Houghton Mifflin, 1999
In all nine short stories included in this 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, Lahiri seems to be inserting a karmic math to her stories. Characters are unable to see or they clearly see their life situation reflected in mundane events surrounding them. They range from the cover of evening darkness due to the power company to the last story’s running parallel math of culture changes by moving from India to America versus living to be one hundred years old.
The writing is excellent and is consistent in tone with a center in the story of internal desperation. A young couple in the first story is grieving a stillborn death and in the darkness of their separate and different griefs begin to make confessions during in the dark when the lights go out.
In the namesake Interpreter of Maladies, a tour guide disappointed in his life and circumstances imagines nuances and flirtations in a client that let him live briefly in hope.
The last story seems a mathematics story problem of seeing the
world change before your eyes in ways that seem impossible to overcome and accept as good. A young college graduate in Boston rents a room for a woman over a hundred years old who dresses as they did in the 1890s and is appalled at morality changes and that man is on the moon. Against that the student anticipates and lives through the first awkward months of his Indian bride’s arrival who has never been outside her village or away from her parents.
All the stories are told through the lens of contemporary Indian culture, often suffused with American or British culture. Sometimes the people are well-educated men and women living academic lives in Boston or New York. Other times they are told through the eyes of people who have never left India, but Lahiri gracefully writes it with the same ear to the heartbeat of need, fantasy, and fear.
The story problems work out. Or rather they end. Literary fiction is defined by a heavy and serious depiction of what is written as “real” in “real lives”. There are few if any laughs, few murders, plenty of suicides, lots of depressed grad students, and a general lack of romance that continues to happily ever after. At the end of reading the reader usually feels enlightened to “real” life, but feels no better for it.
There are no suicides or murders in this book and more people are depressed than just grad students, but Lahiri handles their puppet strings well and at the end I feel a bit more enlightened that yes, as Thoreau indicated, most people live lives of quiet desperation.
New word learned: Auscultation – the act of listening to sounds arising with organs as a tool in diagnosis.
Sentence in book: After x-rays, probes, auscultations, and injections, some merely advised BiBi to gain weight, others to lose it.