Sunday, 10 August 2008

Page Turners: Interpreter of maladies

This month, we discussed Interpreter of maladies, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. The collection won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and is a series of 'slice-of-life' stories about Indians living in America and/or India.

I read five of them, prevented from reading all nine by time and other commitments. I found them an enjoyable and easy read, filled with interesting insights into Indian culture, as well as human character in general. However, on the downside, I found them all quite similar in tone if not subject matter, and my emotional engagement with the character was more or less non-existent.

We talked about the latter point quite a bit. One point raised was that perhaps the emotional distance was intentional, so that the reader might place his/her own interpretation on events as they unfold (in keeping with the title of the collection). Someone else postulated that the distance reflected Indian culture.

I am certain that the distance was intentional, but whether for these or another reason I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, it did influence my overall enjoyment of the stories. As a reader, I really like to get into the head of characters and feel a close emotional connection. But with these stories, that didn't happen at all. It may have been partly to do with the fact that characters were often referred to as Mr or Mrs . . ., even the viewpoint character. And even those few stories written in first person had the narrator act as an observer, without really engaging in the plot. In some cases, these viewpoint characters were children.

Another element we discussed was the style of ending featured in these stories. Coming from a SF background, I expect momentous revelation, unpredictable twists, but these stories seemed to just peter out with a whimper. In fact, in many there was no clear story goal or conflict etc. Certainly they carried you through in an engaging manner, but it's hard to say what was doing the pulling. And the endings did seem to fade away. At best they could be described as reflective, poignant. Why is this acceptable in a Pulitzer prize winning collection and not in a SF short story?

I believe we also discussed the Pulitzer prizeworthiness of the collection. I thought the writing itself, which some described as being 'simple', as being beautiful in its simplicity. Really elegant and transparent, an effortless read. Some attributed the emotional distance to the simplicity of the language, but I don't think it was that at all.

In general, people seemed to have read at least half the stories and have enjoyed them, and I think all agreed that it was good to have read and discussed a book of short stories as a change.

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