December 9, 2018

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Newcomer's story offers little to like

Reader: Immigrant, Montana probably isn’t the kind of book you’d want to read, quite honestly.

This is mostly because it’s boring, despite its intriguing premise. The novel tells of the first years of Kailash, an Indian graduate student, in New York City and, through a mishmash of quotations, photographs, newspaper clippings (real or imagined?) and conversations (sometimes real, sometimes imagined), of his love affairs in America.

It’s the latest novel from journalist and Vassar College professor Amitava Kumar, who has won a Guggenheim Fellowship along with a string of other accolades.

“Conquests” might be a better word for Kailash’s affairs, both for the triumphant tone in which they’re described and the troubling sense of the word in a post-colonial context. For post-colonial themes are always on Kailash’s mind, particularly after he meets an influential Indian-American professor whose lectures reflect on politics, terrorism and the immigrant experience in a post-Reagan America.

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Reader: Immigrant, Montana probably isn’t the kind of book you’d want to read, quite honestly.

This is mostly because it’s boring, despite its intriguing premise. The novel tells of the first years of Kailash, an Indian graduate student, in New York City and, through a mishmash of quotations, photographs, newspaper clippings (real or imagined?) and conversations (sometimes real, sometimes imagined), of his love affairs in America.

It’s the latest novel from journalist and Vassar College professor Amitava Kumar, who has won a Guggenheim Fellowship along with a string of other accolades.

"Conquests" might be a better word for Kailash’s affairs, both for the triumphant tone in which they’re described and the troubling sense of the word in a post-colonial context. For post-colonial themes are always on Kailash’s mind, particularly after he meets an influential Indian-American professor whose lectures reflect on politics, terrorism and the immigrant experience in a post-Reagan America.

The novel is boring on several levels: its sometimes-graphic descriptions of Kailash’s sexual encounters always seem to highlight, at the same time, his satisfaction and the dissatisfaction of the women he sleeps with. Maybe this is some kind of metaphor for power imbalances resulting from displacement, but it’s also overtly troubling and won’t sit well with readers tired of male accounts of heterosexual sex that neglect the female experience.

It’s also boring because, perhaps, it’s too specialized: there probably are readers out there who have read Jacques Lacan and Karl Marx and are obsessed with Henry Kissinger and the various uses of the F-word and are willing to become deeply invested in Kailash’s self-absorption — but there probably aren’t many of them. Kailash has a tedious habit of imagining he’s on trial, justifying his actions to a judge: "The truth is, Your Honour, that the immigrant feels at home in guilt." But he doesn’t consider whether any judge alive would be interested in his love life in the absence of a crime.

Immigrant, Montana is a place in this novel: when Kailash visits, he’s struck by its iridescent insects, its "infinite blue sky... It was a name that I had long carried in my imagination… for all these years it was a name that brought together, like the two hands of a clock meeting at the right hour, the two most deeply felt needs of mine, the desire for love and the hankering for home. But there was nothing here for me."

Kumar’s writing is good: he can be poetic, he can be yearning and he can even be funny.

Some novels excel at highlighting the immigrant experience for an audience removed from that experience by a generation or two or three. But Immigrant, Montana doesn’t let Kailash’s experience flower into anything truly universal, except in rare moments: "Here I felt stranded in language. I had become a translated man, no longer able to connect with my own past. What else had I forgotten? The sorrow of the world, but also sorrow for myself, gripped my throat."

Even then, in tears, the way Kailash resolves his sorrow is to have sex with the woman next to him. How that woman feels about it isn’t described.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.

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