You can always tell when you’re watching a foreign film, or reading a foreign novel, because it doesn’t conform to American storytelling conventions. You know how it works, right? The set up includes a Big Problem, and through the past few decades the Problems in American stories have gotten Bigger and Bigger. We’ve also lost our patience for introductions…no easing into the narrative for us. How-to-write classes all advise budding storytellers to plunge the reader right in the middle of the Big Problem from the first sentence.
Once we know what the Problem is, the main character must go about solving it. His or her path will be strewn with obstacles—not little bump-in-the-road obstacles, but huge razor-wired-fence obstacles. Some of them will lead to dead ends. Some will even set the protagonist back. And we will suffer through all of it with our hero.
Eventually, we reach the climax. All of the sub-plots move inexorably along their convergent paths until they collide in a dramatic confluence of events! The Problem is solved, the hero victorious!
Unless it’s not an American story, in which case we will gradually be introduced to our characters, sometimes by meeting their parents or grandparents first. We will follow them through some events—major milestones and daily trivia alike—and meander through the period of time covered by the story. Eventually, the story will end, with the characters perhaps a little older, maybe a bit wiser. There are few epiphanies and even fewer car crashes.
So it goes in The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, even though the author was raised in the U.S. (Thanks to turningreen for recommending it.) A boy, the son of Bengali immigrants, is named Gogol, after a Russian author his father favors. We follow Gogol’s progress from infancy through young adulthood. He has few problems, but he does hate his name. Stuff happens, both major milestones and daily trivia, and then the story ends.
I enjoyed the book and appreciated the lack of manufactured suspense. Are Americans so attention-challenged that a book can only hold our interest if every chapter ends with a mini-cliffhanger? Isn’t a simple human experience enough once in a while?
Another telltale sign—the book is written in third person present tense. Americans never write that way, except for Lahiri, apparently. I found it disconcerting, initially, but it gives the story a sense of place—being the fly on the wall—that you lose with past tense.
Much like The Namesake, this blog entry lacks any conflict, suspense, or climactic conclusion. It just ends.