2000 – Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies


Born in London of Indian parents, raised in Rhode Island, now living in New York, the Barnard graduate (English lit) collects nine short stories on Indian life in America, Europe and Asia. Lahiri is hard on her women, many of whom seem to be at odds with themselves – sad, bitter, depressed, unfulfilled. Winnowing through the book are notions of how we learn about culture (our own and others), how we form community (or fail to), and how we either put aside our prejudices or give in to them. Some of these stories could easily be recast with non-Indian characters – like “A Temporary Matter,” a tale of a crumbling academic marriage that hobbles along to a beautiful denouement. Other pieces are just right: In “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” set in 1971, a 10-year-old girl learns about her homeland from unsettling TV news accounts of the 12-day war between India and Pakistan; and in the poignant “The Third and Final Continent,” the only story that explores a sound marriage, Lahiri ends her collection on an uncharacteristically sanguine note.

The thoroughly unsatisfying title story takes place in India, where two young married Americans of Indian heritage vacation with their three small children and go on a day trip into the countryside with Mr. Kapasi, a middle-aged tour guide who also works for a doctor, translating patients’ symptoms from Gujarati into Bengali. Raj and Mina Das are typically ugly Americans, but they’re ugly Indians as well, ignorant of their ancestry and patronizing toward it. Still, the forlorn Mr. Kapasi, who has never seen his wife naked, becomes smitten with the brash and pouty Mina – until she confesses a past sin which, as a narrative device, is both hollow and contrived. Lahiri’s tales, rarely dull and solidly written in a range of voices but not styles, are at times moving but perhaps more often merely well-constructed, with myriad cultural details that often feel overly mannered or pedantic, and with a few climactic ironies too precious even for a short story.

2001 – Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay


The gentleman of the title is the comfortable young Josef Kavalier, whose family sells everything they own so Josef can escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to America in 1939 at age 19. He’s a charming lad with “wide-set blue eyes half a candle too animated by sarcasm to pass for dreamy.” His cousin is Sam Clay (née Klayman), who’s seen little more than his lower-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Rumpled as a kid, “always looking as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money,” he builds up his torso, which still sits on polio-spindly legs. The two cousins become instant friends and, in time, American icons: Their hugely popularcomic-book hero, The Escapist – Sam writes, Joe draws – frees people held in bondage, and as the Nazi menace flourishes, so does the imagery in Joe’s drawings, which become an outlet for his rage – and for his anxiety about his family back in Europe. They create this heroic character only when they realize that art comes not from the “how” or “what” of a story but from the “why,” and they remind us that artists patch together their made-up stories from furtive swatches of their own melancholy lives.

Chabon writes lucid prose in Kavalier & Clay, although his historic ambiance – sprinkled with appearances by real-life people, like Al Smith, Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles – often seems to be acquired more from literature and movies than from a writer’s learnéd imagination. (E.L. Doctorow’s novels, or Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, better evoke the early to mid-20th Century.) Fortunately, the emotions and ironies of Chabon’s novel feel truer than his settings: Joe Kavalier is at once puckish and mournful as he tries to raise the level of comic-book artistry and save the world from Hitler with his vivid drawings and fanciful stories. The cousins’ lives get swept up in stories of anti-Semitism, World War II and sexual identity (Sammy ultimately turns away from his own homosexuality), complete with some exciting moments from history told as the cousins experienced them. Paced by the author’s wry humor and breezy narrative style, and yet imbued with a sense of fate and gloom, it has the slightly
tongue-in-cheek air of a true history, with occasional footnotes and flashes forwards to remind us that it all really happened (which it did not). Familiar and entertaining, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems almost to have been written to win a Pulitzer Prize: It’s about immigrant dreamers, American dreams, life’s tragedies and the role of literature and imagination in American culture – an impressive feat, but perhaps ultimately only slightly weightier than the genre of its clever protagonists.

