Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

What a beautiful collection of stories! This is the first short story collection I have ever read from cover to cover and it made me fall in love with the genre. I like short stories because they are often denser narratives (especially emotionally) than what could likely be sustained throughout an entire novel. In this collection, brevity is key; each story can easily be read in one setting. But, while compact, the stories in this collection are expansive glimpses into lives that always left me wanting more.

Lahiri’s use of short stories to explore the experience of migration is striking for its ability to depict the complexities of this experience much more accurately than could be portrayed in a novel with a single storyline. Each of these stories is a complex and moving account of a different immigrant experience. The thread that stood out as holding this collection together is an underlying criticism of the notion of the “American Dream” and the happy, model immigrant seeking a happier life in this world. In each of these stories, we see individuals struggling in one way or another to fit into this idealized version of immigration. To me these stories suggest that, maybe, the universal immigrant experience isn’t one of working hard and being rewarded with a better life, but one of struggling for a better life that is always slightly out of reach.

My favourite aspect of this collection is the characters. In each story, Lahiri brought her characters alive and I fell in love with every one of them. From young Lilia and her older neighbour Mr. Pirzada, whose presence leads to her education about her own family’s past in Calcutta, to husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba who are struggling in the aftermath of a miscarriage, to Boori Ma, a durwan (doorwoman) in Calcutta who is blamed and exiled by her neighbours for a crime she did not commit, to the narrator in “The Third and Final Continent” and Mrs. Croft, his 103-year-old landlord, to young Eliot and his nanny Mrs. Sen – each of these stories moved me with the beautiful characterizations of individuals of all ages and from all walks of life. The small and often unlikely intimacies shared by these characters was touching throughout the collection.

This collection of stories also gave me a window into a history of which I know almost nothing. One of my favourite things about reading is that it never fails to show me how little I know about the world around me. In almost everything I read, I frequently have to look up references and inevitably learn about the story’s era, politics, geography and so on. This was especially true in Interpreter of Maladies, which continually introduced aspects of Indian history (the Partition of India in 1947 or the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, for example) of which I had never heard.  As someone who has been relatively isolated from this history, it was very interesting to get to know more about this history and to see the ways it affected and continues to affect individuals both in India and around the world.

Overall, this is a collection of stories that is sophisticated while still remaining accessible. Told with poignant and poetic prose, Lahiri gives us a glimpse into the lives of individuals in whom we can all see ourselves, no matter where we come from. More than anything else, Interpreter of Maladies tells the universal story of individuals struggling to form and maintain meaningful connections with our homelands and families while still striving to achieve greater and more beautiful lives than our parents and grandparents ever imagined possible.

 

Stories: 9/10

Writing: 9/10

Tenth of December

Tenth of December

George Saunders

“Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.”

George Saunders’ short story collection, Tenth of December, is an absolute treat. George Saunders is another incredible author of whom I had never heard until I stumbled across this collection on a New York Times book list. I am glad it caught my eye.

Saunders’ collection brings us to worlds that are both recognizable and unfamiliar. They introduce a world like our own but then introduce elements that confuse us. The stories enter an alternate reality – one that is so close to being true that it is unsettling and beautiful at the same time. These alternate worlds, such as those in “Escape from Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” do not announce their alternate realities outright. Instead, the stories develop in sometimes confusing ways until we realize that what is going on is not something that we would see walking down our own streets. The focus on this type of story, maybe best described as exaggerated realism, is one of my favourite aspects of this collection. The stories draw on elements of science fiction and place us in a new version of our contemporary world that is thought provoking and darkly funny.

George Saunders has a remarkable talent for narration and the development of different perspectives and voices. The voices he chooses allow us into the minds of individuals we might not otherwise relate to or connect with. Despite the extremely questionable decisions and actions of many of the characters in this collection, I found myself empathizing with them and actually really liking them. Many of the stories in this collection look at issues of ethics and morals and, while the rightness or wrongness of a specific action is quite clear, the reader is often invited to make an evaluation about the narrator and what their own choices might be in a similar situation. In this way, the exploration of empathy is also central to this collection.

The stories in this collection touch on dark and difficult issues: sexual assault, parental abuse, human exploitation and medical experimentation, to name a few. While stories involving these types of issues could be very difficult to read, I found that the humorous narrative style and the focus on the human elements of the stories and characters made the stories lighter than I might have otherwise expected. This is not to say that these stories are light – they are complex and provocative in the way they address these issues.

This collection shows a deep interest in the working middle-class American who struggles to keep up appearances and strive for the American Dream that is always just slightly out of reach. We can all relate to this struggle, I think, to some extent. More than anything else in this collection, I found that Saunders crafted a non-judgmental space that does not dismiss the troubles of the “middle” people; those who, despite hard work, cannot attain all that they desire, but who also know they should feel lucky in their position of relative privilege. In Tenth of December, George Saunders highlights the importance of seeing from the perspectives of others, and, while still thinking about them critically, of looking at these positions generously. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and recommend it highly!

Stories: 10/10
Writing: 10/10