The Middleman | Critical Review by Michael Gorra

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Middleman.
This section contains 976 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol Ascher

Critical Review by Michael Gorra

SOURCE: "Call It Exile, Call It Immigration," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1989, p. 9.

In the following review, Gorra discusses Mukherjee's expansion of her short story "Jasmine" into a novel and asserts "she's done so without losing a short story's virtues, above all its sense of speed and compression, its sense of a life distilled into its essence."

Bharati Mukherjee's third novel carries the same title as one of the best stories in her prize-winning collection of last year, The Middleman and Other Stories. That earlier "Jasmine" told of an Indian girl from Trinidad who "came to Detroit … by way of Canada … [crossing] the border at Windsor in the back of a gray van loaded with mattresses and box springs." Jasmine works first in an Indian-owned motel, then as an au pair. And by the end of the story she's learned to see herself, as she makes love to the man whose child she takes care of, as "a bright pretty girl with no visa, no papers, and no birth certificate. No nothing other than what she wanted to invent and tell … a girl rushing wildly in the future." an American with an American's freedom to shape her own destiny.

For the rich novel that's grown from that story, Ms. Mukherjee has shifted the narrative into the first person and placed her heroine's origins in the Punjab rather than Trinidad, where the added weight of tradition makes the character's love affair with the possibilities of America all the more exhilarating. "Lifetimes ago," the novel begins, "under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, an astrologer cupped his ears—his satellite dish to the stars—and foretold my widowhood and exile." But the 7-year-old Jyoti—not yet Jasmine, still less the Jane she'll become when she invents a new life in Iowa—rejects the fate he assigns her. Which of them is right?

Widowhood is certainly hers. At 14 she marries Prakash-Vijh, "a modern man…. He wanted me to call him by his first name," instead of the pronouns village women use to address their husbands. And he calls her "Jasmine," a new name as a way to "break off the past." But this is the Punjab in the 1980's, and as he's preparing to go study in America, Prakash falls victim to a Sikh terrorist bomb. With Prakash dead, Jasmine wants only to burn herself alive, like a good Hindu wife of old, on the Florida campus he had so badly wanted to reach. Ms. Mukherjee's handling of Jasmine's illegal immigration into the United States provides some of the novel's best pages. "The longest line between two points is the least detected," Jasmine thinks, as she moves through the world of "refugees and mercenaries and guest workers; you see us sleeping in airport lounges … taking out for the hundredth time an aerogram promising a job or space to sleep … dressed in shreds of national costumes … the wilted plumage of intercontinental vagabondage." She finally reaches Florida on a shrimper out of Suriname. But once landed, the ship's captain rapes her, and in taking her revenge, Jasmine discovers she wants to live.

From Florida to the stiflingly old-world Indian community in Flushing; then work as an au pair on the Upper West Side, where she falls in love with a WASP world of "careless confidence and graceful self-absorption," with the pleasures of being unconsciously American. And on to Iowa. From Jasmine Vijh to Jane Ripplemeyer—though remembering the astrologer keeps her from marrying the middle-aged Iowan banker whose name she takes and whose child she bears—and whom she leaves at the end of the novel, moving on to California "greedy with wants and reckless from hope," in love with the "adventure, risk, transformation" through which she has redefined herself as an American. Reading Ms. Mukherjee's short stories about immigrants, I've often thought of the Irish writer Frank O'Connor's argument that while the novel deals with the structure of society, the short story tends to concentrate on what he calls "the lonely voice," on "outlawed figures wandering about" on that society's fringes. In expanding that sense of marginality into the material of a novel, Ms. Mukherjee has made her heroine emblematic of this nation of outsiders as a whole, but she's done so without losing a short story's virtues, above all its sense of speed and compression, its sense of a life distilled into its essence.

Jasmine is so tightly made one wants to read it in a sitting. Yet, paradoxically, that's also the novel's chief weakness. Its other characters, however vivid, remain too firmly subordinated to Jasmine. Their stories matter only insofar as they affect hers, in a way that not only suggests the novel's origins as a short story, but that troubles me precisely because those characters are so vivid. It's not easy, as Jasmine lights out for the territories once more, to view her abandonment of Jane Ripplemeyer's responsibilities with the complacency the novel seems to call for. Yet perhaps that uneasiness is intended; perhaps Jasmine is as much an implicit criticism of the self-absorption of American life as it is a celebration of its inventive openness.

What does seem clear is that Ms. Mukherjee wants the question posed by the astrologer's prediction to remain an open one. Jasmine may in some ways be in control of her own destiny, but she is also a widow and in exile. Or rather in an exile that she chooses to redefine as immigration—as the Indian-born Ms. Mukherjee herself has recently done in choosing to become an American citizen. As a young writer, Ms. Mukherjee has said, she dreamed of updating A Passage to India; now, she writes, it's Henry Roth's immigrant classic Call It Sleep. Jasmine stands as one of the most suggestive novels we have about what it is to become an American.

(read more)

This section contains 976 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol Ascher