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?

Getty
Show Hide image

In praise of Keanu Reeves, the nicest of meatheads

The Hollywood star has embraced a life without pretensions. 

The Rolling Stone journalist Chris Heath once asked Keanu Reeves a simple question: why do you act? The star of The Matrix, Speed, Point Break and My Own Private Idaho paused the conversation to consider the matter. And he paused it for a long time. “Forty-two seconds, he says nothing. Not a word, a grunt, a prevarication, or a hint that an answer might come,” wrote Heath. But then an answer did come: “Uh… the words that popped into my head were expression and, uh, it's fun.” When Heath later asked Reeves if he ever wanted to direct, he waited 72 seconds for: “No, not really.”

Both Coco Chanel and George Orwell observed that by 50, we have the face we deserve. The Beirut-born Reeves is now 52 (the same age as Nigel Farage, as tweeters and bored bloggers periodically point out), but he looks pretty much the same as he has always looked: solidly handsome and straightforward, yet somehow vulnerable, like a Boy Scout who wants to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t. Jan de Bont, the director of the 1994 film Speed, called him “an action hero for the Nineties”. By this, I think he meant that, unlike the muscle-bound shit-kickers of the previous decade, a Keanu hero wouldn’t go out of his way to kill for fun. Where Arnold Schwarzenegger could, in Total Recall, shoot the woman he had wrongly believed to be his wife and joke, “Consider this a divorce,” Keanu always seemed somewhat conflicted while taking care of business – as if his eyes were saying, “Sorry it had to be this way.” The Nineties were the age of hunky romantics: Jason Priestley as Brandon in Beverly Hills, 90210, Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. Keanu fit that mould. I suppose even guys with guns had to be sensitive.

And even dumb guys, too, with or without guns – for you don’t have to be able to think in order to feel. Reeves began his career describing himself as “a meathead”. “I can’t help it, man,” he said. “You’ve got smart people and you’ve got dumb people. I just happen to be dumb.” He specialised in playing benevolent meatheads, from Ted “Theodore” Logan in Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to the spaced-out teen Tod Higgins in Ron Howard’s Parenthood (both 1989). Then he traded meathead simplicity for that of the likeable (and, as ever, sensitive) action hero in films such as Speed (1994) and Chain Reaction (1996). The Matrix series followed, as did a few smaller, more indie-ish movies (Thumbsucker, A Scanner Darkly). But the 2014 action film John Wick, whose sequel is in cinemas now, was widely welcomed as a return to form.

Reeves largely plays the assassin of the title as a primitive cinematic archetype, but he can't help but gesture towards something more profound. Wick, in both films of the franchise, is motivated by grief over the death of his wife. (In 2001, Reeves’s girlfriend Jennifer Syme died in a motor accident, a year after losing their child; perhaps the role had a personal resonance for him.) He might stab people in the head with pencils, break necks and shoot guns into crowded rooms like Chow Yun Fat after three espressos, but he’s ultimately a man of feeling.

This narrative of a career of sensitive but slightly dumb simplicity isn’t quite fair on Reeves, however. For he has, on occasion, been capable of delivering complex performances that rank alongside those of his more conventionally actorly peers. In 1991, he held his own opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s road movie My Own Private Idaho; he has since appeared opposite Al Pacino as a wily defence attorney (The Devil’s Advocate) and Gene Hackman as a troubled sportsman (The Replacements). He has been directed by film festival favourites such as Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha) and Sam Raimi (The Gift) – if not always successfully.

And he started his career not with excellent dudes, but with Shakespeare. When Reeves was 14 and living in Toronto, he was cast as Mercutio in a local production of Romeo and Juliet. An agent who saw him signed him up and secured for him a string of television roles, which swiftly took him to Hollywood. Reeves’s embarrassingly stilted attempt to portray the evil Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) makes me fear the discovery of video footage of that version of Romeo. But the fact that Reeves’s life as an actor began in this way reminds me of his seriousness about his craft. He might not have much range but he has admirable ambition. Many years later, when the studios pressured him to sign on for a Speed sequel, he ran off to play Hamlet in Canada.

In 2011, the New Statesman’s film critic, Ryan Gilbey, observed in the Guardian that Reeves had “some claim to be the most enigmatic, as well as the most warmly adored” actor in Hollywood. That assessment was based in part on the “Sad Keanu” meme that had spread the previous year, in which a paparazzi photograph of Reeves morosely eating a sandwich on a bench led to countless expressions of sympathy online (more than 14,000 people joined a Facebook group called “Cheer Up Keanu”; 200,000 comments about the picture were left on Reddit) and to the declaration by fans of a “Cheer Up Keanu Day”, which apparently takes place every 15 June.

This weird adoration and the sense of enigma surrounding the actor are, I think, closely linked. We know relatively little about Reeves’s off-screen life, which he keeps well guarded, but what we do know suggests qualities that are, for one reason or another, vanishingly rare in entertainment gossip warm humanity and hidden depths. Hagiographic stories circulate of the actor donating millions of dollars to animal welfare charities and cancer research (his younger sister Kim was diagnosed with leukaemia); of Reeves offering stranded hitchhikers a ride; of a team of stuntmen being surprised with a gift of £6,000 Harley Davidson motorbikes, which he had quietly paid for.

“Money is the last thing I think about,” Hello magazine reported him saying in 2003. Not long earlier, he had reduced his pay by several million dollars so that the producers of The Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements could afford to hire Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, respectively. And, according to ABC News, he “handed over his valuable profit-sharing points” to the special effects and costume design team of the Matrix franchise, which he believed deserved the true credit for its success. (Some place the value of this donation at $50m.) By these accounts, Reeves is most definitely a righteous dude. He’s also a curious one. A few days after the Brexit vote, the New Statesman’s politics editor, George Eaton, was surprised to find him visiting Portcullis House as a guest of the Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi. It was “fittingly surreal”, George told me, and Reeves came across as “courteous” and “modest” when he posed for a group selfie with some of the journalists who happened to be there.

As Reeves’s star rose in the early 1990s, the American men’s magazine Details lamented: “Nearly all celebrities – nearly all people – like to talk about themselves [but] Keanu doesn’t.” I guess it’s frustrating for journalists that someone so clearly interesting should be reticent about telling us about himself.

But I don’t really have to know much about Keanu Reeves to like him, though I’ve never met the guy. And there are things that I can learn from him, too. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Alex Winter’s Bill S Preston, Esq., paraphrases Socrates: “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” To which Reeves’s Ted responds: “That’s us, dude.” That’s them – and every one of us with any sense, if we’re honest. We may think we’re smart and even persuade the people around us that we are. But in the end, most of us are meatheads. Reeves shows in his life and work that meatheads can live good lives, even in the face of disparagement and personal tragedy. Maybe Chanel and Orwell were on to something – he really does have the face he deserves.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.