The Name Game

My copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake has sat on my desk for much of the past two weeks, waiting to be read in lunch breaks and lulls. Like anything left on a desk, this apparently means it’s an open invitation for co-workers to comment.

“Do you know there’s a movie of that?” one said on Monday.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.”

“I don’t want to see it, though,” she adds. “I hated that book.”

“Do you know there’s a movie of that?” another co-worker says the next day.

“So they tell me.”

“I should see it. I love that book. It’s one of my favorites!”

After taking in these two diametrically opposed comments on the same issue, I have to admit I’m puzzled. Did they read the same book that I did? The Namesake could probably inspire a number of feelings for different people, but virulent hatred or unconditional love probably aren’t two of them. Lahiri’s book is quiet and sad, an even more distilled version of the latent misery that penetrated her Interpreter of Maladies.

The conflicts in The Namesake aren’t terribly unique, or even very overwrought; they feel shocking and inevitable at the same time, like a series of tiny deaths. It’s probably the book’s greatest accomplishment: it so eloquently captures the resignation that comes with life’s tragedies that reading it sometimes begins to feel like an act of extended mourning.

The Namesake is about the small joys and tragedies of being an immigrant, the broadening that goes hand-in-hand with the loss, and the incontrovertible fact of the second generation’s rejection, and subsequent embrace, of what sets them apart.

Ever the blogger-journalist, I noted after the fact that both of the commentators on the book, positive and negative, were children of immigrants. (Pro: Nigerian; con: Chinese.) Perhaps their feelings on these subjects were so tense because they themselves had a stake in the argument. Every child finds themselves reaching certain moments of accord or dischord with their parents as they age, but with immigrant children, the difference is sometimes incredibly stark. I know some who respect their parents to the point of worship. I know others who think it would be great if they never saw their parents again. And opinions on this subject tend to change as people get older.

If Gogol Ganguli, Lahiri’s protagonist, had read The Namesake in the first half of his “life” (assuming that the book was about some other American-born Indian boy, and not a creepy Stranger Than Fiction-type situation), he probably would hate it. It’s about acceptance and resignation and all of the adult buzzwords that disgruntled youth swear will never enter their existence. It’s also about forgiveness, a notoriously poor skill among teenagers.

So perhaps the virulence of the reactions to The Namesake is as much about the reader’s own attitude, his or her own place on the acceptance continuum, as it is about anything objectionable in the book itself. If you can’t come to terms, why would you want to see someone else in your shoes do exactly that? And if you have come to terms, what could be better than a book that sanctifies your decision?


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