The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri; The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Houghton-Mifflin. 291 pp. $24.00
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
Doubleday. 511 pp. $26.00
These two coming-of-age novels, both of them released in the last months to much acclaim, are set in different environments but treat a common theme. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999), here focuses on the American-born son of Bengali immigrants living in Boston. Jonathan Lethem, the author of Motherless Brooklyn (2000), takes as his protagonist the child of a bohemian mother and artist father in 1970’s Brooklyn. Living more or less as strangers among their family and friends, both heroes take their places in a line of figures in American literature that stretches from Henry Adams to Henry Roth and beyond—alienated children who inhabit two worlds but are at home in neither.
In The Namesake, Gogol Ganguli, born in 1968 and named by his father after the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, is pressured by his immigrant parents to excel in school, to neglect all things impractical—like developing a budding talent for figure drawing—and above all to succeed. Whether or not he ever does so remains uncertain; what is certain is that in the course of his struggles he becomes increasingly American, sating himself with television and on the junk food—like “individually wrapped slices of cheese [and] bologna”—that his parents provide him but refuse to eat themselves. Before heading off to Yale, he even adopts the name Nikhil instead of Gogol because to his ear it sounds more “American.”
At Yale, Nikhil/Gogol studies architecture, that most Anglo-Saxon of professions, and for the rest of the novel, which ends with the dissolution of his marriage in 2000, when he is all of thirty-two, he spends his life more or less exclusively in the company of young professionals in New York. His principal love affair is with Maxine, the daughter of arty New York aristocrats. Only his father’s sudden death precipitates a partial return to his origins, sealed by his marriage to a Bengali woman, Moushumi, who is another conflicted child of immigrants. His return journey, such as it is, is completed when Moushumi leaves him and Gogol at last opens the book of stories written by his namesake that had been given to him by his father on his fourteenth birthday. The novel closes on a dinner party in Gogol’s mother’s home where he has, at last, accepted the role of reluctant host.
Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude is set not only farther south on the east coast but farther south on the socioeconomic scale. Dylan Ebdus, Lethem’s protagonist (and part-time narrator) grows up white among the blacks and Hispanics of the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, simultaneously their mas cot and a victim of their petty crimes. Timid and confused, he strikes up an uneasy friendship with the self-possessed Mingus Rude, the only child of a coke-addled, has-been black musician. Their tense interracial friendship judders along, complete with the obligatory adolescent homoeroticism, until Dylan comes into possession of a magical ring that grants the power of flight—Lethem is a great proponent of magical realism—enabling the two boys to become low-rent superheroes.
But the idyll cannot last. The pair grow apart as Dylan becomes assimilated into the world of Manhattan at Stuyvesant High School, while Mingus, falsely accused of the murder of his father, embarks on a life of crime. After a pause for a brief narrative of the career of Mingus’s father (in the form of liner notes written by an older Dylan on the re-release of his work), the action resumes with Dylan’s having become a music journalist in Berkeley and acquired both an insufferable girlfriend and generally dismal prospects in life. In his need to effect some change, he sets out to find Mingus, now doing a long stretch in prison, and at great risk gets the magic ring to him in the hopes that he will use it to escape. This small redemption is denied him when Mingus uses the ring to commit suicide.
Despite the great differences between them in style and tone, The Namesake and The Fortress of Solitude are beset with many of the same problems. Chief among them is the shapelessness to which every novel dealing with childhood and its sequels seems prone; even Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, perhaps the seminal American work of the genre, is not free of it.
In the case of The Namesake the problem stems pretty clearly from an excess of dispassionateness: Lahiri’s novel is linear to the point of monotony. This is something of a surprise. In her highly (and rightly) praised debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri showed herself capable of a vast range of subtle narrative colors. The Namesake, by contrast, sounds but a single note, and that repeatedly, as Gogol goes through the same set of motions with the same uneasy indifference throughout: unsure of himself in primary school, unsure of himself at Yale, unsure of himself as he studies for his licensing exam as an architect.
Gogol’s women, too, pass in and out of his life with an unchanging absence of any incident worth remarking upon. Lahiri glides over the end of his relationship with Maxine: “Initially she tolerated his silences at the dinner table, his indifference in bed. . . . Quickly they had begun to fight about these things”—and it is over, in one paragraph. His college girlfriend is dealt with no less summarily.
In Interpreter of Maladies, such moments would be seized upon and stretched to a point of excruciating, almost unbearable, tension. Here, Lahiri may want to illustrate the blankness and disaffection that plague her protagonist, but the effect is to leave Gogol without substance and therefore without interest: in the all too accurate words of one character in the book, just another “ABCD: American-born confused deshi.” Although The Namesake does occasionally rise to the level of which Lahiri is manifestly capable—in a scene of Gogol and his father on a desolate beach, in the train wreck that jolts his father into an awareness of the ephemeral nature of human existence—these moments only serve in the end to underline the flatness of the whole.
The Fortress of Solitude is hardly flat—if anything, it is too bumpy. Its opening lines are a collision of inept simile and inept metaphor with inept symbolism:
Like a match struck in a darkened room:
Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.
The girls murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes.
Nor does the going get any smoother. No doubt in an effort to evoke the sensual richness of a childhood in New York City, Lethem packs every paragraph with portentousness: “Outside, Dean Street moaned in an ailment of humidity”; “Nevins Street was a river of unhappiness running through the land of Dean Street.” The resulting impression is not one of sensual overload, let alone of poetic flight, but rather of authorial desperation.
Something similar could be said of Lethem’s attempts to ground the novel in its time and place through unceasing references to popular culture; Chevy Chase, Ray Charles, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” Devo, and crack cocaine all put in stagey appearances, to no particular use. They seem merely to have been crammed in as proofs of authenticity, just as, at the beginning of the book’s third section, we are subjected to a gratuitous catalogue of the CD’s Dylan thinks of bringing with him to Los Angeles. In the meantime, the Boerum Hill of the 1970’s, which must have been a fascinating place, lapses into obscurity.
But the novel’s biggest disappointment is Dylan himself, who is made of exceptionally thin stuff. About his inner life we learn very little other than that he feels uncomfortable in Brooklyn as a child, in Vermont as a college student, and in Berkeley as an adult. Since he also serves as his author’s chosen lens on reality, it is perhaps no wonder that the world around him tends to assume a similar character-lessness. Like Gogol in The Namesake, Dylan remains without shape, and so, for all of Lethem’s strenuous protestations, does the world he inhabits.
The “different” child, particularly the child of immigrants or of an ethnic minority, is a figure of great resonance in American novels. One thinks of David Schearl, the protagonist of Call It Sleep, of John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, and of a host of others. The daughter in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine,” is, in a quiet way, another such figure: isolated, delicate vessels, all, for the tensions and insecurities of American life. Next to them, Gogol and Dylan pale.
Why that should be so is an interesting question. Could it be that this emblematic figure has become somehow obsolete, rendered irrelevant either by the homogenized sameness of the American landscape or, conversely, by the sheer kaleidoscopic variety of American experience? Whatever the case, the unfortunate fact about these two overly hyped novels is that they leech the color not only out of their protagonists but out of the small, troubled, vibrant worlds that produced them.