Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

As a young boy Gogol doesn't mind his name.  He recognizes pieces of himself in road signs: GO LEFT, GO RIGHT, GO SLOW.  For birthdays his mother orders a cake on which his name is piped across the white frosted surface in a bright blue sugary script.  It all seems perfectly normal.  It doesn't bother him that his name is never an option on key chains or metal pins or refrigerator magnets.  He has been told that he was named after a famous Russian author, born in a previous century.  That the author's name, and therefore his, is known throughout the world and will live forever.

I remembered a couple days before school started, thankfully, that my upcoming seniors had been assigned Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake as summer reading.  And though I sped through it, it's clear to me that they're likely to identify with the book, which is about a first-generation Bengali Indian, Gogol, and his experience navigating the dual cultures in which he lives.  Like my students, who often choose substitute Anglicized names to replace or subsume their Indian ones, Gogol's identity crisis centers around his name.  Gogol's father names him after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol--whose work he once used to flag down aid after a cataclysmic train wreck--but to Gogol it becomes a mark of otherness, alienness, and he changes it to "Nikhil."

How do these names help us traverse the cultural map in which we live, asks The Namesake.  What is the cultural inheritance of Gogol vs. Nikhil?  How about that of "Nick," as he's so often called?  These are rich, powerful questions that open up more questions of culture and identity, but The Namesake never really treats them anything more than superficially.  Here's a paragraph:

Plenty of people changed their names: actors, writers, revolutionaries, transvestites.  In history  class, Gogol has learned that European immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island, that slaves renamed themselves once they were emancipated.  Though Gogol doesn't know it, even Nikolai Gogol renamed himself, simplifying his surname at the age of twenty-two from Gogol-Yanovsky to Gogol upon publication in the Literary Gazette.  (He had also published under the name Yanov, and once signed his work "OOOO" in honor of the four o's in his full name.)


This starts out well, collapsing the universe of those who have changed their names, suggesting a commonality between "revolutionaries" and "transvestites" that captures the ambivalence of Gogol's wish to change his name.  But all this business about Gogol the author strikes a really discordant note for me, for several reasons: First, it shows how reluctant Lahiri is to really enter into Gogol's consciousness and contemplate his anguish and confusion.  It's a rough jolt from what presents itself as Gogol's mental process of justification ("Plenty of people changed their names...") to the meddling presence of the author.

Secondly, as reluctant to explore the consciousness of Gogol Ganguli as Lahiri is, she's just as reluctant to explore the consciousness of Nikolai Gogol.  This passage serves as an interesting companion to an earlier passage in which Gogol is embarrassed by his high school English teacher's rundown of the salacious details of Nikolai Gogol's life, but these biographical details stubbornly refuse to deal with the author's work in any way.  Gogol Ganguli's father, who professes to love Russian literature, repeats Dostoyevsky's old canard that "We all came out of Gogol's Overcoat," but never deigns to explain what that actually means.  Gogol's works have powerful overtones of alienation that would be powerful counterpoints to the narrative of The Namesake, but Lahiri only wants to use him as a biographical parallel or a cultural signifier, as informative as the brand of cigarette Gogol smokes or the name of the department store where his girlfriend shops.

It seems unfair to tear apart an isolated passage like that, but I think it's indicative of the problems I have with The Namesake as a whole: it substitutes surface qualities for psychological depth.  I criticized The Time Traveler's Wife for something similar: a hyper-specific realism that's choked with details about food, clothing, music, architecture, etc., mostly in the service of establishing a pleasingly upper-class atmosphere.  The Namesake does the same thing--especially in the long section in which Gogol/Nikhil dates a wealthy woman who lives with her parents in Chelsea--but to a lesser degree.  Mostly, I think Lahiri simply mistakes a profusion of detail for the vibrantness of reality.  Is this the direction where fiction is headed?  A fiction of objects?

More intriguing, for me, are the lives of Gogol's parents, Ashoke and Ashima, who move to the United States from India.  Their struggle with effective exile is infinitely more interesting than Gogol's fretting over hi name, which can be kind of whiny, or the petty problems of his bourgeois life.  Late in the book, Ashima says of her divorced son and his Bengali ex-wife, "They were not willing to accept, to adjust, to settle for something less than their ideal of happiness.  That pressure has given way, in the case of the subsequent generation, to American common sense."  Does that not make it clear that it's Ashima whose need to navigate the pressures of culture and identity is more pressing, more vital, more difficult?  I'd rather have read that book.

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