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The Art of Losing

By (November 1, 2013) No Comment

The Lowland

By Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, 2013

thelowlandFurther commentary on a novel that has already been so well-publicized, and so extensively written about—lauded, panned, long-listed for the Booker Prize—seems almost superfluous. But accounting for what The Lowland tries to do, and what, in the most basic sense, it is about, remains largely untouched. There are plenty of summaries (most covering just the first third of the book, presumably to avoid spoiling anything); a few desultory observations about Lahiri’s prose style; some critiques of structure; and, unavoidably, two or three notes about how the novel shatters the idea of “immigrant literature,” etc. But so much of this chatter is of such unhelpful generality that it just as easily could have been written about Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake. It still leaves us looking for an answer to the most fundamental questions: why bother to write this novel? Why bother to read this novel?

You should, but not for any of the reasons that you’d think (at least, not from reading reviews alone). The primary work of The Lowland is to explore the experience of loss—loss of place, loss of love, loss of family—through a stylistic and narrative approach other than that provided by the heavily internalized voice of psychological realism. Lahiri chooses to take a step back from the direction in which James, Proust, and Woolf steered the novel, instead attempting to recover and modernize the kind of detachment adopted by Flaubert or Tolstoy. We occupy a vantage point outside the book’s powerful emotions. Most writers who set out to explore loss would start from the inside, where the pain is deepest; boldly, Lahiri chooses to do the opposite.

The novel begins as the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, living in southern Calcutta in the mid-1950s, the tumultuous years after India’s independence. They grow up near the eponymous lowland in the neighborhood of Tollygunge, which floods every year during monsoon season. Their family, while not dirt-poor, strives for better things; in a memorable early scene, the brothers are beaten for sneaking into a private golf course at night. That experience of dispossession, inequality, and envy shapes their lives as adolescents: both excel at school and go on to university as young scientists. Here, their lives start to split: Subhash, the elder of the two, moves to Rhode Island in 1969 to pursue a graduate degree in oceanography, while his younger brother Udayan becomes active in the Naxalite insurgency—the Indian Maoist movement. Udayan falls in love with another student named Gauri; they elope, to the consternation of both their parents. When the Indian police violently arrest and kill Udayan in 1971, Subhash returns home. He meets Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan’s child. Impulsively, he offers to marry her and take her to America with him—to escape India, their families, and the memory of Udayan. She accepts.

The story is already filled with the pain of violent loss—Lahiri’s telling of Subhash’s death at the hands of the police is chilling—but what follows intensifies and expands Gauri, still distraught and depressed, feels a postpartum gulf between herself and her daughter Bela. Her only redeeming passion is the study of philosophy, which she takes up as a hobby in the years after leaving India. For Subhash, however, Bela is the only source of meaning in a life trapped in a loveless marriage. After discovering that Gauri has been willfully neglecting Bela, Subhash cuts off Gauri emotionally; they live apart from each other under the same roof. When Subhash returns to India in 1984 with Bela to visit his mother in the wake of his father’s death, Gauri leaves their lives entirely to take up a position teaching in California. The rest of the novel traces the effects of this decision on the lives of all three: Bela’s struggle as a maturing adult to come to terms with her origins and her abandonment; Gauri’s evolving sense of self and eventual regret; Subhash’s relationship with Bela and late discovery of some modest form of happiness.

JhumpaLahiriIt might strike some as reductive to say that a novel is primarily about one thing or another, but The Lowland is as palpably “about” loss as Anna Karenina is about love, or Howards End is about human sympathy. Every character is shaped by the loss of at least one other character, and sometimes many: Subhash loses Udayan, Gauri, his parents, and at times Bela. The best writing on grief and abandonment does what Lahiri attempts here: it treats absence as a kind of relation in itself, and not merely the absence of a relationship that was once there. The Lowland is at its core a ghost story, a succession of hauntings, each begetting another.

Lahiri’s perspective choices are crucial to developing this effect. The novel has no single protagonist. Instead, it swivels and pivots from one character to another. This helps maintain the critical remove Lahiri seems to strive for, and its effect proves to be well-calculated in the end, even if it takes a while to set up: the first half of the novel is taxing in some ways, as we drift from episode to episode without a clear sense of their connection to one another—but by the second half, the concatenation of losses develops its own momentum, so that the progression from one perspective to another becomes more natural and also avoids the potential for narrative stagnation.

