By Steven Hamelman
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake pivots on her Indian-American protagonist’s divided identity. Gogol Ganguli is caught between two cultures, one of which, the Bengali one, he rejects, partly because his parents named him after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Lahiri draws upon the Beatles, about whom Gogol is “passionate,” using the “White Album” and Abbey Road as reference points for Gogol’s conflicted identity and for the cycle of love and loss he hears expressed in their music.
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, the Beatles, the White Album, Abbey Road, reference, allusion, intertextuality
Taken from the second track on the 1965 recording Rubber Soul, the title of Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood (1987) is but one of fifteen or so Beatles songs embedded in the story to enhance setting (late sixties Japan) and to enrich character. In his late thirties, the narrator Toru tells readers that his lover Naoko’s favorite song is “Norwegian Wood,” a song her older friend, Reiko, in a guitar recital after Naoko’s suicide, plays along with “Yesterday,” “Michelle,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “The Fool on the Hill,” and seven other standards, whose lyrics and melodies offer emotional relief to Naoko’s survivors. These popular tunes also resonate in the minds of readers, increasing their bond with the characters.
Although not as pervasive in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake (1997), the Beatles again make their mark. The group appears in the third sentence of Extremely Loud, when the 9-year-old narrator Oskar, trying to make sense of his father’s death in the 9/11 attacks in New York City, says, “I could invent a teakettle that sings the chorus of ‘Yellow Submarine,’ which is a song by the Beatles, who I love” (1), as did his father: “Dad always used to tuck me in . . . and sometimes he’d whistle ‘I Am the Walrus,’ because that was his favorite song” (12). So smitten is he with the Fab Four (whose “Yellow Submarine,” composed by Paul McCartney with children in mind,1 is the song from their catalog best suited to ease a child’s sadness) that he imagines inventing a door lever that would trigger the playing of “Fixing a Hole” or “I Want to Tell You” (14). Late in the book, with “Hey Jude” on the radio, Oskar confides, “It was true, I didn’t want to make it bad. I wanted to take the sad song and make it better. It’s just that I didn’t know how” (207).2
Timequake also keys into the Beatles on the first page, where Vonnegut extols their artistry: “I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’” (1). That is it for the book—no more Fab Four talk—but it is more than enough to set the tone and to establish a position, which is that Vonnegut understands a core value and purpose of art—to give people a reason to live, and since the Beatles are a transcendent example of this purpose, the statement may inspire readers of Timequake who have not heard the Beatles to correct that lack at their first opportunity.
More effective than these writers in using the Beatles to develop character (Foer) while implying a universal truth about their genius (Vonnegut), all without name-checking, as Murakami does, a bunch of their songs, is Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel The Namesake (2003) draws upon the foursome at two key junctures in the life of her Indian-American protagonist Gogol Ganguli. Lahiri integrates their music so seamlessly into his inner life that a reader not familiar with the two albums (technically, one album and one compact disc) cited would miss altogether the poignancy of each reference. Not to hear the songs that Gogol hears in these scenes—not, that is, to know the music well enough to know that Lahiri is testing her readers’ knowledge of the band’s oeuvre—is to be left, without realizing it, with a diminished sense of what the Beatles mean to her hero and to the world in general. It also means missing a crucial link between the rhetorical terms “reference” and “allusion.” With Gogol’s happiness in the balance, these two terms breach their apparent differences, impinging on and complementing each other to the sound of the Beatles. To a reader who is at once a Beatles enthusiast, a student of rhetoric, and an aficionado of literary fiction, The Namesake, is a red-letter day.
Gogol Ganguli’s Divided Identity
In order to understand the references in The Namesake to side 3 of the Beatles’ White Album and to side 2 of their album Abbey Road, one needs to know the reason behind the main issue for the novel’s male namesake, this issue being his conflicted Indian-American identity as embodied in his Russian-derived first name.
Gogol Ganguli spends his life preoccupied with a divided identity that hinges, first, upon having been given a name that does not represent his Indian heritage, about which he is also conflicted; and, second, upon being born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and growing up in “a university town outside Boston” (48). It takes many years for his parents, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, immigrants from Calcutta (Lahiri retains this spelling of Kolkata), to adapt to American customs; they remain attached to their Indian family and friends, as well as to the Bengali culture whose traditions they keep alive in their new home. Their son Gogol is caught between two cultures, one of which, the Bengali one, he does not fully embrace.
