Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali are redrawing the literary map of the Subcontinent and the West.
Jhumpa Lahiri shares a profound experience with fellow writer Monica Ali, but it isn’t what you’d expect. Yes, the two thirtysomething women of Bengali ancestry have both written dazzling first novels whose characters are startlingly specific and real yet stand in for essential cultural conflicts. But then, their situations—and their novels—are completely different. Lahiri, like her main character, Gogol, in The Namesake, was raised by Hindu parents in a New England university town. Her protagonist’s seemingly complete assimilation belies a deep identity crisis. Ali, on the other hand, is half-English and was raised in northern England; her novel, Brick Lane, follows a Bangladeshi woman in the London projects who chafes at Muslim tradition.
What these two writers genuinely share, though, is instant fame—hailstorms of acclaim and popularity that preceded even their first novels. “I was more perplexed than anything,” Lahiri says of learning that her story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, had won the Pulitzer Prize. “How could I possibly deserve this honor at this point in my life? I didn’t think they even considered debut works. I subsequently found out that they do.”
Lahiri had the half-finished Namesake to keep her grounded. Ali’s Brick Lane was still six months from publication when, based on a manuscript excerpt, Granta anointed her one of its “Best Young British Novelists”—one of only twenty per decade. It’s since become the only book the English are talking about this summer, and comes Stateside this fall with high expectations.
Despite the breathless Zadie Smith comparisons, there’s nothing arch or mock-epic about their novels. “It’s a fairly old-fashioned narrative,” says Ali. “It doesn’t have any particular gimmicks. There’s no dog learning to talk or anything like that.” Arranged marriages and naming customs notwithstanding, Ali and Lahiri are writing about typically fissile nuclear families. “I wanted to remain at the level of individuals and not so much cultural, ethnic divides,” says Lahiri.
Yet the rise of subcontinental writers and their diasporic compatriots is real. “I’ve seen the accusation that this is just a fashion, like Bridget Jones,” says Ali. “but I think there’s something else going on here, which is that we’ve got good stories to tell.” Boris Kachka
With The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem tunnels further into Brooklyn.
Four years ago, Jonathan Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, which made him a mainstream literary star and Brooklyn’s unofficial poet laureate. Now comes The Fortress of Solitude, a sprawling exploration of, among other things, an interracial friendship, the gentrification of Boerum Hill, the birth of hip-hop and punk, and the ineffable feeling of guilt that seems to burden those from the definitive outer borough.
How autobiographical is The Fortress of Solitude?
There are lots of parallels. I grew up on Dean Street, and I went to public school. And my family arrived in 1968, so, yes, I was a witness to the very early, very homely gentrification of Boerum Hill, which prefigured the boom. In many cases, it was radical hippies and artists, these relative outcasts that broke the ground. It wasn’t as though some ghetto paradise was here and shattered by gentrification.
Do you share the protagonist’s anxiety about gentrification?
It’s bittersweet for me. As fashionable as it’s become, Smith Street is very much still the street I walked along to junior high school. If I hadn’t grown up here, I’d be living in this neighborhood. I’d be drawn to it. It’s filled with people like me—I just happened to be from it.
What are the similarities between Motherless Brooklyn and this book?
My books are all structured around some giant, gaping loss. That has to do with my mother dying when I was 14. But as a Brooklynite who grew up here in the seventies, living in a kind of collapsed universe founded on loss seemed pretty central to everyone’s experience. There’s the classic legacy of the Lost City, this sense of this disenfranchisement—Brooklyn was a great city of its own, and has this permanently injured sense that it was yanked away in a rigged election when it joined the greater city. David Amsden
Details: The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, September (Doubleday), order on bn.com.
TV legend Steven Bochco’s novel wouldn’t get past the censors.
Steven Bochco isn’t exactly your typical debut novelist. As co-creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, he’s spun many scandalous tales. Now he’s funneled his talents into Death by Hollywood, the story of a screenwriter (you guessed it) who witnesses a murder and decides to turn it into a movie.
What’s the biggest difference between writing TV scripts and writing a novel?
TV is such a collaborative adventure—you’re working in a chorus. Writing a novel is a completely singular effort. It’s just you, alone.
The book is bristling with the kind of language and sexual content that would cause the FCC to have a seizure. That must’ve been fun.
Absolutely. I think of it as my X-rated morality tale.
The book is peppered with cameos by real Hollywood players like Mike Ovitz, Tom Hanks, and Brian Grazer—not all of them flattering. Have any of them read the book?
Yeah, Brian’s a great friend. And he got a big kick out of it.
You sure he was being honest? After all, the book is filled with liars. Is there anyone in Hollywood who’s managed to be successful without lying through their teeth?
And why should I believe you?
Ha! I swear, personally I’ve never had to lie. And so, you know, there’s a big grin on my face right now. David Amsden
Details: Death by Hollywood, Steven Bocho, September (Random House), order on bn.com.
Best of the Rest of September
Train, Pete Dexter
A gritty L.A. noir novel from the former boxer, Philadelphia Daily News columnist, and National Book Award winner. (Doubleday.)
Where I Was From, Joan Didion
The owl-glassed author tackles her ancestors and the culture of California (note the past tense in the title). (Knopf.)
The Fifth Book Of Peace, Maxine Hong Kingston
A memoir of the acclaimed novelist’s efforts to re-create the book she lost in a devastating fire. (Knopf.)
Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960–1987, Bobbito Garcia
A glossy, gorgeous bible for sneakerphiles. (Powerhouse.)
Blood Canticle, Anne Rice
Red in tooth and claw, again. (Knopf.)
Taking On The Yankees: Winning And Losing In The Business Of Baseball, Henry D. Fetter
An economic history of New York’s winningest team and its biggest rivals. (Knopf.)
Mailman, J. Robert Lennon
A new novel takes readers inside the mind of a postal worker. It’s interesting, really. (Knopf.)