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20 September 2008 / April

Everything in the language

Maybe it was last year’s lack of a structured environment for the analysis of literature– i.e. English class– but recently I’ve found myself wanting to take notes on my own casual reading.  This usually involves decimating scrap paper into little slips to mark pages containing particularly eloquent, particularly funny, or particularly true passages.

But if I’d done that for Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I almost certainly would have found myself marking every single page.  Which rather defeats the purpose of marking them in the first place.

So I had to be a little more selective.  My first slip of paper, I find, comes 182 pages into the book, denoting a description of a grad student who has failed an oral examination for which he had prepared tirelessly.  Afterward, Lahiri writes:

Paul had walked home, the tie he’d bought for the occasion stuffed into his pocket, and for a week he had not left the house.  When he returned to campus, he was ten pounds thinner, and the department secretary asked him if he’d fallen in love.

If that doesn’t fill you with an unnameable sentiment somewhat akin to amusement and pity and sadness all mixed together, you should go to your designer and advise him to program such a reaction into your emotion module.  Because no authentic human could ignore such poignancy.

The odd thing about Lahiri’s writing is that it’s always about the same thing– Indian people in America– and it’s always about very ordinary things, and it always describes them in a very even-handed way, without ladening them with excessive profundity.  Reading it, you feel like you could write something very similar; there’s nothing unusual about it.  The odd thing about her writing is, there’s nothing odd about it.

And yet, every word feels perfect, like it could not possibly be any other word.  Only a master could achieve such artistry.

The ordinary nature of the people in these stories means they had some noticeable effects on another ordinary person, namely myself.  Some days I find myself pausing mid-step to sip from my coffee cup or scratch my ear and suddenly I wonder who could be watching me, observing life as do the hyper-astute characters– or perhaps the hyper-astute narrator– of Lahiri.  It’s a little unnerving for someone unwilling to be the subject of attention from strangers.  But if ordinary people in these ordinary stories can meet childhood crushes completely by chance in Rome, who’s to say who may be standing on the Cornell campus watching me drink coffee?

To conclude in a way that precludes the need for both an actual transition and an actual conclusion, here are the two remaining notes I have from Unaccustomed Earth. I know vaguely what the first one is referring to, but necessity of its parenthetical addendum is utterly mystifying. The second one might lure you into reading this book if nothing else does.

-middle age must suck (for normal people)
-nothing in the events and everything in the language suggests suicide



Leave a Comment
  1. Stacy / Sep 21 2008 12:25 am

    JHUMPA LAHIRI IS MY FAVORITE AUTHOR EVER. How’s her latest novel? 😀

  2. April / Sep 21 2008 11:38 am

    Does she have a new novel also? I know she has a new book of short stories (the one I reviewed here), which is excellent.

  3. Kati / Sep 21 2008 6:47 pm

    I actually do that too (take notes on my own casual reading, I mean.) When I come by a particularly good or well-expressed passage, I usually mark it in the book itself ^^ and/or down on another piece of paper if I want to keep it with me.
    Aha. That Lahiri passage is stellar. Though I don’t feel quite the same way about her writing as you do. I think she’s very good, but there’s still something lacking…or maybe this was just my impression of The Namesake. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I think I recall preferring the Mango Season.


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