As for the name he does not like: Gogol’s parents, having left Calcutta as newlyweds in the 1960s so that Ashoke could study electrical engineering at M.I.T., wished to give him, upon his birth in 1968, a “good” Bengali name (as opposed to a private “pet” name, a daknam , for family and friends to use) that his great-grandmother in Calcutta was supposed to choose and announce by letter. That letter never arrives; the baby is born; a name is needed for the birth certificate, and so, under pressure, the parents register their baby boy as Gogol Ganguli.
Why name their Indian-American son after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol? As a young man, Ashoke had been saved from the wreckage of train crash by a single page of “The Overcoat,” which he had been reading at the time of the accident. Only when a rescue worker sees this page fall from Ashoke’s raised hand is he saved. When his son is a 22-year-old senior at Yale, Ashoke tells him about his near-death experience at the same age (122–24) and the reason why he, his son, is named Gogol, in honor of an author and a story Ashoke have adored since childhood (18).
Ashoke initially tries telling his son about the accident on Gogol’s 14th birthday in 1982. The first reference to the Beatles happens then: “Later that night [Gogol] is alone in his room, listening to side 3 of the White Album on his parents’ cast-off RCA turntable. The album is a present from his American birthday party, given to him by one of his friends at school. Born when the band was near death, Gogol is a passionate devotee of John, Paul, George, and Ringo” (74). Gogol “sits cross-legged on the bed, hunched over the lyrics, when he hears a knock on the door” (74). It is his father, bearing a gift: The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Gogol has never read a word of this Russian author responsible for a name that “manages . . . to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear” (76). Ashoke lingers as the record plays; Gogol wants to get back to the lyrics; his father begins to speak, but “[t]he music ends and there is silence. . . . Gogol flips the record, turning the volume up on ‘Revolution 1’” (77). Seeing John Lennon’s “obituary pinned to the bulletin board, and then a cassette of classical Indian music he’d bought for Gogol months ago . . . still sealed in its wrapper” (78), Ashoke decides that the story of Gogol’s name will have to wait. The right time comes 8 years later.
Diachronic Allusion and Synchronic Intertextuality
Is the phrase “side 3 of the White Album” a reference or an allusion? The answer matters, for there is little point to rhetorical analysis if we fudge distinctions between and among terms. It also matters because on the heels of allusion is a third term: intertextuality.
In his well-known handbook of literary terms, M. H. Abrams defines allusion as “a passing reference, without explicit identification, to a literary or historical person, place, or event, or to another literary work or passage” (9). Though different from reference, an allusion depends on, or proceeds from, it: allusive inexplicitness (absence) is the “other” in a rhetorical binary that seems to privilege referential explicitness (presence).
In practice, allusion is even more complex than this binary model suggests, largely because allusion connotes a third term, intertextuality, which is often taken as synonymous with allusion. In her 1984 study Revolution in Poetic Language, Julia Kristeva introduced yet another term, “transposition,” which is
the redistribution of several different sign systems. . . . The term inter-textuality denotes this transposition of one (or several) sign system(s) into another; but since this term has often been understood in the banal sense of ‘study of sources,’ we prefer the term transposition because it specifies that the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new . . . enunciative and denotative positionality. (59–60)
Analyzing the meaning of allusion in PMLA 35 years after Kristeva wrote these words, Gregory Machecek returns to her work, defining intertextuality as a discursive phenomenon akin to Kristeva’s transpositionality, where the condition for interaction among contemporaneous textual and cultural relations exists. In contrast, allusion is either a “learned or indirect reference” or a “phraseological adaptation”; in other words, allusion evokes a “roundabout reference” to an earlier text/fact or incorporates “a short phrase reminiscent of a phrase in an earlier work of literature” (526). Allusion connotes diachronic connection; intertextuality connotes synchronic relationships—Kristeva’s “transposition,” the re-positioning of sign systems but without the sense of intertextuality as simple source-searching. Kristeva notes that the novel genre is an example of transposition (59).
As for transposition, the aforementioned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a tour de force in high postmodern fashion; at the end, the photographic images of the rising man bring to a peak the many typographic, textual, and visual devices that flaunt the redistribution of sign systems in this (for want of a better term) “novel.” Vonnegut played similar transpositional games—drawing childlike pictures, blending genres, deforming linear time—in novels such as Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five. Turning to The Namesake, transpositional elements of rock music (by the Beatles and bands) do not attain that same level of spectacular transposition. This novel neither “sounds” like a rock song/album/compact disc nor is structured like one—a rock sound and/or structure impossible to standardize anyway. It does, however, reveal traces of transposition insofar as at two critical moments the music of the Beatles is “heard” beneath the surface of reference, where both allusion and its near companion intertextuality thrive.
