“You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK,” Kailash, the protagonist of Amitava Kumar’s new nonfiction novel, “Immigrant, Montana” (Knopf), says of his fellow New Yorkers. “You look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.” In 1990, Kailash arrives in New York City from the eastern-Indian city of Ara to study literature; sex for him has gone only as far as a fleeting topless shot at the movies before the censor’s cut. John Donne, in “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” imagined his lover’s body as his America, awaiting discovery; Kailash is hopeful that America the beautiful can be explored through its women’s bodies.
Getting laid has always been a way that outsiders have attempted to conquer (and to write about) the big city, from Tom Jones to Frédéric Moreau to Alexander Portnoy. Kumar himself arrived at Syracuse University in the late eighties from Delhi via Ara; he is now a professor at Vassar and has written six books of nonfiction, one of poetry, and a previous novel. The new book falls between genres. Its aim is not to tell a story, exactly, but to create a portrait of a mind moving uneasily between a new, chosen culture and the one left behind. Kailash’s journey toward sexual integration in the West is cast (to quote the author’s note) as “a work of fiction as well as nonfiction, an in-between novel by an in-between writer,” complete with multiple epigraphs, pictures, footnotes academic and digressive, and both pop-cultural and literary-theoretical references. So the form of “Immigrant, Montana” calls to mind works by Teju Cole (to whom the book is dedicated), Sheila Heti, and Ben Lerner. Can we believe in the immigrant who happens to write in the hippest, Brooklyniest form going? What sort of outsider knows the rules so preternaturally well?
Part of Kumar’s answer to this question is that the immigrant is always already there in the host culture. Kailash attends “Colonial Encounters,” a class given by the deeply charismatic professor Ehsaan Ali (a figure based on Eqbal Ahmad), who is friends with Edward Said, teaches over squashy plastic cups of red wine, and was put on trial, during the Vietnam War, for conspiring (along with a priest, a nun, and others) to kidnap Henry Kissinger. Through the reading Kailash undertakes for the class, he delightedly discovers Stuart Hall’s formulation for the Windrush generation: “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.” Hall saw that those newly arrived in London from the Caribbean in the nineteen-fifties had been English for centuries already.
Kailash loses his virginity to Jennifer, a co-worker at the university bookstore, but she breaks up with him when she becomes pregnant and he can’t find a way to talk to her about the abortion she haltingly decides to undergo. “I wanted very badly to be in love with intelligent, well-read women,” Kailash says. In the following months, he falls for Nina, an intelligent, well-read American woman in his film class, with “short-cropped hair, large brown eyes, and impetuous lips.” For the smitten Kailash, Hall’s ironic evocation of the brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade becomes a line in a poem to his new beloved: “I’m the sugar at the bottom of your coffee, I’m the color in your cup of tea.”
Kailash uses two voices to tell his story. There is his older self, speaking from twenty years’ distance with the help of his journals and notebooks, and then there is his guiltier, younger self. That’s the voice that the newly arrived, inauthentic-feeling Kailash uses to address an imaginary judge who wants to kick him out of the country. (“The imaginary judge was white; we were in a court for those accused of false pretenses and indecent acts,” he explains of the fantasy.) Kailash begins testifying about his sins: “Your Honor, I have entered the body of America. I have spoken filth in the ear of one of your fair citizens when I was inside her.” In reclaiming and exaggerating the erotic conceit of Donne’s “To His Mistress” (“O my America! my new-found-land”), Kailash is effectively insisting that the immigrant be seen in his full humanity, in all his wanting-to-get-laid-ness. The imaginary judge, of course, never replies.
Kailash speaks English when he arrives in America, but he doesn’t yet quite speak American, and sometimes he can’t make himself understood at all. Kumar has given him a voice replete with graduate-student persnicketiness—even an orgasm can’t be recalled without bringing Elizabeth Hardwick into it. And his clumsiness is a problem in love. His relationship with Jennifer falters not because of “anything I had said, but instead everything that I had left unsaid.” When he finds himself one day asking Nina to marry him, it is under a cascade of sex jokes—“I preferred taking the low road of indelicate candor,” he says—and then, later, as the couple are riffing on the idea of a green-card marriage, Kailash isn’t able to express his fear that the woman he adores might not love him back: “Characteristically, what emerged from my mouth was more insincere banter propped up with academic jargon.” There is comedy in the older Kailash looking back, and down, on the younger Kailash; and there is tragedy, too—in his inability to say things directly, he fails to articulate his desires, or understand someone else’s.