Thursday, January 20, 2005

4. Interpreter of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri

I used to be really hesitant about books that were collections of short stories. I used to be really hesitant about short stories in general because I found that they often lacked in structure, tended toward “inventive” writing styles, and usually felt unfinished. Thankfully, I’ve gotten away from that prejudice by actually reading some short stories – things like Granta and McSweeney’s – and though I maintain that my previous judgment still holds true in many cases, I’ll allow that it is not the overwhelming hindrance I once thought it was. And, thankfully, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies helps prove that misconception wrong.

What I like most about Interpreter of Maladies is that each story feels complete. There’s a beginning, middle, and end for each one and, in a short space, Lahiri manages to give her characters enough definition to carry the stories she creates for them. There’s a real sense of history, emotion, and motivation behind those names, something you can rightfully expect from a novel, but something that can get left by the wayside in only fifteen or twenty pages. There wasn’t one of the book’s nine stories that didn’t feel whole or, alternately, felt longer than necessary. Short stories are, by definition, not an opportunity to churn out what was really just a wayward, half-novel and Lahiri minds the limitations she puts on herself by writing in this form. More importantly, she doesn’t use odd tenses or a halting exposition or graphic sex scenes to generate interest in her writing; she simply writes well. That, more than anything, makes for a worthwhile read.

That readability wasn’t something I was expecting, either. I’m used to picking up award-winning works and, a few chapters in, wondering what it is I’m missing. I may not be the most intelligent reader out there, but how The Shipping News won a Pulitzer, like Interpreter, is beyond me. (I only finished it because I took it on a plane and it was the only thing I had to read. But seriously, can you explain to me why it won a prize?) The stories in this book may be inspired by the author’s Indian background, but they’re not so specific as to alienate any of her readers. They’re about the difficulties of marriage, the listlessness of unfulfilled lives, and the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities. While those may seem like frequently visited topics, Lahiri’s writing style keeps them from being mundane. So, not only is the book highly lauded as well as rather popular amongst the reading masses, it’s actually quite enjoyable. Imagine that.

Stars: Four

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