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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Inscrutable Americans

by
Anurag Mathur


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Inscrutable Americans



Title: The Inscrutable Americans
Author: Anurag Mathur
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991
Length: 247 pages
Availability: The Inscrutable Americans - US
The Inscrutable Americans - UK
The Inscrutable Americans - Canada
The Inscrutable Americans - India
Gli imperscrutabili americani - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : solid variation on the (too-) familiar tale of an innocent abroad

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The Inscrutable Americans describes the experiences of Indian student Gopal Kumar in the American heartland, as he comes to the US to continue his university studies. A good student from a family that has been very successful in the hair oil business for generations, he comes from the boondocks in India, too -- even if his hometown is known as the "Paris of Madhya Pradesh" -- and hasn't been exposed to much. Barely ever having had any contact with girls, much less been intimate with one, he nevertheless anticipates that Penthouse Letters will prove "the finest possible guide to surviving in America".
       Gopal complains in a letter to his brother about the local language: "it is not English, it is American. I am facing so many embarrassings on this reason", and he certainly does, in taking everything -- beginning with the name of the student who picks him from the airport and becomes his best friend, Randy -- entirely too literally. Exposure to women -- far more sexually aggressive and willing than he can conceive of -- flummoxes him repeatedly, and even Randy's well-meaning best efforts to get him laid end awkwardly. Much of America -- like the game of football -- remains fairly baffling to him, but he does adapt his ways soon: while at first he is happy to indulge only in consuming copious amounts of Coca Cola (still not available in India at the time) he does succumb to much that he'd promised his family he would stay away from -- including alcohol and eventually even beef.
       This is a fairly typical tale of a naïf abroad -- though the focus on sex is rather extreme. Nevertheless, Mathur (who spent some years as a student in Eversville-like Tulsa, Oklahoma) does a reasonably good job of presenting how Gopal sees and navigates this strange, foreign world, from the first time he sees snow to his shyness going to a party.
       Only a small portion of the novel is in epistolary form, allowing Mathur to present chunks of Gopal's own voice, but not sinking the novel under its weight; while Gopal complains of American English, his own is equally different, but for a few pages at a time this makes for a welcome change. It's also generally quite amusing, beginning with his initial reaction:

Most surprising thing about America is it is full of Americans. Everywhere Americans, Americans, big and white, it is little frightening.
       Gopal learns a bit about America's racial problems -- the star football player is black, and shows him the local 'hood, a part of America Gopal never knew existed -- but on the whole Gopal achieves little true insight into American minds and ways (yes, they remain inscrutable to him); typically, a Thanksgiving visit to Randy's family goes horribly wrong. Still, while there is one other Indian in town, Gopal chooses to navigates life largely on his own, and on America's terms -- for better and worse -- with the occasional boost and help from Randy and a few others (boosts that help in the moment but are of limited long-term help: Gopal does not really experience much personal growth over the course of the novel).
       Sinking sometimes completely in his studies, several women do shake up his life a bit, but he's not equipped to really deal with them. Nevertheless, his horizons are expanded somewhat in this area.
       Though hardly old -- first published in 1991 -- aspects of The Inscrutable Americans are already quite dated: in comparing American TV offerings with Indian ones Gopal has to admit that in India there is only one channel to watch -- but the Americanized Indian in Eversville can only boast: "I can catch 36 channels on this" ..... In this and many other respects, India has closed the gap with the United States by leaps and bounds (while America has, of course, also made considerable advances from this pre-Internet era). As to the local mores, Mathur perhaps exaggerates slightly the willingness of everyone to jump in bed with everyone at pretty much the drop of anything -- but then he was writing for an Indian audience, and a bit of such exotic sensationalism couldn't hurt. (And, to his credit, he achieves good comedic effect by having Gopal long fail to lose his virginity, despite the many apparently easy opportunities.)
       The writing here is pretty good. If rarely perfectly put, Mathur nevertheless does develop some ideas nicely:
Though he wouldn't admit it to anyone, Gopal thought one of the most glorious sights in America was the popping open of cans. It combined technology, a solicitude for consumers, a deceptive ease and the poetry of the actual pop followed by the Wagnerian symphony of the hissing soda. By comparison the unscrewing or decapping of bottles paled into ordinariness.
       A bit unfocused and rushed, with characters pushed aside in quick succession (and then occasionally retrieved if convenient), The Inscrutable Americans is somewhat undeveloped as a novel. The sex-fixation, too, seems a bit much -- even if Mathur does manage to add a welcome layer to it by not allowing Gopal easy satisfaction, and presenting the emotional toll his inability to connect takes.
       The Inscrutable Americans is an amusing variation on the way too familiar theme of the innocent abroad, and remains of some interest, both in how foreigners see the United States, and how Indians (of a particular time and class) fare abroad.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 February 2012

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Links:

The Inscrutable Americans: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of literature from and about India

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About the Author:

       Anurag Mathur is an Indian author.

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© 2012 the complete review

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