The Return of the Real

Immigrant, Montana: A novel BY Amitava Kumar. Knopf. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.

At some point after 1986, when he arrived in the United States, Amitava Kumar discovered what he later called an anxiety endemic to the “expatriate Indian.” He sensed that the longer he stayed in his new country, the more he risked “losing touch with the society he took as his subject.” He used that fear, in many darting, subtle essays and several books, to urge himself toward a style that was scrupulously faithful to what he saw and heard. “The mannered delivery of lines” in 1990s Hindi movies, the bodies of people poisoned by uranium in a small Jharkhand mining town, and the speech of New York City cab drivers circulate in his essays alongside hundreds of other indelible details. By the time his first novel, Home Products, was published in 2007, he wrote, “realism had become my religion.”

The same could be said of Kailash, the narrator of Kumar’s second novel. Like Kumar, Kailash grew up in Patna, went to college in Delhi, and soon after emigrated—in his case, for a graduate program at Columbia. Many years later, he is narrating his early days in the US—his love affairs, his friendships, his studies—in mordant and alert prose. “As an American,” he writes about a woman in New York,

she considered it her duty to inform me about facts native to the land. For instance, the precise size in miles, length and breadth of the locust swarm that arrived in Texas in 1875. Eighteen hundred miles long and 110 miles wide. The locusts ate everything in their path, not just vegetation but also harnesses off horses or the clothing hanging from laundry lines.

Kailash gets much of his energy as a narrator from the facts that fill his well-stocked mind. He tells us about, among much else, the life of his mentor, Ehsaan Ali (a lightly fictionalized version of the postcolonial theorist Eqbal Ahmad), who fled India for Pakistan during Partition and years later got embroiled in a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger; the films of Satyajit Ray; the letters between a jailed anti-war priest and the nun he loved (renamed here, but clearly modeled on Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister); and the American writer Agnes Smedley’s turbulent romance with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, a revolutionary Indian nationalist. This material reaches us through Kailash’s narration, images interspersed amid the text, and footnotes, in which he reports on the development of the novel we’re reading, which before it became Immigrant, Montana he considered calling The History of Pleasure.

It would have been a fitting title. Much of the book, which bears as an epigraph Boris Pilnyak’s quip that “the Revolution smells of sexual organs,” tracks the young Kailash’s efforts to unburden himself of his innocence. He befriends Jennifer, his older supervisor at the bookstore where he does his work-study. She inducts him into intimacy and leaves him, in his words, when she realizes “I didn’t love her in a deep or lasting way.” Nina, a fellow grad student, sets off “a fury of desire” in him that takes a long flirtation to fulfill. He lets her down too. “Try to find someone who loves you, and love her back,” she tells him. He tries with Cai Yan, another classmate, who washes her hands of him after he tries to cheat on her while she’s abroad.

A recurring device in Immigrant, Montana is that Kailash has “a constant conversation in my head with a judge who was asking me questions.” The judge is always white. In the first of these “defensive soliloquies,” Kailash defends his desire to express less-than-noble thoughts:

I have chosen to speak in personal terms, the most intimate terms, Your Honor, because it seems to me that it is this crucial part of humanity that is denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK . . . and you wonder whether he can speak English. It is far from your thoughts and your assumptions to ask whether he has ever spoken soft phrases filled with yearning or what hot, dirty words he utters in his wife’s ear.

For Kumar, Kailash’s love life is a chance to play with “thoughts and assumptions” like these. But this tone is hard to sustain for a writer as attuned as Kumar is to the dynamics of power in relationships; it keeps darkening as particular stresses emerge. “It seemed that Jennifer had made a discovery about me,” Kailash reflects, “a discovery that I wasn’t privy to.” Nina and Cai Yan also hover just past the boundary of what he can describe, and it’s a frustration in this otherwise rich, searching book that, because its perspective stays so close to his, these women seem more thinly imagined than he. They morph and shrink under his projections: “I had fallen in love with her, and with her prose. Her perfume and her lips too. No, with her prose and her lipstick.”

Each time one of them leaves, it deepens the book’s pervasive sense of contact longed for and lost. Kailash is narrating from some decades after the fact, but “sudden dreams” of Nina still come to him. In 2008, he finds himself retracing a trip they took through Yellowstone. He ends up in the small Montana town that gives the novel its title, a desolate place overrun with grasshoppers. For years, he tells us, the thought of this place had brought together his “two most deeply felt needs”: “The desire for love and the hankering for home.” The glum fact of its emptiness prevents him from extracting any comfort from the town’s name or the details that swirl around it in his mind. Coming from a character who has, in his own way, made a religion out of realism and staked his style on making facts suggest more than their bare selves, it brings the book to something like a crisis of faith. “There was nothing here for me,” he remembers thinking.

Max Nelson is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.