Ostensibly, the phrase “side 3 of the White Album” is direct; thus, it is a reference. Yet, partially hidden behind this reference to the White Album (1968) is allusive material so rich with meaning that it breaches its “local” diachronic meaning. No less than a Beatles purist, a rhetorical purist could well argue too that the title “White Album” itself is less reference than allusion, since it alludes to the actual title of this recording—The Beatles. Furthermore, the referential phrase “side 3 of the White Album,” containing the referents “3” and “White Album,” simultaneously alludes to seven songs on that side (of four sides)—neither the number of songs nor the number of sides are specified—and each of these songs has lyrics that Gogol is poring over when his father interrupts him. These lyrics mean something to readers sufficiently “learned” to know what the words are without seeing them reproduced. To quote Machecek again, “[a]llusions may allow covert communication among a cognoscenti. They establish a special kind of rapport between author and reader” (531). From such rapport, it is a short step to Kristeva’s synchronic intertextuality (transposition) and the proliferation of meaning that spreads beneath the textual surface.
In a novel so indebted to a single reference—it would collapse without Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” to bolster plot and character—it is little wonder that scholars have explicated The Namesake through that lens while examining the implications of this famous short story in Lahiri’s study of Indian-American cultural/identity conflict. A good example is Karen Cardozo, beginning her exploration of The Namesake with its epigraph from “The Overcoat” (“The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question”) and then assessing “the impossibility of ethnic purity” (13) in Gogol Ganguli’s divided life. In her reading of the birthday scene, Cardozo states that the “cultural work of the novel . . . lies in its assiduous exploration of Bengali American experience as a particular form of a more general struggle for identity—an intertextual structure that is simultaneously generative and restrictive” (16). Although Cardozo is alert to the ebb and flow of Gogol’s existential dilemma, at no point does she mention his fixation on the Beatles and their music’s place in his identity formation. Their importance in this regard is backlit by several other rock references in The Namesake to artists such as The Who, Dylan, and Clapton, and to the albums London Calling and Talking Heads: 77, names and titles cited matter-of-factly, not allusively or synchronically. They are what Gogol listens to during certain phases of youth. They tell readers about his changing tastes in rock, and they measure the passage of time; they are the same popular albums and rock stars that fans in his generation listen to; but they do not illuminate, with the same intensity as the Beatles do, the young man’s emotional struggles.
Side 3 of the White Album, Side 2 of Abbey Road
A passage in Beatles fan Ron Schaumburg’s memoir Growing Up with the Beatles conveys the effect these four young Englishmen had on millions of young adolescents is the 1960s: “As I passed my twelfth birthday, I reached the years of a new maturity, of a slowly growing sense of love and sexuality. I found that Beatle songs expressed the hurts and happinesses [sic] of those twelve years. . . . The Beatles sang to me, taking my joy and my pain and explaining it to me in terms I could understand” (29). A generation later, they cast the same spell on Gogol Ganguli, giving him joy as he figures out his role as a young American male whose Bengali parents cling to the customs and values of a homeland that is theirs, not his. He is the type of teenager that Devin McKinney, in Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, has in mind when writing, “[k]ids, American kids especially, laded the Beatles with the aspirations, the psychic fears and physical intensities which religion had traditionally sought to absorb” (143).
As Gogol ages, the Beatles continue to speak to him. As indicated, Gogol had listened to other pop acts; in college, for instance, wishing to bond with his girlfriend Ruth, he “listens to the music she loves: Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, buying brand-new copies of the albums she’d inherited from her parents” (117). On his side, he gives her “a mixed tape of his favorite Beatles songs” (116)—a predictable gesture (and a common courtship ritual in the seventies and eighties) since Beatles music frames Gogol’s emotional life, from insecurity to despair, with stretches of happiness in between.
