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.



12 thoughts on “WHERE’S THE BEEF?

  1. That is just what I was going to blog about! The shorter attention span of American youth! You beat me to it. Maybe I’ll do it another day. Sounds like a book I’d like.

  2. I am glad you liked it!  I really loved the book and the way the story unfolded so peacefully, even when the situations were tense.  She has a collection of short stories, “Unaccustomed Earth,” that is also wonderful.  A movie was made of “The Namesake” recently….not surprisingly, it doesn’t come close to the book.  Pass on the movie.  I just started something that was recommended by someone when you did the book rec post — “Those Who Save Us,” by Jenna Blum.  Great post!

  3. Well I like mysteries, the more mysterious the better.  Big problems, lots of manufactured scary stuff.  Tons of red, blue and green herrings along the way, and a huge conclusion that I never saw coming!    Now THAT’S a book!

  4. I read this book after I watched the trailer for the movie.  Her prose is a pleasure to read.  I enjoyed it so much that I never ended up watching the movie. 

  5. Hmmm, I have not yet read “The Namesake” – but I am wondering if this is why I did not like “The Corrections” when everyone else seemed to… nothing happened and the people were whiny!!   oh wait, that would be just like real life 🙂 

  6. @DrTiff - I have no idea what it depends upon, because I’ve liked books where the characters were unlikeable and did nothing, like Confederacy of Dunces and Everyman, to name a couple of them.  The Corrections was just bad and uninteresting and lacking a good theme.

  7. The Interpreter of Maladies by Lahiri is a great story collection too.  There’s one really terrific one in there about an Indian grad student who rents a room from an elderly woman — I like to go back to that once in a while.

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