Generally speaking, I am not a fan of short story collections or anthologies. I’m not sure what it is about them, but I’ve never found them very enjoyable to read, perhaps because by the time I’m involved in a given story it ends and then I have to get invested in another one. Lather, rinse, repeat. I think I generally find short stories too, well, short to be fulfilling, and so when it comes to my reading, I tend to focus on novels instead. For this reason, if it were not for the Tournament of books, I probably would never have picked up Unaccustomed Earth, no matter how much acclaim it has received.
And Unaccustomed Earth has gained a lot of acclaim. It first came to my notice back in July when it made headlines for snagging the Frank O’Connor award. Now winning an award will generally earn you a headline in the book world, but what really made this story interesting was the fact that Lahiri’s collection was dubbed the unanimous winner so early on that the judges jumped from long-list to winner. They did not pass Go, they did not collect $200, and they did not declare a short-list in the process either. In their opinion, Unaccustomed Earth was so superior relative to the competition that there was no point pretending anyone else was in the running, and subjecting the other authors to unnecessary stress. Add this to the fact that Lahiri has pretty much been an untouchable literary superstar ever since the publication of her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and you can see why despite my normal aversion to short stories, I had pretty high expectations for this ToB entrant.
With respect to the content, all of the stories contained within Unaccustomed Earth focus on second generation Indian immigrants. Now, ostensibly I know as much about this experience as I did about what it is to be first generation Chinese immigrants, which is what Steer Toward Rock was focusing on. Yet, while that book left me feeling out of the loop and disconnected from its world and its characters, I immediately felt at home with all of the characters that Lahiri draws in her stories. That’s not to say that I liked all of them, but they were people whom I recognized and thus, whose stories I felt I could connect with and internalize. I felt like the stories in this collection were very global in their appeal and could be appreciated by any reader, regardless of background.
Now, as I’ve said multiple times at this point, I don’t normally read short stories, so I am probably not in the best position to judge this book, but I will say this: this is first short story collection that I have read in its entirety possibly ever. That’s got to mean something, right? Sure, it was the ToB that had me pick Unaccustomed Earth up in the first place, but that wasn’t why I kept reading. From the first story, I appreciated Lahiri’s ability to quickly establish the setting for a given story and proceed to the meat of the story; after all, if you’ve only got 60 pages to tell your story, you can’t use 50 of them to set the scene. Additionally, I did feel (for the most part) that each story was indeed an encapsulated and complete story, and that they didn’t break off just when things were getting good and they didn’t leave me feeling like I need to spend more time with the characters contained within. They felt whole and fully realized, and I think that this is a necessary element for a successful short story. I don’t want to read a book full of vignettes (if you do, that’s fine, but that’s not what I’m looking for).
Of course, one of the reasons why I may have felt these stories were so complete is because they’re all kind of the same, so Lahiri has an awful lot of chances to tell her story, and what’s missing from one is probably made up for in another. Now, I get that in a collection, there is likely going to be an overarching theme that ties the stories contained therein together, but when I say the stories are the same, let me be clear, I do not mean that they are similar. You could take any character (with the exception of perhaps one) and place him or her in any of the other stories, and I guarantee no one would know the difference. Some of them even have eerily similar names (“Ruma” in the first story, “Rupa” in the last)! All of the second-gen Indians marry white Westerners, and wind up in strained marriages generally because the Westerner is a workaholic. All of the children wind up going to Ivy league schools, and then professional schools and PhD programs… for that matter, all of the Indian fathers came to America to pursue PhDs, and none of the mothers work. In that vein, interestingly, all Indian immigrants appear to move to Cambridge & Boston to pursue their PhDs. All of the Indian parents have arranged marriages that allow for camaraderie, but not really love. Also, Indian people’s favorite European travel spot is Rome, Italy. It kind of baffles me as to why Lahiri scatters identical details through all of her stories, especially when such recycling will be glaringly obvious. If these stories had been published years apart in The New Yorker or some other serial publication, maybe then it would be understandable. But she developed them all at the same time (that much is obvious) for an initial simultaneous publication in Unaccustomed Earth. This technique she uses is not a clever resonance of a central theme, it’s boring stereotyping, and lazy writing when each story is a derivative of its neighbor. Honestly, it made me wonder why she decided to write short stories if each one would be a ghostly copy of the preceding one. Why not just right a novel? Then you can set your story in Massachusetts only once, and only have one father who got his PhD in microbiology, and only have one dutiful daughter who marries a white man. I mean, yeah, I enjoyed the stories as I was reading them – there is an organic readability to Lahri’s prose – but by the third one, it was almost a sick game to see how much the current story would overlap with the one I had just finished reading. That whole thing about her not spending a lot of time developing the setting for each story? It’s because each story has the exact same setting.
I am not the first person to have read this collection and to point out how repetitive it is. I really feel as though you can pick any one story in this collection, two max, and you will have just as complete a sense of the picture Lahiri is painting as if you were to read all eight stories. What’s worse is that apparently if you’ve read her first collection, then these stories apparently retread the same ground it covers (I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how true this actually is… but I wouldn’t be surprised). I know writers are often urged to “write what they know” and that Lahiri supposedly draws a lot of her inspiration from real life, but I would think that for as sympathetic as her stories are, she would add a little more depth to this particular population, given that she herself is one of them. Does she really think that all Indian people are the same? Why not tackle a central theme from multiple perspectives rather than the same people in the same situations over and over again? If you can’t do that, then I don’t know that you should be writing short story collections.
So where does this leave me? Confused. Given how much book reviewers (including Michiko Kakutani, who is known for being a super hard-ass over at the New York Times Review of Books) have fallen all over themselves when it comes to Jhumpa Lahiri, I expected far more from Unaccustomed Earth than I ultimately got. I was almost certain when I read the list of contenders for this year’s ToB that this one would make it to the finals, if not win the grand prize. But I really hope it doesn’t, because I don’t think anything about it was at all remarkable. Lahiri writes with a stolid stoicism that makes for very quiet prose that is pensive in appearance. But what does she say in any one story that she then does not loop and repeat in the next? Her writing is fine, even poetic at times, but there was nothing about it that made me feel as though I were in the hands of a master. And as for the stories, I found that I liked the first one a good deal, but with each passing story, I appreciated the collection less and less because it was all more of the same. When your one-trick pony does the same trick over and over in rapid succession, it kind of makes the trick less impressive, less meaningful. Few of the families she writes about are genuinely happy, so on that basis alone we have Tolstoy to suggest that each of these stories should stand out on its own merits. They don’t. I could hardly pick a favorite, because in my mind they’re all just one big pot of curry. If there had been any varying perspective, any characterization at all that diverged from the overall homogeneity and monotony, no matter how subtle, I would have liked this collection much more as a whole. Instead, I’m actually frustrated that this is what wins awards and receives such huge praise. I’m angry, because I feel like such a collection may have required Lahiri’s time, but not any real effort. I am reminded that if this is the best that a short story collection can aspire to be, then this is why I do not read them more often.
My suggestion for you if you pick up this collection? Pick one or two stories at random and read them, and then return it to your library or trade it into a used bookstore or something. Better yet, maybe try The Namesake, her novel with just one story in it. This is really a case where less is more.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5