The unbearable discomfort of being

In Lahiri’s collection of methodically detailed stories, not even the salamanders feel quite in place on this planet.

It might be that the best way to capture “American-ness” is to be a step away from the vortex. Our addictions to Dunkin’ Donuts, MapQuest and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (like Zoloft) take on new roles in the context of the many Bengali families that comprise Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, “Unaccustomed Earth.” She portrays the practical, penny-pinching attitude of the older generation and the lifestyle of their Jimi Hendrix-devoted children, subdividing their dissonance into six microtraumas happening across the country.

“Unaccustomed Earth”

AUTHOR: Jhumpa Lahiri
PUBLISHER: Random House
PAGES: 333
PRICE: $25

In “Hema and Kaushik,” Hema, whose main memory of her homeland is the salamanders that crawl the walls at night, grows apart from her mother as old family friends move into their cramped house. In a smoothly executed second-person voice, she talks to the future version of the boy who has taken over her bedroom.

The story then switches perspectives, picking up in the future, when Kaushik wakes up next to a girl in his college dorm. These switches never cause a jolt, feeling more like a cut in a movie to a new corner of the narrative. The prose is first-person but never stream of thought, emotional confessions as precise and descriptive as the prose. After his father tells him that he is re-married, Kaushik reveals, “no turbulent emotion passed through me as he spoke, only a diluted version of the nauseating sensation that had taken hold the day in Bombay that I learned my mother was dying, a sensation that had dropped anchor in me and never fully left.”

Lahiri delivers the small saga in glimpses – the piles of apple cores Hema sees Kaushik leave behind, disapproving whispers about Johnny Walker habits – that are detailed with such digital accuracy they no longer feel like fiction.

Lahiri prefers to hash out the logistics of a character’s every ritual rather than give analysis or explanation. Characters become what they eat and how they sleep, the ways they paint their bedrooms and their tired complaints at the end of the day. Somehow, this makes the tension between them more immediate and tangible. Hema’s mother makes dish after dish while her houseguest dips in to peel a potato now and again – the one time she makes an English Trifle, a ceremonious occasion.

The discomfort is most intricately whittled out when Lahiri depicts what must be her specialty: bitter couples. In “A Choice of Accommodations,” long-married couple Amit and Meghan attend a wedding of one of Amit’s old prep-school friends. The reception becomes the setting for Lahiri’s discovery of their subconscious resentment, which flows out in messy chats between cake and dancing. Before the wedding, Meghan’s skirt is burnt, a detail that seems disproportionately important until Amit wonders if she is actually using it as an out – as a way to avoid this experience that will acquaint her with his life before she was a part of it.

Infidelity remains below the workings of the story “Nobody’s Business,” as it is told by Paul, a college student who is quietly enamored with his housemate, Sang. Lahiri often hides characters’ emotions in the images that they revisit. As Paul watches Sang’s relationship unravel, he obsesses over the days when Sang played Billie Holiday and stacked the shelves

with Tabouli.

There is a distinct lack of humor throughout “Unaccustomed Earth.” The only possibly intentional humor is when a 2-year-old boy looks at a picture of his dead grandmother and exclaims, “She died!” as if it were an exciting fact. Pretty morbid. Even the most philosophical flourishes in “Unaccustomed Earth” are stunning in their frank pessimism. “Wasn’t it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one’s life with Ö that solitude is what one relished most, the only thing that, even in fleeting, diminished doses, kept one sane?” Amit questions.

Working psychological complexity into a climate of powdered donuts and magazines, Lahiri’s talent for subtlety somehow digs up a few revelations about our SSRI-fueled U.S. of A.