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

Rakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes, but its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of it 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 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 sail 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 A 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:

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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.