'No One Can Pronounce My Name' Is A Charming Take On Loneliness And Connection Set in an Indian-American community in suburban Cleveland, Rakesh Satyal's new novel uses intertwined plots to explore the comedy of everyday life. Critic Maureen Corrigan says readers will be amused.


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'No One Can Pronounce My Name' Is A Charming Take On Loneliness And Connection

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This is FRESH AIR. In 2010, writer Rakesh Satyal won the Lambda Literary Award for gay debut fiction for his novel "Blue Boy." His new novel is called "No One Can Pronounce My Name," which our book critic Maureen Corrigan says is a misleading title. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Rakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes. But its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of its various identities so lightly. This is an immigration story, a coming out story and something of an old-school feminist story about a timid woman learning to roar. Yet, there's nothing preachy or predictable about Satyal's novel. Rather, the most cumbersome thing about it is its title, which I've delayed saying for as long as possible. It's called "No One Can Pronounce My Name," which sounds aggrieved, when instead, this is a novel that invites readers to be amused.

Satyal wants us all to laugh together about the comedy of errors that often typifies everyday life. "No One Can Pronounce My Name" is set in an Indian-American community in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Ranjana is a middle-aged wife and mother whose son has just departed for college - Princeton, no less. Ranjana's husband is an out-of-shape academic, who sports what she thinks of as the common Indian male physique - second trimester with a possible sale into the third.

For years, Ranjana has lived a secret life. She writes erotic supernatural fiction, modeled on the work of Anne Rice. Ranjana first read "Interview With The Vampire" when she and her husband emigrated to America. We're told it was her way of trying to permeate the wall that separated her Indian life from the omnipresent glitz of American pop culture. Now though with her son off at college, Ranjana's days are too solitary in her empty house, so she takes a job as a receptionist in an Indian proctologist's office.

This job, along with her participation in what turns out to be a vicious writer's group, are Ranjana's tentative ways of trying to enter a wider world. The other main character here, also a middle-aged Indian immigrant, is even more adrift. Harit lives with his mother, who's deranged by grief for his older sister, the victim of a stupid, deadly accident. To comfort his mother, whose eyesight is conveniently dimmed by cataracts, Harit dresses up every night in his dead sister's saris and pretends to be her. In ways Harit dare not name even silently to himself, this dress up game has become consoling to him, too.

Clothes also become the conduit for leading Harit out of his isolation. He lands a job in the men's accessories department, called men's furnishings, at the quaint Harriman's Department Store. There, an older gay man named Teddy takes Harit under his wing and introduces him to the cheering ritual of happy hour at T.G.I. Friday's in a nearby mall. But not everyone at Harriman's is so welcoming. Here's Satyal's description of the daily dynamics in the employee break room.

(Reading) By 8:30, the 15 or so sales people of the morning shift would gather and loiter with their coffees, bagels, stinky fast food breakfasts and gossip. It wasn't that they were mean to Harit but except for a smile in passing or an odd question about his ethnicity - in India, do you drink eight glasses of tea a day instead of water? - they rarely engaged him directly in conversation. Both Ranjana and Harit pine for some kind of deep connection to other human beings.

But they're clueless as to how to make that happen. Their shared situation may sound glum but because "No One Can Pronounce My Name" is essentially and delightfully a comic novel, the intertwined plots here are buoyant, rather than blue. It says something about both the reach of Satyal's story and his wry skill as a storyteller that while I was reading, I kept thinking of Barbara Pym, who wrote mostly about the lives of tweedy English spinsters with similar warmth and humor.

"No One Can Pronounce My Name" explores the politics of sexual identity as well as the immigrant and first-generation American experience. But unfashionable as it may sound, the novel's greater achievement lies in the compassionate, comic way it explores the universal human experience of loneliness.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "No One Can Pronounce My Name," by Rakesh Satyal. After we take a short break, Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new release of a 1973 session by South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. This is FRESH AIR.


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