Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Themed Reading: The Namesake

It's rare that I feel neutral about a book. Usually I like or loathe in varying degrees, but this novel didn't move me either way. Perhaps the modern American immigrant experience is just too far from my own experience for me to identify with it. Perhaps because I've only lived a fish-out-of-water, marooned-in-another-culture life in small increments, there wasn't enough here for me. But even as I write that, I suspect that a good book should draw me in, even if the characters and setting are vastly different from my own experience.

One of the difficulties is the long pages of narrative that make this story drag. The novel begins with a young married couple, Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, newly arrived from India, and then shifts its focus to their first child, a son whose private family nickname, Gogol, accidentally becomes his public name in their new American life. Of course, naming/renaming is an archetypal literary device signalling the hero's transformation (think Odysseus calling himself "No Man" and Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, for example). Lahiri repeatedly places all this naming and renaming in the foreground, but the overemphasis lessens the impact.

Meanwhile, the introduction of each character requires long pages of backstory. There are paragraphs and paragraphs about past events, without any dialog whatsoever. Frankly, I wasn't interested in every little detail about, say, Gogol's wife's adventures and affairs in Paris as a college student long before she met him. Perhaps if I'd felt more connection with the characters, this kind of information would have been interesting. As it was, I found myself figuratively patting my foot, waiting for each digression to end.

Ditto for the author's tendency to awkwardly drop in pop culture references such as CVS, Barnes and Noble, The Guiding Light, and British Airways, that will probably date the novel and perhaps confuse future readers. There are better ways to invoke 1971 than mentioning that The $10,000 Pyramid is on t.v. Again, this seems like too much information of the wrong kind.

The story also suffers from being told in the present tense (a pet peeve of mine). It's particularly awkward in the final scene, which should be the climax of the story. A fairly typical father-son disconnect has prevented Ashoke from ever explaining why Gogol was given that name, the name of Ashoke's favorite, life-changing author Nikolai Gogol. It's information that will probably transform the relationship between father and son, and between son and name. That connection is finally made after Ashoke's death, when the grown-up Gogol visits his old room in his parents' house. He finds the book of Nikolai Gogol's short stories Ashoke gave him long ago, a book he never cracked open, which contains an inscription from Ashoke. This is the moment of connection, when familial, cultural, and personal peace are being made. But, weirdly, the story then shifts into a kind of future tense and back again: "He turns to the first story, "The Overcoat." In a few minutes his mother will come upstairs to find him . . . . He will apologize, put the book aside . . . . But for now his mother is distracted, . . . unaware of her son's absence. For now, he starts to read." Surely there's another way to communicate this pivotal moment without so drastically fracturing time.

The technical flaws of this novel prevent some very good storytelling from having its intended effect. The more I write, the more my neutrality shades over toward the negative. I really want to like this book, but I just can't.

Excerpt:

Gogol gets up and shuts the door behind his father, who has the annoying habit of always leaving it partly open. He fastens the lock on the knob for good measure, then wedges the book on a high shelf between two volumes of the Hardy Boys. He settles down again with his lyrics on the bed when something occurs to him. This writer he is named after--Gogol isn't his first name. His first name is Nikolai. Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name. And so it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name. Not even the source of his namesake.

2 comments:

  1. That's too bad. I usually enjoy the writing of Indian authors whether immigrant or still living in India. But, I agree that pages of exposition are deadly.
    I might not have stuck with the novel as you did. Life is just too short and there are so many good books

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  2. I do want to try Jhumpa Lahiri, but I might start with her short stories rather than this. Of course I always appreciate a Guiding Light reference... :p

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