Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dunk, Dunk, Goose

I just finished Jhumpa Lahiri's new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, and you should finish it, too. Not because every story gets you. Not because every story sneaks up behind you like a teenage bully at the neighborhood pool, presses down on your shoulders until you feel the world open up around you, flooding all the the strange, dark spaces inside you that account for breath. But because some of the stories do, and sometimes some is enough.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about what makes Jhumpa Lahiri's stories good. And though I do enjoy repeating myself and others, I've run five miles today and am tired, so I'll just say that, apart from the musculature, apart from the cruelty and the strength, the thing that elevates the best of the stories is the contrast between the shock of submersion and the inevitability that follows. Something is strange or new, exotic; then suddenly it's the standard, the truth, the blue all around.

"Going Ashore," the final story in the collection, is both tragically conventional and conventionally tragic. Yet, embedded in the slow descent of the piece is a description of a moment I remember vividly from my own life, of giving up something you want not because it is the right thing to do, or the smart thing to do, but simply because you can't seem to do anything else.

It is the kind of private turning, the kind of intimate quake, you never expect to see articulated outside of your body. In fact, until you see it there, splayed on the page, letters thrusting into blank, you could imagine that it happened differently, that it never happened at all.

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