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Jhumpa Lahiri comes up short in 'The Lowland'

"A short story is like a toothache and you must drill it and fill it. A novel is more like bridgework," said the writer T.C. Boyle, author of 14 novels and more than 100 short stories. One might wonder what would be the outcome of drilling and filling a novel. There are two answers, it seems: one is "The Namesake," the other is "The Lowland," both incidentally by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Lahiri, of course, happens to be one of the English language's most celebrated commanders, a storyteller revered for her perfect minimalist realism and crisp "plainness" — her words — that resists flash, trash, tricks, hooks, the works, and yet elevates, entrances and seduces all the same.

She's been such a literary fixture that it's hard to remember that "The Lowland" is only her sophomore novel. She's the exception to one of the cardinal rules of literature — that novels will always trump short-story collections. After two deservedly canonized short-story collections — her "Interpreter of Maladies" debuted with a Pulitzer (1999) and 2008's "Unaccustomed Earth" hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list — she ascended to master status with short-form fiction. And truly, to call these stories "impeccable" would not be an exaggeration.

But in between all her short-form gems came the less graceful debut novel, "The Namesake" (2003), which had its biggest moment when transformed into a Mira Nair movie. In her charmed literary history, this clumsy and laborious narrative will be the closest she's come to a miss.

Until now. "The Lowland" is familiar territory for Lahiri fans: She is back to her native settings of Calcutta and Rhode Island, telling the sagas of generations of Indian American immigrants. Two brothers, Udayan and Subhash Mitra, who are opposites in nature — one wild and exuberant and rebellious, the other responsible and contemplative and shy — take two very different paths, and the novel explores the consequences of their choices. It's a fairly cookie-cutter and clichéd premise that at best could be euphemized as "archetypal" or "classic" in scope.

What makes it most interesting is its haunting historical backdrop, a tale that indeed has not been told: that of the Naxalite movement, a radical communist faction born in the Indian village of Naxalbari with a violent uprising in 1967.

While Udayan devotes his life to this cause, Subhash leaves for America. Lahiri has again chosen a bit fatally to rest on the familiar — and here you have the typical torn-between-two-cultures thematics that the London-born, U.S.-raised Lahiri is enamored of and has, in fact, practically branded.

So what could go wrong? For one thing, Lahiri shies from tackling the necessary tangles and messes of a novel. It is that clinical short-story writer's genius, a sort of die-hard cleanliness and thoroughness, that dooms this novel. All endings are bound and rebound and finally hung up neatly as a flat, cold, dead but still somehow beautiful thing for detached viewing.

The short-story form thrives on her much-celebrated simplicity, her very nonshowy, very linear mechanics; it's as if the unconventionality of the short story helps lend her tales the edge they otherwise lack. But what dazzles in a story sprint loses its footing within a novel's cross-country sprawl, its more traditional landscape requiring unpredictability and surprise and indeed novelty — the reader's attention must be had and had and had.

If you are reading "The Lowland" for anthropological insights over all else, you might feel satiated. Even then, there are problems: Lahiri sometimes dips into cheaply microwaved otherness. Take for example autumn leaves rendered "Lowland" style: "Once more the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the foods his mother had prepared." Lines like these read like a parody of contemporary transnational literature at best.

The other problem is that Lahiri puts the undynamic Subhash and ice-cold wife Gauri center stage instead of their firebrand shadows — revolutionary sibling Udayan and iconoclast offspring Bela. It seems exactly the wrong choice for this book, as if she's invested in telling this story as tepidly as possible. This threatens to collapse the entire narrative in her endgame: Every story line is tiresomely followed until dead end, and the final third of the book is all downwind resolution, overwrought and exhausted, as if in complete misunderstanding of the novel form. The plots are largely overdone and overdone in a flat register, creating a sort of novel as lecture in parts.

Lahiri's place in literature has always seemed beyond reproach, since her cotillion by Pulitzer, but also partly, I suspect, because liberal-educated white people prefer their exotica watered down with high patrician elegance. Perhaps a product of Lahiri's Old and New Englands, all the vindaloos, saris, bindis and Bollywood feel like they've been given a scrubbing by a blond yogini army of Gwyneth Paltrow disciples: understated sweet-nothings, mannered manners, even passionless restraint. In Lahiri's fiction even when there is some blood on some hands, it's like watercolor blood, nonthreatening and even comely. Sometimes that is magical and other times it feels dishonest.

In 2008, when asked about the short story versus the novel, Lahiri told the Atlantic, "I don't make a huge distinction in terms of what they require because I think an idea is either working or it isn't." In her own case, one could recommend she revisit the sentiment. It's unclear if Lahiri has felt pressured to go novelward for ambition's sake, but it's clear she is not yet in her element in long-form.

Must fiction writers be masters of all forms? Lahiri makes us forget we even need the novel — or at least calls into question why we'd cast novelists as the overlords of Letters.

And so with "The Lowland," one might smile and nod as politely as one of Lahiri's own characters and say that, well, we cannot wait until her next story collection.

Khakpour is the author of "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" and the forthcoming novel "The Last Illusion."

calendar@latimes.com


The Lowland
A novel

Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf: 352 pp., $27.95


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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