Monday, May 01, 2006

Let me tell you something

"Once in a Lifetime," by Jhumpa Lahiri, is this week's fiction at The New Yorker. Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies is one of my favorite short story collections, and I was excited to see her name this morning. This story, however, fails to engage me in the way her other work has. Maybe it needs another reading. Maybe I need more coffee.

This story is interesting, however, because the point of view is something I'm going to label "first-person addressive," in which the first-person narrator speaks directly to "you," although "you" is not the reader but another character. The story begins:
I had seen you before, too many times to count, but a farewell that my family threw for yours, at our house in Inman Square, is when I begin to recall your presence in my life. Your parents had decided to leave Cambridge, not for Atlanta or Arizona, as some other Bengalis had, but to move all the way back to India, abandoning the struggle that my parents and their friends had embarked upon. It was 1974. I was six years old. You were nine.
The feel of the story is similar to that of an epistolary (a story told in letters), a story form almost never seen in modern realistic fiction, probably because of the demise of formal correspondence.

The effect in this story is also faintly accusatory, however; reading it, I feel backed into a corner, as though charges are being read against me to which I cannot respond. I think that has a lot to do with why I can't connect with the narrative; but also, and at least as important, the story simply lacks profluence. The narrator recounts a period in her childhood in which another family stayed with her family while they were looking for a home. The "you" of the story is the son of the visiting family.

But nothing progresses. The families predictably grate against one another, but the stakes of the conflict are low. We are simply waiting for the visiting family to find its own home. The narrator has a crush on the boy to whom the story is addressed, but there's an age gap that snuffs any real sexual tension before it can develop. So the story plods along until near the end, when Lahiri reveals a hidden bit of information that does, in fact, raise the stakes... but only if the reader is still awake to enjoy it.