To Devin McKinney’s perceptions of the Fab Four’s appeal—for example, they “distilled a poetics of possibility, imagination, action,” and they “changed the course of world history by inspiring mass fantasy, and by driving mass aspirations toward an ethics of radical possibility” (167, 305)—the present thesis adds this more focused reason for the Beatles’ universality: the Beatles do for Gogol what they did and do for countless human beings because their music, more than any other band’s in the history of the form, expresses the universal narrative of love, loss, and recovery—a key reason, probably, why they are the top-selling recording artists in history. Their recordings track Gogol’s first romantic hope and his later despair, just as they track what most human beings experience. At the same time, this music consoles all grief-stricken survivors of broken relationships. Dozens of Beatles songs chronicle the major stages of such relationships—falling in love, feeling it grow, peaking, anticipating the end, and reaching peace after an indeterminate period of grief. No matter what one’s current place in the cycle of love, loss, and recovery, the Beatles recorded at least several songs to express the feeling.
Jhumpa Lahiri seems to know this about the Beatles. She defamiliarizes them by inviting her readers to look at/listen to the White Album through the eyes of an Indian-American male listening to its third side on his 14th birthday—an extraordinary act of sympathy and imagination on Lahiri’s part that causes long-time Fab listeners, no matter what their national or ethnic backgrounds, to hear this music with new ears. Lahiri connects the dots between the band’s extended stay in India, the creation of the White Album, and Gogol’s actual birthday, all of these occurring in the year 1968. To peel back, the veneer of the birthday scene is to find this content:
- Of the White Album’s 30 songs, 19 were composed during the Beatles’ sojourn from February through April 1968 at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India.
- Of the seven songs on side 3 of the White Album, five were written while he was in Rishikesh.
- By 1968, George Harrison had spent the previous 2 years in studying classical Bengali music as well as Hindu scriptures. Ironically, had they not explored the music of a heritage that Gogol resented, his favorite band’s catalog from 1965 and on would have been far less impressive. Here is the timeline of the main Indian-related events in the Beatles career:
- In February 1965 while filming the Bahamas scenes for Help!, the band members were approached by Swami Vishnu-Devananda, offering them copies of his book The Illustrated Book of Yoga (1960); this first brush with Indian culture happened on Harrison’s 22nd birthday (Beatles Anthology 171). Harrison heard sitar for the first time on the Help! movie set in London (the restaurant scenes, originally designed for comic effect) and promptly purchased one (Shapiro 69).
- At a party in Beverly Hills in August 1965, David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds introduced Harrison to Ravi Shankar’s music.
- In October 1965, the Beatles taped their sitar-embellished first take of “Norwegian Wood.”
- Ravi Shankar “met George for the first time in June 1966, one evening in a friend’s house in London” (Shankar 189); he gave Harrison his first sitar lesson at Harrison’s home in Esher (Cox 70).
- In September 1966, two weeks after the Beatles final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Harrison went to India for six weeks to study sitar in Mumbai with Shankar.
- In August 1967, all four Fabs attended the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s lecture in London.
- Harrison “traveled to India in December 1967 where he wrote, arranged, and produced an entire album (Wonderwall) of tuneful, soothing, Indian-inspired music” (Shapiro 83); he was in Mumbai from January 7–13, 1968, overseeing the project.
- The Beatles arrived in Rishikesh, India, in February 1968; they returned at different times, Lennon and Harrison staying the longest (until April 12).
- Wonderwall and The Beatles were released in November 1968.
The extent of Gogol’s knowledge of the finer details of this period in the band’s history is unknown. Some of these details had not yet appeared in print; Ravi Shankar’s autobiography (number 5 above), for example, was not published until 1999. It is hard to imagine, however, that in 1982, this “passionate devotee” would not at the very least have been aware of the Beatles’ sojourn in India, thus making Gogol’s denial of his heritage, signified by his indifference to the cassette of Indian music, more pronounced. The band speaks to him, but, ironically, he does not know how much he is missing, or is willing not to hear, unless or until he begins to listen to the same music that George Harrison—like Gogol, a devotee, in this case to Ravi Shankar—studied and introduced to his bandmates. Since for years even non-devotees had been enjoying the crude Orientalist “humor” of the film Help! and Indian-inflected tracks such as “Love You To” (on 1966’s Revolver) and “Within You, Without You” (on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), it is likely that Gogol had enjoyed them too before unwrapping the White Album. Some years will have to pass before this 14-year-old will understand what his father’s gifts of two masters other than the Beatles—that is, the musician (conceivably Shankar, or perhaps the sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan) on the sealed cassette, and Russian author Nikolai Gogol—represent in a familial as well as musical context.
