MAY 28, 2021
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY’S misanthropic, highly pleasurable doorstop novel Vanity Fair (1848) centers on Becky Sharp, a genius scam artist and manipulator who, when she has fatigued one mark, concocts another scheme, and then another. The society she lives in is not an admirable one, either. It’s full of awful people — even Amelia, to whom the reader might ordinarily be sympathetic, can induce a cringe response. If you have a certain disposition, however, this ugly atmosphere can make Thackeray’s novel more of a lacerating delight than the works of his warmer-hearted, but also more didactic, contemporary and rival, Charles Dickens. Indian American director Mira Nair’s 2004 film adaptation of Vanity Fair takes away some of Becky Sharp’s sting — Nair’s instincts are perhaps too gracious to pull off the kind of cold, thorny, unsympathetic observations at which Thackeray excels.
Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel, Gold Diggers, features several Indian American characters who are a little like Becky Sharp, but mostly they are not especially talented. Their scheming and striving seem secondhand, born not of their own native wit or survival instincts, but from privileges and ambitions handed to them by their parents. The old-fashioned narrative sensibility behind Gold Diggers, at least at first, reminded me of Thackeray’s. The novel opens on a large community of Indian American teenagers in a high school in Hammond Creek, Georgia. Our hapless teen narrator, Neil Narayan, wishes he could be as capable as the model minority strivers who surround him. Unfortunately, he lacks any drive of his own, and is mostly content to follow the crowd. “Yes, I consisted largely of my parents’ ambitions,” he says, “but some part of me was also made of the ogling, boggling eyeballs of the rest of our community.” (Here, too, there might be a subtle reference to Vanity Fair and its fictional Boggley Wollah.)
Neil sets the stage at a high school dance in the opening section: “Indians and Asians were the likeliest ones to be bopping around, because though none of us could really move, the dancing offered a prescribed activity for the evening, a script. I depended on scripts in those days, before anyone asked me to invent my own life.” Sathian’s satire is pitch perfect when it emphasizes the role of gossip in the affluent Indian American community:
Gossip is to my mother […] the virtuosic amalgamation of years of a community’s becoming. For as long as I can remember she has been a connoisseur of gossip, of the sounds it makes, the musicality, the overall gestalt[.] […] One might call her ears — which are extremely large and loose lobed, with openings to the ear canal the size of a thumbnail — the place where the Indian immigrant public sphere gathers. In between wax and bristly dark hairs, the diaspora unscatters and lodges itself.
The passage moves from a precise characterization of Neil’s mother to a broader survey of gossip’s appeal as something musical, perhaps even a little sophisticated and beautiful (“the overall gestalt”), before widening even further into an astute and baroque bodily metaphor. It concludes on a note of almost Swiftian grotesquerie, with the ear as a site not only of earwax and bristly hairs, but also the diaspora itself. It’s savagely funny.
The comedic grotesque register gives way, at times, to an authentic and heartrending melancholia. Neil feels he’s less talented than the community around him and wishes everyone would give up on him, reasoning that
it wasn’t our job just to grow up, but to grow up in such a way that made sense of our parents’ choice to leave behind all they knew, to cross the oceans. I couldn’t bear to be the only one among them — Prachi, Manu, Anita — who failed to achieve anything, who ultimately became nobody at all.
We’re familiar with this species of sadness from Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel The Namesake, but Sathian makes it her own. She captures not only the melancholia of the immigrant’s social estrangement, but also the painful expectation that this melancholia should be worth it somehow, that one should achieve and then achieve some more. In Gold Diggers, the counterpoint of this melancholia is Neil’s near-repellent helplessness. He and his circle pose a striking contrast to the image of Indian American achievement touted by both the community and the mainstream media in real life.
As the novel continues, Neil becomes the epitome of a talentless hack riding on the coattails of his parents’ ambition — and his mother’s gossip. His misogyny is unremarkable in his high school circle, but he doesn’t fully grow out of his adolescent crassness. Later in the novel, for example, he remarks that a woman who might rate a four in Los Angeles would be an eight or nine in San Francisco. Sathian sketches Neil’s character sharply, but you can recognize, in his fundamental ineptitude, the cute, entirely unthreatening lineage of Kelly Kapoor of The Office or Mindy Lahiri of The Mindy Project, both of whom felt, at the time, purpose-built to counter the lingering stereotype of the Indian American nerd. It’s small wonder that Mindy Kaling is executive-producing Gold Diggers for television; Neil is very much a character in the mold of her own.
Initially, the novel’s satire reminded me of Gossip Girl or You, where it’s not entirely clear whether we’re being presented a real critique or simply a cheerful, glossy exaltation of young sociopaths. There are characterizations that veer toward true unpleasantness — for instance, when Neil fantasizes about his neighbor Anita Dayal, dreaming in “shards” and she removes her dress to reveal a “white body, ivory skin, and dime-sized, pert nipples” and, later, when henna tattoos, also known as mehindi on the Indian subcontinent, are described as “fecal” based on what the paste looks like as it dries.
