The Middleman, and Other Stories
Like the stories in her previous collection, Darkness (1985), the eleven stories in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories explore, from a postcolonial perspective, the contemporary American Dream. Although the stories are not related in terms of recurring characters or settings, the subjects and themes of the stories are remarkably consistent. Mukherjee dissects the clash of cultures as her immigrant, alien (and alienated), foreign protagonists “flutter between worlds,” as Mrs. Bhave describes her state in “The Management of Grief.” This middle state is also related to the title of her book and of the initial story, “The Middleman,” a metaphor she uses in multiple senses throughout the book.
Alfred Judah, the first-person narrator in “The Middleman,” embodies the “middleman” qualities: He is literally and psychologically caught between different worlds. In an unidentified banana republic run by a corrupt president and an American fugitive from justice, Al is himself fighting extradition and attempting to survive the revolution staged by the guerrillas. In “this alien jungle” Al is “an Arab to some, an Indian to others,” a Jew whose dark skin saves him from death while his “gringo” employer is killed by revolutionaries. Al survives and intends to return to the United States, but it is difficult to “learn the ropes,” and Al admits that “there are aspects of American life I came too late for and will never understand.” The American life depicted in the story—the Ted Turner caps, the “New World skill” at opening beer bottles, the hacking away at virgin forests, and the corrupt former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency—hardly seems worth the trading the middleman undertakes at the end of the story.
“Buried Lives” also concerns an uprooted protagonist in transit, this time from his native Sri Lanka to America; like Al, however, N. K. S. Venkatesan does not reach the promised land. The story abounds in irony, since Venkatesan’s “buried life” (an allusion to Matthew Arnold’s poem) is more the product of an unconscious act of violence than a premeditated and political change of heart. In fact, when he leaves Sri Lanka, Venkatesan’s first stop is Tuticorin, India, the town his ancestors had left “to find their fortunes in Ceylon’s [Sri Lanka’s] tea-covered northern hills.” (The irony is not lost on Venkatesan.) Mukherjee’s protagonist seeks to protect his sister from exploitation by a “middleman” selling textiles to Canadian markets, but he himself is ironically the exploited victim of a go-between, a middleman who deals with human rather than manufactured exports. Rather than finding domestic bliss in the American heartland, Venkatesan becomes the fiancé of Queenie, a German woman who runs a boarding house for illegal aliens. She is not “the beauteous, the deliverer of radiant dreams” whom the narrator ironically describes.
Mukherjee focuses on the plight of the refugee in “Orbiting,” the story of a young woman attempting to reconcile her Italian-American family to her Afghan lover. In the ensuing clash of cultural values, Renata de Marco sees the Italian culture as having been adulterated by American values (Renata become “Rindy”) and the Afghan culture as providing vitality and health. She sees her father and her brother-in-law as “children” and her Afghan lover as Clint Eastwood, the anachronistic American hero who embodies American values as they existed before the failure of the American Dream. Ro, her lover, is a refugee “in orbit,” traveling by airplane from one country to another, from one transit lounge to another, until he can obtain forged papers. Though he cannot return to his home, he takes his home values with him and keeps them intact.
The shallowness of the American men/children is epitomized in Griff, the WASP protagonist of “Fighting for the Rebound.” Drawing his metaphors from sports and business, Griff is superficial and morally bankrupt, a bad loser unable to make the commitment necessary for success. Griff can deal with Blanquita, his Filipino girlfriend, only in cultural clichés (“Green Card politics”) that reflect, despite his levity, a colonial attitude: “It’s okay for a nation of pioneers to bully the rest of the world as long as the cause is just.” Since Mukherjee portrays her characters not only as individuals but also as national types, Griff thereby rationalizes his exploitive conduct toward Blanquita. Griff is not a pioneer, however, but an insecure child who reacts to Blanquita’s leaving him by finding another sexual partner. As Griff observes, “There’s a difference between exotic and foreign. . . . Real foreign is a little scary, believe me.”
The protagonists of “Fathering” and “Loose Ends” are also American males, but as Vietnam veterans they are also aliens in their own culture; they do not seem to belong. In “Fathering,” Jason’s...
(The entire section is 2036 words.)