Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri
After reading five of the nine stories I was convinced that none of the others would rouse enthusiasm from me. Lahiri is too careful, safe, diligent; the absence of a wayward strain in her work results in a bland, muted quality, and her endings trail off because there’s nothing forceful to build upon. I’m not advocating eye-gouging fiction; but a story that’s dutifully obedient to the rules of good fiction won’t rise to excellence. Another Lahiri shortcoming – a more serious one, but possibly attributable to youth – is evident in the title story, which was the last I read. Early on I was hopeful; it had an engaging premise and its satirizing of two tourists in India was done with an uncustomary zest. But it foundered badly due to the author’s lack of insight into how people think and feel. Would the tour guide become so enamored of the wife (who is depicted as callous and crass) just because she shows a sudden interest in him? Would he fantasize about the two of them leaving their spouses and children and becoming soul mates? Is he fifteen years old? And would she confess the secret of her unfaithfulness to this stranger? We’re asked to believe that his profession – he’s employed by a doctor to interpret the symptoms of Gujarati patients – makes him, in her eyes, qualified to offer “some kind of remedy” for her pain. No, sorry, no basis. To top things off, would adults be so stupid as to allow their children to play with wild monkeys? After some silliness involving sticks and the stamping of feet, the story ends with a textbook moment: the tour guide’s dreams flutter away in the wind. Lahiri’s dreams had a better fate: this debut collection won the Pulitzer Prize.

Black Boy - Richard Wright
On one level this is an exploration of the formation and development of a personalty; on another it’s a study of race relations in the South during the Depression. On both levels it succeeds to a remarkable degree, and that’s because Wright possessed two rare qualities: honesty and perceptiveness. What he has to say – much of it raw and ugly – is shaped by an orderly mind; this is a book with no roadblocks to understanding. In the first half Wright is a small boy, and most of his interactions are with other Blacks. He’s not sympathetic or generous in his depiction of his own race. (I wondered, when I came across a rant at the beginning of Chapter Two, whether certain paragraphs had been censored from the original published version; they contain a sweeping condemnation of the Negro – or, rather, the Southern Negro of the time – and begin with “I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes . . .”). The Negro is ruled by a fear that is almost obsessive; it engenders a deep conservatism, a mentality that says, “You can’t.” When Wright is older and dependent on Whites for jobs, he’s subjected to abuse of such virulence that it’s a jolt to our twenty-first century sensibilities. Wright is constantly on guard, knowing he must conform, must play the role assigned to him or face physical violence, even death. Besides fear, hunger is an unremitting presence in his life. There’s hunger for food (from childhood he never had sufficient food), but as he grows into manhood he develops a hunger for the freedom to be himself and also to be intellectually free. When he’s finally able to get the use of a library card we see the awakening of a famished mind; in novels this isolated young man finds, at long last, others he can relate to. Black Boy reads beautifully; scenes and dialogue come across with immediacy and power, and even minor characters stake out their presence. In an unobtrusive way this book attains the status of an American classic. *

Something of Myself - Rudyard Kipling
This short autobiographical piece was the last thing Kipling wrote. His twisty prose relies on a lot of negatives (a principle “ends not seldom in bloodshed”) and he frames his thoughts in an oblique way (“Thus I often lived alone in the big house, where I commanded by choice native food, as less revolting than meat-cookery, and so added indigestion to my more intimate possessions”). Though initially refreshing, too much of this self-conscious preening became tiresome. Kipling comes across as likable fellow, but as he moves into adulthood he avoids disclosing anything intimate and mostly traces his writing career. Success came easily – from the start there was an audience for his picaresque tales and poems. His receiving the Nobel Prize was probably the worst thing that happened to him, as it led to disparagement of his work. Based on the one story I read, a flaming mess called “The Man Who Would Be King,” the criticism was justified. I think his true domain was as a jingoist and a writer for children. He does manage to end his last book in a striking and dramatic way – by stating that air routes on his globe were “well in use before my death.”

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