Lahiri is being more than just clever by showing Gogol immersed in side 3 of The Beatles on his birthday. Leading off is the rave-up “Birthday.” Readers hitherto unaware that this is the first tune on side 3 will perhaps experience the shock of recognition that Lahiri’s allusiveness is designed to cause; and as the side’s cuts succeed each other, this shock does not let up. Listening to “Birthday” on his birthday, a sensitive 14-year-old Beatles fan would feel as if he were receiving a personal greeting from John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The songs that follow would touch something deeper—in today’s parlance, they would “trigger” complex feelings.
The noisy guitars and crashing drums of “Yer Blues” swing the mood from joy to suicidal despair. John Lennon, the song’s composer, howls, “Yes I’m lonely / Want to die / Yes I’m lonely / Want to die / If I ain’t dead already / Girl you know the reason why.” Despite being surrounded by friends, wife Cynthia, and the other Beatles, Lennon was unhappy in Rishikesh. He admitted later on that he was “[u]p there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal” (Beatles Anthology 283). Unlike the song “Help!,” which camouflaged Lennon’s misery in 1965, “Yer Blues” lays it out in blunt imagery (“Feel so suicidal / Even hate my rock and roll”), the four Beatles, crammed into a small room in Abbey Road Studio, whaling away at their instruments in living fury, replicating on guitars and drums the singer’s anguish. Young Gogol likely hears in Lennon’s pain the isolation that is an integral part of his own life. Fourteen years earlier he had arrived in Mount Auburn Hospital “[w]ithout a single grandparent or parent or uncle or aunt at [his mother Ashoke’s] side” (24). “As [Ashoke] strokes and suckles and studies her son,” the narrator states, “she can’t help but pity him. She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived” (24–25).
Just as quickly, the mood swings back to serenity. “Mother Nature’s Son,” McCartney’s homage to Rishikesh’s pastoral calm, foreshadows the vacations the 26-year-old Gogol will spend in New Hampshire with his girlfriend Maxine and her parents, who greet the couple on their first visit to their woodland retreat with these words: “Welcome to paradise” (152). Approaching a cabin situated “down a long dirt road in the middle of a forest, dense with hemlock and birch” (151), Gogol “sees the lake, a blue a thousand times deeper, more brilliant, than the sky and girded by pines. The mountains rise up behind them” (151). Paralleling his idols (except for Lennon) in Rishikesh, when they are far from the stress of fame and the bustle of London, Gogol is at peace in this haven, far from the stress of his architectural career and the bustle of New York City. Only in New Hampshire does Gogol “appreciate being utterly disconnected from the world” (154). At 14, he may not yet be aware that his destiny includes the comfort of nature to mitigate character traits fixed at birth, but “Mother Nature’s Son” is there to remind him that nature is a source of healing and acceptance.
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” penned in India by Lennon, takes its cue from the Maharishi’s pet phrase “come on is such a joy.” Since biographer Bruce Spizer divulged this fact in 2003 (qtd. in Womack 270), Gogol in 1982 could not have known about it. On the other hand, the identity of “Sexy Sadie” had been revealed 12 years earlier. In 1970, Lennon told Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner he wrote “Sexy Sadie” while leaving Rishikesh in disgust over rumors of the guru’s sexual misconduct. The rumors were never substantiated, which is why it is fortunate that, as Lennon said, “I copped out and I wouldn’t write ‘Maharishi’” (55). The first non-Rolling Stone version of this interview came out the following year in a paperback titled Lennon Remembers; it appeared again in a 1981 collection of Rolling Stone interviews, increasing the likelihood that a Beatles fan would have owned it. Young Gogol loved the band so much that he tacked Lennon’s obituary to a bulletin board in his bedroom, another clue that he had probably read this famous interview and, consequently, that he knew the origins of “Sexy Sadie” well before hearing the song for the first time on his 14th birthday.
“Helter Skelter,” though not conceived in India, is a masterpiece of bone-crushing four-beat bars and frenzied vocals depicting chaos through the noise of monolithic chords and thudding drums. To hear all of that at age 14 is to hear the promise of rock music fulfilled by its premier four-man collective.
