Friday, December 5, 2008

On the days that I ride the bus into the city I've been reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Each short story is a carefully crafted set piece.  The characters, in Calcutta or Boston or London, circulate past one another, never quite in contact.  The author only hints that the cool, enameled exteriors of people serve to contain magmatic emotions -- a vulcanism of feeling kept in check by every artifice of politeness, habit and culture.  The stories describe a tension between, on the one hand, the fight against and resentment against the isolation caused by silence, indirection and artifice, and on the other hand, the desperate reliance upon this artifice and self control in order to make life livable and save oneself from emotional destruction or dissolution.

On my way home from Pennsylvania I stopped at a restaurant in Port Jervis on the Delaware river.  It was an old-fashioned little place with uneven low ceilings that kept the sound in and made everyone an eavesdropper.  I stared out the window into the drizzle.  The 50-ish woman at the next table was eating with a burly and bearish older man, maybe her husband.  Faded traces of a Germanic accent thickened his speech.  As she fumbled distractedly in her purse to find payment she complained about having three checkbooks and the burdens of other people's finances.  The old German didn't voice the sympathy she wanted and instead asked her why "Sue" couldn't look after her own money.  The woman said with irritated defensiveness that right now she just couldn't deal with it all, and added wearily that anyhow she was never any good with money.  As they debated back and forth I stared into the rain at the brightly placarded army surplus shop across the road and tried to imagine the dramas and comedies that had brought three checkbooks into her purse -- and this blunt, grizzled German to her table.

At the other table sat another woman in her late fifties, with a heavy, pouchy face and rough, yellowish hair.  Her companion was an elderly man with reddened, watery eyes.  I wasn't paying attention to them until she said to him with utter contempt and viciousness, "My god, you think I've never heard that story before?  Every single time you tell me that."  And I had to replay in my mind moments of conversation that I had only half heard.  She had expressed surprise that the mannequin across the street was out in the rain, that she thought they would have brought it in.  (It was an infantryman in camouflage fatigues crouching in front of the knife shop.)  He had said pleasantly, "My son-in-law went to buy a knife there . . . " when she had cut him off so acidly.   I felt a jab in my chest for the old man -- whose stock of stories had gone stale and whose life was now so circumscribed by age that he was not likely to add much to it.  Certainly nothing to interest the embittered woman who shared his meal.  But like the characters in Lahiri's tales the man and I both remained silent and said nothing at all.