The Lowland (2014), By Jhumpa Lahiri


I am relieved on the whole that (Mr.) Arthur Miller disdained my invitation. I have a feeling that it just might not have been a success mad. In the first place I am not an ardent admirer of Mr. Miller’s work on account of it lacking humor to an alarming degree.

–Noel Coward

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent and lauded novel, seems about the conflict between Old Worlds and the New World, here travels back and forth between India and America: key characters come from Over There to Over Here.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, John Updike’s Terrorist, Amy Tan’s The Joy-Luck Club and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are notable such novels of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Despite considerable differences among the four, each recreates much of the spirit of place of America and dramatizes how that experience comes to convert its heroes and heroines to new, engrossing quests to gain personal independence and to reach the prospect of finally creating a new self, beyond the constraints of the Old World. The pull of the past is strong and often painful but, except for Lolita, not decisive in the new, engrossing and intense cultural experience, the Land of the Free.

In The Lowland, the New World seems to have gone missing. It is as if writing about the night and the day, but limiting the day to a few glimpses. We see very little of America even though much of the action occurs in that destination. Lahiri’s America is a sort of bare, abstract stage. If the business of America is business, you wouldn’t know it. If America’s financial sector greatly affects the global economy, you wouldn’t know it. If America’s pop entertainment has a global reach, you wouldn’t know it. Christmas, baseball, economic ups and downs, cars, house styles, TV town hall meetings, appliances, wars, presidential elections and on and on–all missing in large. So you must ask:  Does the New World influence Lahiri’s people? Apparently, very little. Hence for me, The Lowland, beautifully written in not a few places, becomes finally unrealistic as an immigrant novel.

Here is an example: Lahiri has Gauri, one of her main characters, a young mother and de facto refugee from India, muse as follows when Gauri takes her first automobile ride in America:

She looked down at the flat gray (Massachusetts) road, with two ongoing stripes painted down the middle. This was the place where she could put things behind her. Where her child would be born, ignorant and safe.

The trouble is, we never learn much about this sheltering “place.” That is: what lies at end of the gray road?

With one exception: Lahiri’s wonderful account in Part II of the brief fling of Subhash, another young Indian immigrant, with a then single parent, Holly, in a beach community near his university. Lahiri’s cold-eyed omniscient narrating seems perfect for this episode. And here Subhash is alone and exploring in the New World. He is casting off and venturing on the open road. He is by himself in a new place. He is changing.

Unfortunately, much closer to Lahiri’s relentlessly restrictive pessimism is this rather heavy handed metaphor of a spiritual trap:

(One afternoon in India  Subhash and Bela) stopped under an enormous banyan. Her father explained that it was a tree that began life attached to another, sprouting from its crown. The mass of twisted strands, hanging down like ropes, were aerial roots surrounding the host. Over time they coalesced, forming additional trunks, encircling a hollow core if the host happened to die.

Not surprisingly humor is a fugitive in The Lowland. Putting the immigrant in a new world that immigrant has not explored is, among other things, a sure way to create some humor, no matter how serious things are: and, after all, life is funny, too. Hence Lolita is a sad book, but richly humorous: the highbrow, effete intellectual Humbert Humbert takes on the American Vanity Fair. It’s laughable in a powerful way. Most importantly, it makes the novel seem truthful.

Apropos: Two of Lahiri’s main characters, the young Subhash and his wife, the aforementioned Gauri, come to America from India in the 1970s, Subhash because he wants to become a scientist and work in oceanography and Gauri because she wants to escape India with its ancient constrictions on her search for herself; and because she has come to love Western philosophy and wants to become a philosophy professor. Joy, however, is absent. Guari’s story especially reads tensely. Bela, her biological daughter, is born in America and eventually ends up a sort of transient farm worker in a disappointing outcome that seems forced. Subhash’s brother, Udayan, biological father of Bela, had become a youthful communist and radical in India in his youth and is murdered by the police at his home in Calcutta, one outcome being that Subhash, brought down from his solo flight into the New World, comes back from America to become the husband of Gauri and father to her coming baby and bring them to America, a sacrifice altering everything. These and the rest of the units of the story are told morosely by Lahiri. Hence all tends to run together; looking back on the narrative, little stands out.

Lahiri suffers excessively from what once was called a “tragic sense of life.” For most of the novel, nothing goes much right for anyone. Lahiri writes beautifully in a pared down Naturalistic style–she is most of the time a pitiless omniscient observer of the losing struggles of her characters amidst the mysterious and unhappy doings of Fate–but the result is that her pessimism–the prevalence of “the lowland” (remember that in fiction landscapes are not only landscapes just as meals are not merely meals nor is rain just a seasonal event)–becomes almost dutifully insistent. After a while, you become numb to all the bad news.

And then you start to notice that some of the spoken rationale for the continuous appearance of bad things sounds like psychobabble:

(Reflecting on her mother, Gauri, who abandoned her, Bela thinks:) Were her mother ever to stand before her, even if Bela could choose any language on earth in which to speak, she would have nothing to say.

But no, that’s not true. She remains in constant communication with her. Everything in Bela’s life has been a reaction. I am who I am, she would say, I live as I do because of you.

“Constant communication”? “Everything in Bela’s life has been a reaction”?  C’mon. Give us a break.

Somebody needs to burp, loudly.