2002 – Richard Russo, Empire Falls


Can a gift for gab sustain a novel for almost 500 pages, especially when that novel should probably have been a TV mini-series to begin with? In Empire Falls, Richard Russo ostensibly tells a story of a near-dead Maine town that once thrived on the factories of the Whiting family, a lineage of bitter, depressive, misogynist men – their inner lives seem to consist primarily of wanting to kill their wives – who were in business for three generations, until they sold out to a big corporation, which exploited the factories for a few years and then closed them. When we meet the novel’s hero, Miles Roby, his hometown is fast becoming a ghost town. Miles was born working class and dropped out of college his senior year to operate the local diner, which (like almost everything else in town) was by then owned by Francine Whiting, the widow of C.B. Whiting, the last Whiting man to run the business. Miles has a special relationship with old Mrs. Whiting, who only treats him half as badly as she treats the rest of the town’s citizens, who are all, in one way or another, her puppets. But Mrs. Whiting herself came from humble (i.e. low-class) beginnings: She met C.B., her flush future husband, when he semi-swindled her backwoods family on a land deal.

Anyway, that’s the setup for a story that seems to go on and on, slowly revealing its secrets, which are really no surprise at all, and building to not much of a payoff. Along the way, Russo provides lots of chatter but not much of a literary challenge: You don’t have to pay close attention to anything because his omniscient narration will tell you all you need to know about his characters and what they stand for. Here and there you get a touch of what’s apparently supposed to pass for Down East idiosyncrasy, but mostly Russo’s creations are plodding figures in a plotty, talky, superficial story of melancholy-cum-bittersweet Americana. Russo writes well until he writes badly (C.B. Whiting “resented his wife for her low opinion of himself”), and all along you sense he envisions his rather trite and old-fashioned book more as a movie. When Miles’ mother, Grace, says goodbye to her clandestine lover, we get this:

“Charlie,” said Grace. The ramp was being pulled away now.

They faced each other: “Grace.”

“I know,” Grace said. “I know. Go.”

All that’s missing in this treacly exchange is the swell of music. And while it’s not entirely typical of Russo’s prose, it’s still emblematic of the book. Russo tells most of Empire Falls in the “present.” But he interjects six long flashback chapters, in italicized type, that slowly bring us forward to the novel’s main time frame, which deals with the life of the middle-aged, divorced Miles Roby. Perhaps Russo should have published these flashbacks as a novella and saved us all some time. Instead, he drags on his hackneyed tale of class distinction, emotional decay and economic ruin, which does little to explore any puissant reality of 20th Century industrial exploitation, and which seems to conclude that love is the answer – a solution that only puts food on the table of the woman who’s lucky enough to fall in love with a billionaire.

2003 – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex


Although the story of an intersexed person – the classical term is “hermaphrodite” – would seem an odd choice for a Pulitzer, Middlesex is surprisingly conventional and familiar. On the one hand, like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &Clay, it’s another story of eccentric immigrant life in America: call it “My Big Fat Incestuous Genetically Mutated Greek Family.” And on the other hand (just two), it’s a vaguely post-modern stroll through issues of identity and cultural history, with the ne plus ultra of omniscient narrators. Although supposedly writing a memoir, Cal Stephanides even knows the sexual positions of his paternal grandparents – who were brother and sister, but also third cousins, so it was okay to marry – on the night they conceived his father.

The epicine hero(ine) of Eugenides’ book discovers, at age 14, that she’s really a he. The adult Cal – née Calliope in 1960 – looks every inch a man when he dresses that way, and he has the XY chromosomes to prove it. But when he was born, nobody noticed his vestigial penis and undescended testicles, the product of a familial genetic flaw, so everyone thought he was a girl. (Cal had “a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.”) Now, at 40, he’s famous in medical circles and living in Germany (a la Hedwig), resigned to his biological fate, and lonely for love. His grandfather, who came to America with his bride after World War I, did well in the speakeasy business, and his grandmother raised silkworms for Fard Mohammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam – who, it turns out, was Cal’s prodigal great-grandfather, who gets run out of Detroit on a rail. It’s a bizarre twist, but is it one that allows Eugenides to further suggest the American melting pot, or does it merely co-opt African-American history to satisfy an author’s taste for narrative quirks?

