The Confidence Artist

Photo: Peter Hapak

Among the Brownstone Brooklyn novelists made good, there’s one thing that sets Jhumpa Lahiri proudly apart. She is a succinct realist writer in an era of attention-getting maneuvers. Stylistically, she doesn’t have a hook: no genre bending, no comics-inflected supernaturalism, no world-historical ventriloquism, no 9/11 flip books. Just couples and families joining, coming apart, dealing with immigration, death, and estrangement. This is true of her debut short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (which won a Pulitzer in 2000); her novel, The Namesake (a best seller turned Mira Nair film); and her new book, Unaccustomed Earth—eight mature stories each stretching almost to novella length. Her heroes are Chekhov, Hardy, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. Surrounded by acolytes of Rushdie or DeLillo, she’s a traditionalist.

If there is a hook, it might pompously be called, in the language of the numerous liberal-arts syllabi that list her books, the Bengali-American Experience. But Lahiri is no Orientalist; most of her characters are middle-class strivers, like the academic parents—Rhode Island by way of London and Calcutta—who raised her. What may have made The Namesake so popular (more than 800,000 copies sold, per BookScan) was the frisson of unfamiliar culture meeting familiar story line—young man on identity quest.

“[Readers] can read their family stories into her family stories,” says Lahiri’s editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, who took her on in a two-book deal worth at least $1 million. “It’s emotionally based storytelling that unfolds in a many-layered way, but without tricks.” She even compares it, a bit breathlessly, to Tolstoy: “When you read a paragraph of Natasha putting on her shoes, you know exactly who she is. I feel that way about reading Jhumpa Lahiri.”

But Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon. Unaccustomed Earth is, once again, about upwardly mobile South Asians from New England, and so is the novel she’s working on. “ ‘Is that all you’ve got in there?’ I get asked the question all the time,” says Lahiri. “It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.”

What makes Lahiri’s corner of the world seem so important, to her and to us? Maybe, for all the polish, it’s the lack of ironic layering that tends to distance us from the tragedies chronicled in most “literary” fiction. Lahiri isn’t afraid to make people cry.

Desser admits to breaking down in the office while going over Unaccustomed Earth—sometimes on the third read. Lahiri writes often of illnesses, failing marriages, and just plain loneliness, but thanks to her economy and mastery of detail, it never quite crosses over into the sentimental. Nor does it rely on the melodramatic twists that are staples of more middlebrow writers like Sue Monk Kidd or Alice Sebold.

Everyone has their Kleenex moments. For some, it’s the passage in The Namesake where the protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, remembers walking with his now-dead father across Cape Cod at low tide. Desser cites a relatively lighthearted scene in “Hema and Kaushik,” the sad trio of linked stories that closes Unaccustomed Earth, in which two immigrant children buy doughnuts for the first time. “It’s the happy parts of Mozart that make me cry,” she explains. She also gets to see firsthand, in their meetings, how Lahiri’s own experiences keep feeding those moments. “The more life happens to someone like Jhumpa Lahiri, the more it goes into the work,” she says. “I look forward to that.”

Sitting in a starkly modern Italian restaurant in the far West Village, Lahiri, now 40, looks livelier and looser than she did when fame first barged into her life—when a call about the Pulitzer interrupted her cooking, or paparazzi staked out her Calcutta wedding to Guatemalan-Greek-American journalist Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. That steely-eyed stiffness in her first book-jacket photo has given way to a gentler, more relaxed wariness.

Lahiri still expresses an ambivalence about all her success that can’t be entirely written off as false modesty. Yet success has allowed her to work on long-shelved ideas (some of her new stories—as well as her coming novel—have been in the works for more than a decade). And it’s enabled her to write longer short stories, a form that happens to suit her perfectly. “I could keep them on the back burner, at a low simmer, for a longer time,” she says.

The new stories have an expansiveness that Interpreter’s snapshots lacked, but also a cohesion that The Namesake could have used. “I just feel like maybe there’s a little more meat on the bones,” she says. “I think that maybe, um, I’m a little less afraid to write about things.”

Lahiri on her wedding day.Photo: Nilayan Dutta/AP

And hold on: There is a historical “hook” in Unaccustomed Earth—a reference to the 2004 tsunami. It could be a great talking point, which is maybe why it makes Lahiri a little uncomfortable. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she says. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it. I will want to read [Lawrence Wright’s] The Looming Tower, because it will help me understand what happened on September 11. I mean, that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in this book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”

In contemporary novels, “realistic” often means autobiographical, but Lahiri’s work has tended to anticipate the milestones in her life. Mixed marriages, parenthood, ailing parents—she wrote about all of these before she had any firsthand knowledge of them. It’s partly what made her seem so precocious, though she wasn’t published until her thirties.

Within the past few years, though, she’s moved to Fort Greene and had two children. Her husband’s parents both died while she was writing this book, and a few months ago (after she’d finished it), her mother survived a heart attack. Suddenly, the inevitability of a parent’s mortality—a subject that pervades her books—made the leap from plot device to lived experience. In “Hema and Kaushik,” a man whose mother died young finds eventual solace with the daughter of an old family friend. It recalls a situation in The Namesake, but in a way that’s at once less arbitrary and more complex.

Lahiri has made some structural advances, too—mixes of perspectives, mostly. But if you’re looking for something radically new, look elsewhere. “I’m the least experimental writer,” she says. “The idea of trying things just for the sake of pushing the envelope, that’s never really interested me.” We’ve been conditioned to read such reluctance as insecurity, but maybe it arises from a confidence rare in writers: the conviction that the material that matters to her is the only hook she needs.

The Confidence Artist