The closing track, “Long, Long, Long,” is the only one of George Harrison’s four compositions on The Beatles that “finds its origins during the Beatles’ 1968 visit to India” (Womack 571). At this point in the novel, readers cannot foresee the calamity awaiting Gogol in the form of a failed marriage. For the Beatles fan who is eventually privy to Gogol’s wife’s affair before Gogol himself is—the very same Beatles fan who has dwelled on the subtext of the White Album’s third side long after the birthday scene ends—the pathos is felt upon realizing that the allusion to “Long, Long, Long” is “adumbrative”: its power lies in its foreshadowing of disaster. But it will be some time before the narrative allows the listener full knowledge into why the lyrics that the teenaged Gogol is studying so many pages (and years) earlier are a bitter foretaste of what has finally come to pass. As Allan Pasco illustrates in a reading of Honoré Balzac’s Illusions Perdues, an adumbrative allusion “constitutes an important means of giving order to works of art” (151). In this instance, it helps to order the unfolding of catastrophe. On the page, the tune’s lyrics seem simplistic; hearing them in the context of what is to come/what has come for the young husband is devastating: “How can I ever misplace you / How I want you / Oh I love you / You know that I need you / Oh I love you.” Harrison yearns for divine presence in this 12/8 dirge that ends on the sound of what may be a heavenly door, or a coffin, creaking open and then slamming shut. Gogol’s yearning, though less spiritual, will be equally futile.
This devastation is well on the way to fulfillment when hundreds of pages later 31-year-old Nikhil Ganguli (Gogol officially changes his name to Nikhil before matriculating at Yale) inserts into his compact disc player the Beatles’ last-recorded album, Abbey Road, on a freezing morning in his Manhattan apartment. More bitter than the irony of the 14-year-old Gogol’s indifference to his father’s gifts of Indian music and the tales of Nikolai Gogol is that the love songs (e.g., “Something,” “I Want You [She’s So Heavy]”) of this recording are, for Gogol, the aural backdrop of his year-long marriage to Moushumi, which on that cold morning is already null and void. At the moment, Moushumi, a graduate student at New York University, is attending a conference in Palm Beach, Florida, with her boyfriend. She has been cheating on Nikhil for months when he “puts on his Abbey Road CD, skipping ahead to the songs that would have been on side 2 of the album” (269). (The first compact disc version of Abbey Road was released in 1987; its second iteration, remastered, was released in 2009.)
Why should the narrator/Lahiri mention this detail—not that this is the record Nikhil wants to hear but that he starts it on the seventh track? The short answer: to invite readers to coordinate their own playback of the album in real intertextual time with the novel. The longer answer begins with the observation that an LP’s sides are incompatible with compact discs. When a vinyl record is configured for compact disc, its two-sided aesthetic and material structure is reduced to one. The album as analog signal contained on the finite plastic medium (optimum length of side between 18 and 20 minutes) is nullified by the digital technology. There is no side 2 of Abbey Road on Nikhil’s first-generation compact disc; the digital format cannot convey to unwitting listeners that the original track sequencing on each vinyl side of the late-sixties recording Abbey Road was deliberate—Lennon’s preference for single cuts honored on side 1, McCartney’s preference for suite-like synthesis honored on side 2 (Beatles Anthology 338–40).
The reference to Abbey Road, with its allusive subtext echoing the “side 3” reference/allusion to the White Album, packs a double, perhaps triple, significance. First, it indicates that the format was the new—and for many of them, unpleasant—reality for rock fans. The analog transition to digital began in the early 1980s during Nikhil’s own transition from adolescent to adult—not the easiest of crossings for this conflicted Indian-American male trying to negotiate not only, as most young people must, the rites of sexuality and gradual pulling away from parental authority, but also the matter of personal destiny that for him is bound up in the hated name Gogol. No matter how hated, the name, and the identity bound up in it, is not easy to abandon: the newly minted Nikhil soon learns that
he doesn’t feel like Nikhil. . . . At times he feels as if he’s cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different. At times he still feels his old name, painfully and without warning, the way his front tooth had unbearably throbbed in recent weeks after a filling, threatening for an instant to sever from his gums when he drank coffee, or iced water, and once when he was riding in an elevator. (105)
The analogy between these musical media and the young man’s struggle is more than suggestive: that is, nominally, Nikhil Ganguli is a new identity for a previously shaped personality within the same physical body; literally, the compact disc is a new body for a previously shaped musical artifact whose identity has not nominally changed.
