‘The Namesake’ Comes Closer to Art than Entertainment

by Mindy Borie
Columnist

After I read and loved the short-story collection “Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri last summer, I immediately bumped another of her works to the top of my must-read list. Arguably her most famous piece, “The Namesake” spawned a critically acclaimed film of the same name in 2006, starring Kal Penn (of “Harold & Kumar” and “House M.D.” fame). Because of this attention, I naturally assumed it to be the Lahiri to read.

Basically, the story goes as follows: A young Bengali (Indian) couple, freshly immigrated to America, has children and raises them. The central character is their elder child and only son, whom they name Gogol after a mix-up involving the letter from his great-grandmother, who was supposed to select his name. Gogol is the surname of a famous Russian author, whose work Ashoke (the father) was reading as a young man when he was involved in a near-deadly bus crash, and with whom he feels a special connection.

Gogol Ganguli grows up resenting his unique name and the pressures put on him by his traditional Bengali family. He goes to college and gets involved with white American women, which perplexes his parents, who are used to the form of arranged Hindu marriages. “The Namesake” is less a book in the way we expect — a story of something happening — and more a narrative biography following Gogol from his birth to the age of 35 or so.

Really, though, if you’ve read one Jhumpa Lahiri story, you’ve read them all. She has an understandable fixation with Bengali immigrant families and their American-born children. The same themes recur over and over in her work: children torn between cultures, feeling pressure from their parents to behave in an Indian way and pressure from their native country to behave in an American way; mixed marriages, which she generally presents as doomed; and adults who never leave behind the ideologies of their homeland, usually first-generation wives that are desperately unhappy in America where they are separated from their families and all they have known.

Considering that I got little from this novel that I had not gained from “Unaccustomed Earth,” I might have been just as well off had I skipped it. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is beautiful. Language is Lahiri’s strength, and she portrays the problems inherent in cultures and families expertly and poignantly. However, these points can get tiresome over the course of 300 pages.

“The Namesake” is a work of art more than entertainment. As art goes, though, it lacks a definite plot and the density of detail that makes Lahiri’s short fiction so great. The novel reads more as a series of vignettes with no unifying cohesive plot, which turns it into a kind of soup. It’s a lovely soup, but it’s still soupy: a little too blended together to make real sense. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but there isn’t a lot right, either.

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