The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: A strangely passive experience

Stripping back an already pared-down style to the point of blandness.

In 2004, the author Julie Myerson praised Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake, for “an appealing lack of stylisation” that “somehow conjures a bleak, arm’s-length mood, a sense of life spooling inevitably on”. There is plenty to think about here, not least the dictum that we should pass up on hautecuisine writing for the roughage of plain prose. (Freshly made brioche, anyone? No thanks, I’ll have the All-Bran.) But the crucial word is “somehow”. Somehow, stealthily, without the reader really noticing, Lahiri writes effective, affecting fiction.
 
Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), was a short-story collection that won her a Pulitzer Prize. It clearly delineated the boundaries of her fictional world: the Bengali- American immigrant experience; elemental things – birth, death, love, loneliness – viewed through the prism of family life. The Namesakeand her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth(2008), inhabit similar territory, as does The Lowland, which is shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
 
Comparisons to the Dominican-American Junot Díaz are apt, up to a point. Both writers are confident enough to repeat themselves, with small but crucial variations. As in Díaz, the “immigrant experience”, often singled out as a USP, is only a part of Lahiri’s picture, given neither more nor less than its due. At sentence level, however, Lahiri has none of Díaz’s flair. She belongs to the Alice Munro school of prose, writing that attracts adjectives such as “quiet” and “understated”.
 
In The Namesake, there was still room for vivid, memorable detail: Ashima telling the nurse that she doesn’t care what sex her baby is, “as long as there are ten finger and ten toe [sic]”. Realising the error “pains her almost as much as her last contraction”. There are very few of these local pleasures in The Lowland, which strips back an already pared-down style to the point of blandness. If The Namesakekept the reader at arm’s length, The Lowland is satellite prose, placidly panning from Calcutta in the 1950s to Rhode Island in the early part of this century.
 
The title refers to a water meadow in the Calcutta district of Tollygunge, where the brothers Subhash and Udayan grow up. They are close but very different. Studious Subhash wins a PhD scholarship to Rhode Island, researching chemistry and the environment, while Udayan’s studies are derailed when he gets caught up in India’s communist Naxalite movement. It seems important not to give too much more away, as this gentle story needs as much narrative drive as it can get.
 
Reading it is a strangely passive experience – it feels more like watching a film. In her sense of the natural world, Lahiri tries for a limpid lyricism: “. . . the white foam of the waves pouring over the rocks, the flag and the choppy blue water gleaming”. Sometimes we zoom in: “Seaweed was strewn everywhere, rockweed with air bladders like textured orange grapes, lonely scraps of sea lettuce, tangled nests of rusty kelp caught in the waves.” Not just seaweed, then, but classification, the taxonomy of seaweed. That wistful, comma-rich rhythm is there on every page, a short cut to fine writing that soon feels automatic. At times it results in ugly pile-ups: “He lives in his own world, relatives at large gatherings, unable to solicit a reaction from him, sometimes said.”
 
There is more to dislike. The dialogue is mostly reported and wooden. When characters do speak directly, Lahiri’s decision to go without speech marks maintains the numbing sense of distance. For example: 
 
“The day he broke his silence he said, My mother was right. You don’t deserve to be a parent. The privilege was wasted on you. She apologised, she told him it would never happen again.”
 
Similarly, major events are told in hindsight, as a character contemplates the effect that a trauma has had on his or her life. This also happens in Lahiri’s earlier work: in The Namesake, for example, we don’t see Gogol discovering his wife’s affair, we see him standing at a station thinking about the time he discovered his wife’s affair. In The Lowlandthis cutaway effect is used so often that most of the novel feels like backstory.
 
What else? A central theme – time passing, the impressions that form us, the impressions we leave – is expressed through the tired motif of footprints in the sand (or – here comes the clever inversion – in the cement). Too often, it is hard to care about the fate of the characters. Yet, despite all this, Myerson got it right when she described Lahiri’s talent as “sly” and “cumulative”. I felt like the victim of a confidence trick – and it is the confidence of Lahiri’s voice, her palpable belief in the urgency and beauty of her story, that lends her fiction its power. This is not great writing. But somehow, it works.
 
Claire Lowdon is assistant editor at Areté 
A train passes on its way from Tollygunge, Calcutta. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories