The narrator of “Gold Diggers” is an endearing young man named Neil Narayan, an Indian American living in Atlanta. “When I was younger,” Neil says, “I consisted of little but my parents’ ambitions for who I was to become.” Despite the usual high school temptations, he dutifully heeds his “mother’s warnings that engaging in nonsense could abort all you were supposed to become, could in fact abort the very American dream we were duty-bound to live out.”
But then there is Anita.
Anita Dayal is literally the girl next door, but she’s also Neil’s Cleopatra and Daisy Buchanan. A friend since childhood, she’s infinitely cooler than Neil and bound to achieve the glittery success he won’t. And yet Anita and Neil remain yoked together by proximity and culture and eventually by disaster. Anita’s parents and his own — “the four brown adults in a largely white subdivision” — “create a simulacrum of India in a reliably red Georgia county.”
Sathian creates that cul-de-sac with a wry and loving eye — a kind of South Asian version of “The Wonder Years,” with Neil’s awkward antics narrated by his older self. This is a world in which children act as a fulcrum for their parents’ ambition. Neil is admonished to study harder and longer, while Anita and his sister throw themselves into the Miss Teen India pageant. Every aced quiz, every spelling bee prize, every science fair trophy is confirmation that the decision to leave India was correct, while failure of any kind throws the family’s entire sacrifice into doubt. “There was no room to imagine multiple sorts of futures,” Neil says. “We’d put all our brainpower toward conjuring up a single one: Harvard.”
Sathian’s portrait of this mania is tempered with enough tenderness to make it witty but never bitter. Neil is not just a son disappointing his immigrant parents; he’s every kid who can’t generate the energy to fulfill somebody else’s vision. “I wished everyone would give up on me,” Neil says. “Their gazes were too forceful, their hopes for me too enormous.”
It’s around this point that Sathian’s effervescent social satire breaks the bonds of ordinary reality and rises to another level. In a moment of crazed teenage despair, Neil discovers that right next door, Anita and her mother are practicing alchemy. Using an ancient recipe, they’re melting down stolen jewelry and creating a tart liquid that Anita drinks to ingest the dreams and plans invested in that shiny bling.
As a metaphor of the thirst for success, this domestic sorcery is pure gold. But the real miracle here is the way Sathian melds that ancient magic to the contours of her otherwise natural story of contemporary life. Like Aimee Bender, Karen Russell and Colson Whitehead, she’s working in a liminal realm where the laws of science aren’t suspended so much as stretched. “There are some mysteries a person needs to accept,” Neil says, which is good advice for anyone entering this novel.
In a dazzling demonstration of Sathian’s range, the book’s second half jumps a decade later, beyond the tragedy of Neil’s adolescence to the smoldering wreckage of his adulthood. It’s a jarring transition — and meant to be. Moving from Atlanta to the Bay Area, the novel also shifts from anxious teen drama to more astringent satire of second-generation Americans whose ambitions have pooled in Silicon Valley. Everyone is either working for “a Sherman Act-violating behemoth” or raising money for their new app. Their heroes believe “we’re all going to live in space and live a thousand years and be married to software.”
As a poor grad student in history, Neil finds himself out of sync with the moneyed Internet culture around him. “Sometimes,” he laments, “I can’t imagine ever feeling at home anywhere in the world, or with anyone at all.” Sathian, who inhabits Neil’s despair so sympathetically, uses his alienated perspective to capture the plight of “conceptual orphans” launched into the United States by eager immigrant parents. “In the space between us and the rest of adulthood lay a great expanse of the unknown,” Neil says. “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.”
As Sathian mines that vein of desperation, the term “gold digger” keeps turning, catching the light in strikingly different ways. It’s a slur hurled at women pursuing wealthy men; it’s a description of this country’s inexhaustible craving. And while everyone Neil knows rushes toward the future, he burrows through 19th-century California history looking for an Indian gold digger who may offer him “a legible American ancestor to provide guidance on how to make a life.”
With Neil’s struggle to find a usable past and a viable future, Sathian has created a funny, compassionate, tragic novel of astonishing cultural richness. She understands the contradictory, sometimes deadly demands that second-generation young people face, but she commands the narrative power to demonstrate that this struggle is central rather than merely tangential to the American experience. The result is a novel of Indian magic and modern technology, a parody of New World ambition and an elegy of assimilation. Looking up from the pages of this sparkling debut, I experienced something like the thrill the luckiest 49ers must have felt: Gold! Gold! Gold!
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Sanjena Sathian
Penguin Press. 344 pp. $27