The best short story collection since Dubliners.

The best short story collection since Dubliners.

Interpreter of Maladies

  • Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Published:  1999
  • Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Pages:  198
  • First Line:  “The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.”
  • Last Lines:  “I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first.  Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.  As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize
  • Film Version:  none
  • First Read:  Summer 2000

Customers in bookstores aren’t often looking for short stories.  If they are, it’s often because they are college students with a specific list to read.  And so it can be hard to push for a great short story collection.  It can be harder still when you have read so much and have very high opinions of certain things.  So, for most customers, hearing my description of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories, I would get a blank look in response.  But my description of her stories really can’t, in my mind, convey any higher praises.  This is what I say about her book: “It’s the best short story collection since Dubliners.”

Now, for someone who’s been through so much graduate work in Literature, that is just about the highest praise you can give.  And it’s a loaded sentence as well.  Dubliners was published in 1914.  Since that time we’ve had Faulkner, Hemingway, Singer, Garcia Marquez and Munro.  And hell, those are just the Nobel winners.  There’s also Fitzgerald and Salinger and Welty and Cheever and O’Conner and Updike and Oates and the list goes on.  So what is it about this book, which doesn’t have one specific story that stands above all others, one to become an instant classic like “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” or “Barn Burning” or “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.

There are a few things about it.  This first is that these nine stories are all about the Indian-American experience, about those men and women who came from across the world to find themselves aliens in this hard land, yet somehow striving for happiness, striving for success, striving for something to pass down to future generations.  It is the immigrant experience as it has been happening for the past three centuries, but a more recent version, one in which the children are those same people I have grown up with, who speak one language at school and a different one at home.  And I have had nothing of that experience.  These were Indians and Indian-Americans, whom I knew almost none of (most Asian-Americans I knew were of Japanese or Taiwanese descent) and almost all Indian-Americans from a very specific part of India (Bengal) that I knew nothing about.  My family has been here for hundreds of years – I’m a fourth generation graduate of American universities on one side, on another I am the progeny of six generations of California.  And these stories were all taking place in and around Boston; I may live here now but in 2000 I hadn’t been here in eight years and hadn’t lived in the Northeast in 19 years with the exception of four short months in 1992.  And yet, I couldn’t stop reading these stories.  I wanted there to be more.  I wanted to keep reading about these lives that were so different from mine, even though the lives were sometimes filled with so much unhappiness that sometimes I didn’t want to read it at all.

The second thing about it, though, is really what makes it so remarkable.  These are great stories, no question.  There’s not a weak story among them and some of them, like the opening story “A Temporary Matter” or the title story, are magnificent in the scope of their sense of pain and loss and also happiness and wonderment.  But it’s not that these stories are great that makes the book as a whole so great.  It’s that the book really is a whole.  Many of the great short story collections are just that – collections.  Think of some of the award winning books, like The Collected Stories of William Faulkner (National Book Award) or The Collected Stories of John Cheever (Pulitzer).  They work like a greatest hits CD does – it takes all the best songs (although it usually misses a couple) and puts them together in one package.  But it doesn’t function as a complete work of art in the same way that an individual album does.  That can be seen with an author like Hemingway.  If you want to simply get all his stories in one place, then read 49 Stories.  But if you want to see them working together as a larger work of fiction then read In Our Time.  Though short-story collections are often grouped together by when they were written (as in fact this one is), still, that can mean a remarkable thing when stories work together like those in Salinger’s Nine Stories or in Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  It is that notion, of short stories working together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, that makes Dubliners the greatest short story collection ever published.  It is why “The Dead” may be the greatest short story ever written, but it is even more powerful when read as the conclusion of Dubliners.  They don’t come together to form a novel like Winesburg, Ohio or The Things They Carried because there aren’t characters who continue through the stories, but they work at a higher level than a simple collection of stories.

And that is what we see in Interpreter of Maladies.  We get stories that are very different – from the couple that finds that a planned power outage over the course of a few nights brings them even deeper into their marriage and then eventually out of it (“A Temporary Matter”) to the young woman desperate for some sense of herself having an affair with a married Bengali (“Sexy”) to a poor sweeper who finds herself an outcast yet again (“A Real Durwan”) to the first person tale of a young Bengali man finding himself in a new country even as that country finds its own sense of itself out in space (“The Third and Final Continent”).

One must be careful in writing about a short story collection.  Unlike a novel, in which the plot unfolds over hundreds of pages, to talk too much about any individual story can be to give away secrets that you should find out for yourself.  You may, like me, not be from an immigrant family.  You may, like I was, not be living in the American northeast.  Or you may, like me, be living here, and find yourself immersed in the locality of a place that has become a home later in life, much as it is for so many of these characters.  You may, like me, have never been to India.  You may, unlike me, have never been part of university life, not just as a student, but as a living, breathing whole that has accompanied me your entire life.  But hopefully, like me, you will read this book.  And you will find yourself reading it again and again and again.  Just think about how rare it is to have a debut collection of stories (she was 32 when it was published) win the Pulitzer.  And even as I write this, she was short-listed for the Booker and is short-listed for the National Book Award for her wonderful new novel The Lowland.  And since this debut she has also written a wonderful novel called The Namesake and a short-story collection that is nearly as good called Unaccustomed Earth.  And if you have never read any of these, then it is time to start.

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