Middlesex is deftly written and enjoyable in every way a book can be. For a long while it barely gets going, and when it does, it’s usually six inches forward and five inches back. Eugenides uses Cal’s condition to tease you along, and that central story really only picks up more than half way through. The novel explores such themes as nature vs. nurture, reason vs. instinct, the inescapability of sexual desire and sexual identity, and the notion of duality and division (e.g., Cal’s ambiguous sexuality, his Greek-American family, Berlin, racially troubled Detroit). “What’s the reason for studying history?” Cal asks, somewhat leadenly. “To understand the present or avoid it?” The answer is a resonant: Yes. He’s a coy storyteller, or at least he tries to be. Hishomosexual (but still beloved) aunt is “one of those women they named the island after,” and of the strange facts of his own life, he says: “Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits to their children, but it’s my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too: motifs, scenarios, even fates.” That allows Eugenides some wide latitude in telling a loopy story that would seem to call for a less adulterated approach – or at least a less indulgent one.

2004 – Edward P. Jones, The Known World


Life in ante-bellum Virginia was almost, but not quite, as simple as black and white. An elaborate system of laws and customs oversaw relations between the races – freed slaves, for example, had to leave the state within 12 months because they lacked the “natural controls put on slaves” and would give “unnatural notions” to those not free – and pretty much everyone, black or white, invested a lot of energy in living by these laws, or dying in an effort to skirt them. Slaves were treated like common (albeit especially valuable) possessions in everyday life – and in the ledgers that kept track of those lives.

One suspects Edward P. Jones read a lot of those ledgers in writing his novel, which chronicles a little-known fact of slavery: Not all masters were white. Augustus Townsend bought freedom for himself and his wife in the 1830s and, a decade later, for his son Henry, who grows up to be a slave owner himself. The Known World centers on Henry, his slave Moses, and dozens of other characters whose lives represent various historical circumstances: The sheriff who marries a Philadelphia girl and refuses to own slaves, but who patrols the night to make sure none escape their servitude; the slave who has herself shipped in a box to freedom in New York City; the black woman and teacher who could pass for white but doesn’t because she hates whites, but who still keeps slaves; and Augustus’ powerful former owner, William Robbins, who beheads a runaway slave because the man came within a mile of a white woman’s house (the law permits such killings in “self-defense”). Robbins – who of course had some children with his slaves – loved having young Henry work as his groomsman so much that he kept hiking the price of his freedom, which Augustus finally manages to secure.

Jones’ writing – most often plain, but occasionally elegant – sounds vaguely like a tale borrowed from an oral tradition. We know by page three pretty much all we need to know about Moses: He lives to be an old man, and he feels at one with the earth, which he cultivates, ingests (it tastes different each month during growing season), and sleeps upon when the sky explodes with rainfall and turns the dirt to a river of mud. And yet this is rarely an introspective or psychological novel, almost as if Jones can’t fathom the hearts and minds of blacks who owned slaves, and who rationalized their choices with talk of God, the law, and their own righteousness. They lived by the rules of their known world, which naturally begins to crumble as the Civil War nears.

Jones’ contempt for them is palpable, but quietly so, conveyed mostly in the matter-of-fact way he narrates how they went about the business of buying and selling people. His novel is more interesting for its copious and certainly authentic glimpses of how the South conducted slavery and racism – and lived with itself for doing so – than for the story of its particular characters, who feel like they’re based upon the historic records that Jones uncovered in his research, and who never seem to take on a depth or dimension short of the indignities they suffer in America’s most shameful act (so far).