But much else has. In the mind of aficionados, the analog-to-digital evolution in form had serious consequences. Dwelling on the two-sided format of a vinyl record reproduced as a compact disc, the “Vinyl Freak” columnist John Corbett explains a concern that in the 1980s and 1990s engrossed millions of music lovers skeptical of the digital industry’s claim to “progress”: “The drama of vinyl, in part, is an echo of theater’s standard use of the intermission. Something happens. Then a break to reflect, shake it off. Something else happens. . . . There are always two sides to the story” (12). With the CD, no longer two sides; and as if both resisting and resigning himself to this upheaval, Nikhil treats the CD like the traditional LP, unaware that this pop culture artifact replicates the splitting in two of a seemingly unified product of civilization called a marriage. There is no going back.
Furthermore, the compact disc “revolution” brought with it the loss of sonic fidelity, a sterile digital sound, at least in the first-wave of analog-to-digital discs—a major point of contention among anxious Beatles fans who closely monitored their transition from analog to digital in 1987 and 1988. In his assessment of digitally engineered Beatles albums, Paul Winters analyzes compact disc (monaural and stereo) and vinyl remasterings and reissues of the Fab Four catalog from 2005 to 2009, explaining that fans, already dissatisfied with the first run of compact discs, grumbled because they “consider their music to be authentic only in its original analog form. Attempts of the recording engineers to alter and ‘improve’ the sound of the original recordings using digital means is considered to be a degradation of the music and the sound” (27–28). Whether or not Nikhil is an audiophile, with top-brand components dialed in just-so to make the most of his compact disc and record collection, is irrelevant; what counts is his long-time love of the Beatles, a band for whom a stubborn nostalgia for analog usually clings to those who grew up with them on vinyl. The warm medium to which Nikhil has been turning for comfort since his teen years both mirrors and mocks his relationship with Moushumi: it is not as fine as it once was. Indeed, it can be said not to exist at all.
To these analogies, one must add the fact that the first song on side 2 of Abbey Road is Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” written in Eric Clapton’s garden during a respite from the squabbling that had been tearing the Beatles apart for months (Spitz 839). Nikhil turns to the optimism of “Here Comes the Sun” in frigid New York City while Moushumi sunbathes in Florida with her lover. And although there may not be a song-by-song correlation with Nikhil’s marital situation, Abbey Road’s second-side medley would no doubt have had a cheering effect on Nikhil as it has had on millions of actual listeners. Abbey Road builds to the crowning cry in “The End” that “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Nikhil’s loss is underscored by the triumphant climax of one of rock music’s highest achievements.3
Abbey Road is the last music recorded by all four Beatles. In September 1969, the LP complete, John Lennon told Paul McCartney he wanted a “divorce” (Beatles Anthology 348). The faithful fan Nikhil would have known that. As he shivers in his apartment, “Here Comes the Sun” and the tunes that follow it mask the devastation that will define this his own divorce.
Addressing the group’s perennial global attraction in Dreaming the Beatles, rock journalist Rob Sheffield at one point spins out on flat “be” verbs, second-person plural, and hyperbole: “The Beatles are what they are because they are the most beloved human beings of their lifetimes and mine” (19). Sheffield is like other top writers on the band—e.g., Kenneth Womack, Mark Lewisohn, and Walter Everett—who tinge historical, cultural, and social reasons for their impact with hagiography, seen in Ian Inglis’s closing words in his 2017 book simply titled The Beatles: “the Beatles’ story has transcended the constraints of popular music to become one of the key historical events of the twentieth century” (176). In a collection on the Beatles co-edited by Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis, the scholar Jane Tompkins shares that the boys
let me know that kindness, fantasy, creativity, and vulnerability could go together and were not necessarily unmarketable traits. This knowledge . . . made me feel better about myself; it comforted me to know that some of the sensitivities and longings I had were shared, and it made me feel better because these attitudes and feels were being expressed in a way that joined me to millions of other people. (219)
To such testimony, the present writer, with the emotional life of Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli in mind, restates the earlier point that the Beatles were and are universally beloved because better than any other band they captured in music and lyric the experience of love, loss, and recovery. Gogol/Nikhil “does” for the Beatles what his father “does” for Nikolai Gogol. From his own early shyness to first love, from dating to marriage, then divorce and, by book’s end, signs of acceptance and recovery, he shows where and why the Beatles (for reasons different than the Russian genius) resonate so deeply across borders, across time. Gogol/Nikhil does not say that they “save” his life after Moushumi’s infidelity; he does not say that their “Indian” songs point to the ambivalence at the core of his divided identity. He does not have to say any such thing. If Lahiri respects readers enough to have them figure out why her hero is listening to the respective sides of the White Album and Abbey Road at those crucial times in his life, then she respects them enough to let them fill in all the rest by themselves. To fill in all the rest means to extrapolate from Gogol’s tortured self-consciousness as a youth and his happiness, then despair, as an adult that the Beatles have been his most trusted “soundtrack” all along. It is as easy to picture this abandoned husband listening to “Let It Be” repeatedly in the months following his wife’s revelation of her affair as it is to assume years earlier he included “Got to Get You into My Life” on the mix-tape he made for his college girlfriend Ruth.
