I deem The Namesake an average novel (and probably an average movie). There is just enough narrative to move the story along, but there is a decided lack of creativity in the presentation of the story. No passion. No linguistic flourishes. No tangents. It’s as if I was snowed in for three days and Lahiri were reciting a fireside story to pass the time.
This is a story of an Indian immigrant experience in the U.S. and the resulting tension in attempting hold onto what was left behind while trying to embrace your new home country. As such, it’s fine. How it won the Pulitzer I’ll never know—must have been a slow year. And why the reviewer for the New York Times called it “dazzling” befuddles me. Lewis Carroll dazzles; Lahiri merely flickers.
If I sound disappointed, it’s because I am. Lahiri, in titling the novel with such bravado and opening the story with a quote from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” tantalizes the reader with nods toward a torturous figure in the Russian canon. What, we ask ourselves, could this story of an Indian family in America have to do with high Russian literature? Nothing. What a letdown. Indeed, the reference to Gogol is nothing more than a cheap play on words to make the protagonist’s name pop from the pages.
Namesake: “one that has the same name as another; especially: one who is named after another or for whom another is named.” We are led to believe that after Gogol discovers the man after which he is named led an abbreviated tortured existence, and that Gogol wasn’t even the real name of the Russian author, that Lahiri’s protagonist wishes to change his name because he feels no connection to the Russian and does not want to live an anonymous life with a namesake that wasn’t even real. This is the crucial point of the novel: at this point Lahiri can take us deep into the psychology of a man yearning to discover his true self and place in this world. She could navigate his heady and tormented existential angst. Instead, any pretentions toward the Russian Gogol and the deeper meanings associated with being named after the quirky man are quickly abandoned and the reader is left to tread water in a run-of-the-mill family drama.
At the very least Lampiri has turned me on to Gogol!