The children of 1965: allegory, postmodernism, and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake

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Author: Min Hyoung Song
Date: Fall 2007
From: Twentieth Century Literature(Vol. 53, Issue 3)
Publisher: Duke University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,776 words

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Jhumpa Lahiri was already a celebrated author when her first novel appeared in print. Her short story "Interpreter of Maladies" was selected for the O. Henry Prize and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. Her book of collected stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in literature. And in the following year, The New Yorker named her one of the 20 most important young American writers of the new century. It is not surprising, therefore, that The Namesake attracted widespread press coverage. Reviewers foregrounded the novel's mastery of form, focused on specific moments in the text when the author's skills were clearly in evidence, and compared her favorably to other contemporary authors who seemed, in contrast, overly self-indulgent (Kakutani, Kipen, Metcalf, Caldwell). If reviewers were in agreement about Lahiri's abilities as a writer, however, their enthusiasm about the originality of her storytelling was more muted. David Kipen observed:

Theme-wise, The Namesake marks no special advance over Interpreter of Maladies. It's a novel about an immigrant family's imperfect assimilation into America.... A certain sameness begins to creep in midway through the book--explicable, if not completely excusable, as its picaresque hero's compulsion to trace the same neurotic patterns over and over.

In many ways, the ordinary nature of The Namesake's narrative distances it from other ethnic novels, which tend, as Mark McGurl has recently argued, to combine "the routine operations of modernist autopoetics with a rhetorical performance of cultural group membership preeminently, though by no means exclusively, marked as ethnic" (117). By "autopoetics," McGurl refers to the reflexivity found in the experimentation of highly esteemed contemporary fiction; this reflexivity is not so much a radical break from modernism as it is the "continuing interest of literary forms as objects of a certain kind of professional research" (111). The combination, then, of an intense focus on form with a preoccupation with ethnicity leads to a "high cultural pluralism" (117)--a phrase that describes an impressive array of authors from Jews like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow to Native Americans like N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich; Asian Americans like Maxine Hong Kingston and Chang-rae Lee; Chicanas like Sandra Cisneros; and African Americans like Ralph Ellison, Ishmael Reed, and Toni Morrison. More impressive still, authors who don't have the same claim to the ethnic as these do nevertheless organize their work as if they were writing ethnic novels, minoritizing the lower middle class (Raymond Carver), Vietnam War veterans (Tim O'Brien), Southern culture (Flannery O'Conner), and even white techno-nerds (Neal Stephenson). Far from thinking of postmodern fiction and the ethnic novel as dividing the "postwar literary field" (120), a focus on high cultural pluralism suggests that the postmodern is intimately related to what the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously denounced as a "cult of ethnicity" (41). (1) If so, what are we to make of a novel like The Namesake, which clearly combines an intense awareness of its own form (which reviewers quickly picked up in their celebration of the author's...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A176375407