Proof of the group’s preternatural grasp of the arc of love from infatuation to despair is immediate. Despite their youth on their first long-play album, 1963’s Please Please Me—Lennon was 22-years-old, McCartney 20 years, Harrison 19 years, and Starr 22 years—they seem to “get” it all (8 of the 14 songs were originals). Astonished teenagers heard instantly hummable tunes about first sighting of the beloved (“I Saw Her Standing There”), courtship (“Love Me Do”), devotion (“Ask Me Why,” “Baby, It’s You”), sexual intensity (“A Taste of Honey,” “Hold Me Tight” (recorded at the time but held over for the next LP, With the Beatles), deep relationship (“P.S. I Love You”), stirrings of doubt (“There’s a Place”), fading affection (“Anna”), and rejection/break-up (“Misery”). No older than 22, the four Beatles had not only mastered their craft as pop musicians but had experienced and/or observed the love/loss cycle with sufficient maturity to channel what they had learned into pop-rock tunes that to this day sell in the millions annually. Much of their catalog following Please Please Me showcased ever more sophisticated and nuanced musical expression of the vagaries of love. Sheffield uses the 2000 compilation 1 to “prove that three things never change: (1) people love the Beatles, (2) it’s a little weird and scary how much people love the Beatles, and (3) even people who love the Beatles keep underestimating how much people love the Beatles” (307). 1 “shocked the industry by selling 30 million, 40 million, something like that. It . . . was the fastest-selling album of all time” (306). It sold so well because most if not all of its purchasers were either in relationships or had been in relationships that were, would be, or needed to be enhanced, salvaged, figured out, or survived by listening to the Beatles, a pop/rock group that broke up 30 years before the release of 1.
The reader’s not-knowing Jhumpa Lahiri’s intention in referring/alluding to the Beatles in The Namesake does not alter her sleight-of-hand in staging his interaction with them. Without slowing down to ponder Lahiri’s referential touch in two key scenes in Gogol/Nikhil’s life, readers of the present analysis, along with the writer of it, may not have realized the degree to which they were key scenes in the first place. Had Lahiri’s narrator talked readers through those pivotal moments, there would have been no defamiliarizing lurch into awareness of her feat, no reason for the present essay.
Lahiri’s novel of Gogol Ganguli’s transformation into Nikhil Ganguli, with all of the protagonist’s attendant anxiety, self-consciousness, guilt, thrill, and, in the end, emergence into post-betrayal detachment, is enriched beyond measure when we understand the allusive and intertextual elements—primarily the music of the Beatles, and secondarily (as well as more explicitly) a major story by Nikolai Gogol—that mingle with an engrossing narrative. Lahiri paints a double portrait of the same man: one, an Indian-American individual raised by loving parents in a close-knit expatriate community; and two, an “everyman” transcending that family and community; both a specific human being wrestling with personal problems, and a fictional surrogate of the identity crises, many brought on by the alternating glories and miseries of love, with which many if not most human beings wrestle from their teen years until their deaths. For the past 50 years, the Beatles have been representing all of this—to wit, the highs and lows of love, the grief that so often follows the bliss, and the everyday effort made by human beings to function in a world where identity is as fluid as it is hard to define—in pop and rock music of the highest order imaginable, accessible to all, forever.
1) “I quite like children’s things; I like children’s minds and imagination. So it didn’t seem uncool to me to have a pretty surreal idea that was also a children’s idea” (McCartney in Beatles Anthology 208).
2) McCartney’s inspiration for “Hey Jude” was John Lennon’s young son Julian: I always feel sorry for kids in divorces . . . their little brain spinning round [sic] in confusion, going, ‘Did I do this? Was it me?’” (Miles 465).
3) Rolling Stone ranked Abbey Road number 14 in their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Number 10 was The Beatles/White Album.
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