I recently moved to a new apartment in DC proper, which means my commute in the morning is quite a bit longer than it was before. But I’m not complaining; in fact, I enjoy that time on the train because it gives me time to zone out, or people watch, or—provided I remember to shove a book in my bag—to read.
This week I started rereading Interpreter of Maladies, a short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was her first book. It won the Pulitzer prize. And it is gut-wrenching.
Three times in two days while I was trying to read the stories I had to close the book because my eyes were swimming with tears and I didn’t want to alarm the other passengers. It’s like all my greatest fears about life are crystallized, pinned like inky butterflies onto the pages of this book. All the stories are, in different ways, about all the little ways the things in life that once seemed magical become commonplace, the way the person you once found so alluring seems to fade before you like sun-bleached paint. They’re stories about the roads not taken, the dreams not realized, all the words left unsaid and the stains of regret you can’t scrub away. It’s the ugliness and the tedium of the everyday, laid out, bare as bones, plain as oatmeal.
And yet, there’s so much beauty in her writing, too. It makes me cry because of its harshness but also because of its hopefulness. Joy, she says, is still possible; hope is still present. Life happens not just in the big, sweeping moments, but also in the quiet spaces in between.
Ever since I started studying writing in college, it’s gotten harder for me to find fiction I truly enjoy. So much of it rings false, seems manufactured, like seeing a ventriloquist move his lips. Her prose, on the other hand, rings uncomfortably, heartbreakingly real. (This is especially true because we share a cultural background; so many tiny details, from the flat leather sandals one character wears to the image of another “leaning against the refrigerator, eating spiced cashews from a cupped fist,” strike me as clearly as chords on a piano.)
My favorite passage in the book, the one that sums up everything I love about this collection, is the closing lines of the last story, which tells of a man who moves from India to Boston and later is joined by his wife, who is a stranger to him. Thirty years later, still in Boston, he reflects on the paths and the choices that have brought him to where he is.
While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. 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.