Neil has long had a crush on Anita. Their families mingled until her father left to work in California; nobody in the community wants to use the word separation, but his absence from the family becomes fodder for malicious gossip. When Neil catches Anita drinking gold, the novel picks up and takes a wonderful turn toward the slightly enchanted and allegorical.
The fantastic conceit is as follows. Anita’s mother makes her drink a traditional lemonade laced with gold that her own mother had made for her brothers. It’s a potion that allows the drinker to feed on the ambitions of the person to whom the gold belonged. Only gold jewelry made by the best artisans and possessed by those with energy and ambition will do for this type of magic. As Anita puts it: “[W]ho else is really, truly ambitious? This is immigrant shit.”
Gold takes on multiple resonances in the novel. It’s a metal that’s auspicious in many, perhaps all, Indian cultures. It’s the material, for instance, in a mangalsutra, a necklace that signifies the bond between a married couple. In a section of the book that travels back in time to Bombay, Anita’s uncle tells her mother: “Gold […] is a wise metal. It contains people’s dreams and plans.” And the gold lemonade literally and metaphorically allows for the transfer of dreams and ambition, strengthening the novel’s theme of secondhand desire. Only gold owned by high achievers with specific ambitions for the future is useful for drinking. In holding Anita’s own hoop earrings, Neil lusts after not just her but what she represents to him: “I wondered what they — she — would taste like. If I could smelt down her powers and mysteries and take them as my own.”
Gold also plays a role in a subplot involving Neil’s work as an academic. Early on, Neil has an interest in history that is cultivated by his friendship with an old man, Ramesh Uncle, whom he meets at the library. Ramesh Uncle introduces him to “The Tale of the Bombayan Gold Digger,” the only Hindu man of his race in the California goldfields in the summer of 1850. Neil has never recognized himself in America before, but hearing of the gold digger, he thinks,
I had never much cared about ancestry the way my parents spoke of it when we went back to India. There, ancestry meant unpronounceable names and impenetrable orthodoxies. But this gold digger felt viscerally like my forebear. What if this was my land, after all?
Ramesh Uncle tells him, too, of a gold rush in Georgia, one that takes place before the one in California. Years later, after Neil suffers consequences for stealing other people’s gold, the story comes up again. And then we get to an actual gold heist in the final quarter of the book.
The heist is magnificent — canny and moving and just plain fun. Where the first half mimed the Indian American community’s behavior a bit too closely, blunting the traditional tools of satire such as exaggeration or incongruity, Sathian’s movement toward fantasy in the story’s second half is a wise, satisfying turn. Her prose lifts off: there’s a delight she takes in writing humorously about magic that shows off the scope of her immense talent.
While the novel implicitly critiques the myth of the model Asian American minority, it’s not interested in how this myth is used to harm other communities in the United States. Rather, it focuses on how nonsensically this myth is deployed when society speaks of youthful Indian American achievement. This achievement is not anything inherent, the novel suggests, but rather the result of an immigrant inheritance, the gossipy stew of others’ ambitions and punishing expectations. As a whole, the novel is a disturbingly accurate look at the social foibles of a particular subset of upper-middle-class Indian American — principally Hindu American — strivers. Although the first half of the book is set in Hammond Creek, it could just as easily be set in Fremont, California, or any other city with a sizable population of Hindu Americans.
The book breaks open at the midpoint, after the gang has all moved from Hammond Creek to the San Francisco Bay Area, transfiguring the earlier sitcom into something far richer. Anita gets a chance to speak as a former Miss Teen India. Her speech is full of acidic observations about how the community throws out anyone they’ve deemed unworthy or not good enough, something Anita has experienced firsthand because of the way Neil’s mother and others had gossiped about her parents’ separation. Something real and true emerges from a tone that, up to this point, has vacillated between disdain and melancholy.
I hoped Anita’s speech might have ripple repercussions for what happens next in the plot, but instead it helps us to perceive Neil’s distortions, his unreliability as a narrator. There’s an ache not only in the speech but also in the way this moment unveils the book’s firm critique of secondhand striving and cutthroat ambition. This isn’t simply a fun, quippy sketch about coming of age as a “model minority.”
Observing Anita, Neil recognizes himself, and if you’ve lived a second-generation experience, never seeing even rough answers on how to live, you might recognize yourself, too:
We were both conceptual orphans. Perhaps that is the condition of any second generation. […] We had not grown up imbibing stories that implicitly conveyed answers to the basic questions of being: What did it feel like to fall in love in America, to take oneself for granted in America? Starved as we were for clues about how to live, we would grip like mad on to anything that lent a possible way of being.
While I wouldn’t have guessed it from the first half of Gold Diggers, in the end, Sanjena Sathian is a warmer writer than Thackeray. The novel resolves beautifully. Perhaps the tools of gossip and ostracism wielded by the community won’t change, perhaps nothing in the world will change, but at least all is not lost for the novel’s two leads, and that might be enough.