The timeline jumps all over the place, with action taking place in 1907, 1944, 1976, and 1992, plus some bits in between. We spend time with Samad and Archie stationed together in WWII, with Clara’s grandmother who was essentially a slave for an Englishman in Jamaica, but the majority of the action occurs during the adolescences of the children (Irie, Magid, Millat, and Josh).

All of this late 20th century action takes place in North London, in Willesden Green. I lived quite near Willesden Green, so that was fun and familiar for me. The London of the book is sort of its own character, as we see all of these different ethnicities, religions, and ideals coming together in one place. I know America is known as the melting pot and all that, but London is just ridiculous. According to Wikipedia, 13.1 percent of Londoners are of South Asian descent (mostly Indians, but also Bangladeshis and Pakistanis), 10.7% are Black (Black African and Black Caribbean). The wiki also claims that more than 300 languages are spoken in London. And I think some of that is represented in the book–the benefits of having this multicultural existence, but also the extreme difficulties of the immigrant experience and the second generation experience. Obviously, I’m not really in a position to be able to comprehend this fully, but Smith does a good job of making you think about parts of the population you might not normally see/consider on your own. I’ve certainly never spent much time examining the ideas/opinions/reasons of fundamentalists muslim groups.

What I love about Smith is the absolute complexity and believability of all her characters. They sound and seem like people you know, with all the small hypocracies and varied motives that make up a real human being. She captures little moments of truth and purity that are really wonderful to be a part of.

Occasionally, I feel like maybe she takes on too much, that it’s too complicated for me to really take away anything definitive. Similar to real life, in that way. But I never feel like I’ve wasted time reading her books. I love spending time in her world, and I adore her snarky humor.

My only complaint has to be the ending. I’ve heard a lot of writing teachers say that after the climax you should wrap it up as quickly as possible, but this was taking it a bit too far. Between the climax and the end of the book there were only 1-2 pages, and none of it particularly satisfactory. I think this is a trend in literary fiction nowadays. Of course wrapping everything up in a neat bow after spending 400 pages constructing a varied and complex world can seem overly simplistic. Still, the audience needs some sense that they have been along on this story for a reason, and this story is now done. I didn’t get enough of that with the end of White Teeth.