This choice of stances builds a clinical kind of distance from the minds of characters that will be familiar to readers of Lahiri’s other books: always in the third person, preferring reported thought to long interior monologues, as if to keep the character securely under observation behind plate glass. That voice is pervasive; it filters the consciousness of every character, effacing to some extent the sense that each might have a distinct rhythm or sound to their thought. This is, I think, a choice rather than a shortcoming, much though it might annoy readers who lionize mimicry and psychological intimacy as virtues of writers. Stylistically, Lahiri could always sound a little chilly; here, that chill has created a kind of light frost over everything it touches. At times, this can allow flashes of piercing insight; at others, it can cloak actual emotion under mere emotional summary. A successful moment rides mainly on the grace of elegant statement:

The effect was disquieting. [Subhash] felt his presence on earth being denied, even as he stood there. He was forbidden access: the past refused to admit him.

And a bad moment sinks from bearing its own weighty exegesis within itself:

But [Gauri’s] worst nemesis resided within her. She was not only ashamed of her feelings but also frightened that the final task Udayan left her with, the long task of raising Bela, was not bringing meaning to her life.

Actually, the assessments embedded in each passage could just as well explain the overall effect of Lahiri’s prose: the effect is disquieting (at times positively, at others less so), and its worst nemesis resides within itself. Lahiri has cultivated a style as mannered and distinctive as Cormac McCarthy’s or Hilary Mantel’s in the Cromwell novels: fragments curl between full sentences, while a rhythmic apposition lilts again and again at the ends of sentences—a love of the dangling thought, the modifier casually added. And yet Lahiri eschews the lushness to which this syntax might draw other writers by insisting on a spare vocabulary that is both un-showy and unchallenging. (Whereas in terms of syntax alone, that description might actually apply to the style that dominates the first three books of Ulysses). This is a paradigmatic Lowland paragraph:

[Gauri had] worn an ordinary printed silk sari, with only her wristwatch and a simple chain. Put up her hair by herself. It was the first time she’d left the neighborhood, the first time since the shopping expedition with her mother-in-law that she was surrounded, invigorated by the city’s energy.

InterpreterofmaladiesthenamesakeThe visual analogy might be to an Impressionist painting composed of short, though not pointillistic, strokes; or maybe a sculpture in unfired clay, sophisticated in form, and yet covered in thumbprints. When coupled with Lahiri’s love of indirection, the prose cultivates a pose of analysis—a bit like reading the notes of an extremely thoughtful, literarily inclined therapist. That is not so bad in and of itself, but it does reveal the simultaneous merit and limit (perhaps even the goal?) of the novel’s exploration of loss: stay on the outside; observe keenly; do not allow yourself to identify openly with the subjects. Most novelists want to pry open the human heart with a pen; some wield the pen like a dagger, some like a thermometer, others like a scalpel. Lahiri is among the latter group.

This might well be a useful corrective at a moment when it is no longer clear exactly where the tradition of intensely psychological fiction is headed (though there’s really no reason why it should need to head anywhere other than where it is). It’s hard not to refer to Flaubert when discussing the merits of indirection and a certain sangfroid toward one’s characters; maybe Lahiri has managed to revitalize the notion of emotional exteriors—that, far from pretending that an author can probe into the soul, the best a writer can do is to look at the emotional life with a sense of reportorial objectivity. (There are moments when Lahiri sounds a little like a cross between Janet Malcolm and Marguerite Duras.) It is a wildly popular novel, but it also has some fairly sophisticated aims. Simplicity need not belie innovation, even while it fosters widespread acceptance. (Maybe this was one reason for Hemingway’s greater popularity than Faulkner’s in the 1950s.)

But does Lahiri’s exploration of various kinds of loss push in a significantly different, newer, or more striking direction than the vast body of other literature on this experience, this feeling? I’m not sure it does. It may not be at all fair to compare vastly different writers with one another, especially the greats; but if one of a book critic’s jobs is to discern what you should read first, it must be admitted that an afternoon with Emily Dickinson or To the Lighthouse might probe deeper into loss than the landscape of The Lowland. Lahiri anatomizes loss without providing a corresponding physiology: we see its workings and ascertain characters’ motives, but they are straightforward, and always given to us without provoking further question, or hinting at doubt in the picture that the narrator gives us—that is how her prose works. But the experience of loss and how it inflects the way we act is knottiest on the terrain of self-contradiction and anguish, and without diving into those, The Lowland‘s vision of the inner lives of its characters can seem too carefully settled. Still, the novel deserves to be read for the ambition of its austere stylistic vision and the difficulty of the territory into which it attempts to press it, even if, by novel’s end, it seems that straining harder to see a little deeper into the well of the human mind won’t work. Sometimes you simply have to climb down into the darkest part of the well yourself.

Spencer Lenfield is a Rhodes Scholar currently studying classics at Oxford University. He blogs at loosesignatures.blogspot.com.