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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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