Most of the time I spent reading Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri was an exercise in trying not to put the book down. That sounds bad, but it was also a good thing. Let me explain:
Summary: Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories. It was on the shelf of a bookstore I used to work for. The book was sitting with the cover facing out. I read two lines of the first story, ‘A Temporary Matter,’ and was surprised. I bought it on first impressions. Having finished the book with some ups and downs, I think that was appropriate: more than anything else, the stories in Interpreter of Maladies are about first – and last – impressions. Characters come and go physically and emotionally. A man moves to America after living in Calcutta. A new couple learns to how little they have in common when moving to a new house. Histories of love and war work themselves to the surface. Relationships change. I’m not an immigrant, but I wonder how these narratives read to someone who is. Place is as much a character as anyone in Lahiri’s stories and everyone wants to be somewhere else.
The Good: The best stories in the collection show people suffering ordinary lives. In ‘Mrs. Sen’s,’ an Indian transplant orders fish from a Boston market, saying: “Under Sen, yes, S as in Sam, N as in New York. Mr. Sen will be there to pick it up.” It’s specific in the way that people talk, difficult in the way most of the stories are: no-one ever quite fits in. A newlywed thinks about his wife in ‘This Blessed House’: “Lately he had begun noticing the need to state the obvious to Twinkle.” Stuff like that was uncomfortable to read. The tension is so mundane it’s familiar. I checked myself against Lahiri’s characters and saw similar flaws. The jabby, imagery-free lines cut so well that I had to stop reading, pour a few drinks, and pretend like I wasn’t as screwy as her characters. Each time I came back to the book, I was still there.
The Bad: There’s a long stretch in the middle that bogs down. From the title story (third in the collection out of nine) through ‘Mrs. Sen’s’ (sixth), Lahiri came off preachy and long-winded. This was most noticeable in ‘A Real Durwan.’ Here’s a story about an old woman in Calcutta who lives in the storage room of an apartment building. She takes care of the place and the residents let her stay but she’s effectively homeless. Some things happen, people try to make a buck, spruce up the place, keep her out of sight, it gets robbed, they blame the old lady and kick her out. It reads like a pamphlet from your middle school guidance counselor. From the jump, you know the parable. My momentum with the collection took a huge hit in the drugdey middle stories. That said, I’ll reiterate: I wonder how it reads to an immigrant, or someone of Indian decent? Everything in the collection nods at India and migratory displacement and I could believe I’m missing some of the impact as a white, very-much-placed Southern American.
Final Thoughts: I’m glad the book was turned toward me on the shelf. It has a nice brown cover and attractive font. There are flowers on the cover, a graphic designer read ‘woman’ beside Lahiri’s name and decided to stereotype, but the whole thing caught my eye so I guess it did it’s job. Most of all, the collection left me wanting to talk about it with someone – figure out what bugs me about it, and try to sort through all the dark human places it led me to. That’s as good a recommendation as any.