An Indian graduate student arrives in New York determined to sort out both his love life and post-colonialism.
There are mixed results for the narrator and the novel both, though the two are closely aligned since the book is inspired by Kumar’s (English/Vassar; Nobody Does the Right Thing, 2010, etc.) own experiences. Kailash comes to America in 1990 prepared to study the intersection of the West and his native India. Intellectual stimulation abounds, but he still feels disconnected: “In this land that was someone else’s country, I did not have a place to stand,” Kumar writes. In that regard, he’s upending the traditional immigrant narrative by writing an assimilation novel whose hero can’t quite assimilate. But it’s not for want of trying. One relationship fizzles after his girlfriend gets an abortion; another ends when the literal and cultural distance between them becomes too much to overcome. (It didn’t help that when he proposed marriage, she said, “You want to do it for the green card?”) Academically, Kailash is taken under the wing of Ehsaan Ali, a political scholar (modeled after Eqbal Ahmad) who once conspired to kidnap Henry Kissinger. Kailash’s intellectual pursuits—particularly the life of Agnes Smedley, an American who supported anti-British Indian revolutionaries—are woven alongside his personal ones. It’s a loose braid, though, and not always an artful one. Kumar’s novel is modeled on the free-range autofictions of Teju Cole or Ben Lerner, prizing interior contemplation of a host of subjects instead of a strong narrative spine. Kumar, though, never quite settles into a comfortable emotional mode—the book is sometimes academically stiff, sometimes pleading (he often delivers asides to “Your Honor,” as if his identity were on trial). As an evocation of the confusions of global disconnection, it’s an effective strategy but not always a narratively compelling one.
A whip-smart if sometimes-arid exploration of home—or lack thereof.