A TIME OUTSIDE THIS TIME
By Amitava Kumar
It is February 2020. Satya, the narrator of Amitava Kumar’s new novel, “A Time Outside This Time,” is at an artists’ residency on an island in Italy. Like Kumar, Satya was born in Bihar, an eastern state in India, but has lived for much of his adult life in the United States. Troubled by the election of divisive leaders in the two countries he calls home, Satya has traveled halfway across the world to this idyllic villa on a hill to work on a novel, “Enemies of the People.” What is the book about? It is a report, he writes, “from the world of #fakenews.”
Satya is among the novelists who went through a crisis of faith after the 2016 presidential election. Ever since the former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway dropped the phrase “alternative facts” on TV, some American fiction writers have wondered if all they are doing day in and day out is make up lies. Satya, too, is skeptical about the power of the imagination in a post-truth world. Just as a new virus named Covid-19 is going around, he is busy trying to transform a lifetime of journal entries, scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, and descriptions of a few psychological experiments relayed to him by his wife, Vaani, into what he hopes will be a referendum on facts. When he isn’t working, he is either reading “1984” — George Orwell was also born in Bihar — or on Twitter. Satya is the Hindi word for truth, vaani for voice: This is the sort of novel where even the characters’ names are preeningly literal.
The problem with Satya’s crusade against misinformation is that too often he is just passing on breaking news alerts. The truths he espouses are factual, not emotional. Vaani is blandly introduced as a psychologist who “lives in the world of experiments.” Husband and wife seem to talk about nothing but research models of cognitive behavior; a casual conversation about their 9-year-old daughter telling lies becomes a freshman primer on positive and negative reinforcement. Satya’s earnestness is grating. While reporting on tensions between India and Pakistan in 2001, he deems his own “prose untouched by jingoism and honest about the cost of war.” He imagines firing back at audience members who ask annoying questions at literary festivals with a question or two of his own: “Whom did you vote for? Have you done any worthwhile reading?” He has convictions, but no precision, and the story doesn’t remotely test his beliefs. In the absence of self-revelations, there isn’t much to keep you turning the pages.
Was it Orwell who once wrote that an autobiography can be trusted only if it discloses “something disgraceful”? Halfway through the novel, Satya stops working on “Enemies of the People.” He becomes an information junkie, obsessively noting down the day’s headlines in India and the United States, shoring up fragments of an essay on the art of literary fiction and lies. Reality has obviously overwhelmed the novelist in Satya, and yet we get scarcely any sense of his inner turmoil. The plot consists of him mostly lounging around the opulent villa, giving in to fits of complacent despair. “Do you remember the days immediately after Trump took office?” he reminds the reader at one point. When some residents leave the island because of the pandemic, he claims that as “much as we fear the virus, we ought to be worried about the killer inside us.”
The book reads like a mash-up of two genres: autofiction and the post-apocalyptic novel. Except that the apocalypse here is just the news, which Satya follows online from the safety of the villa, and later, when lockdowns are enforced everywhere, from his house in upstate New York. Kumar writes supple sentences, but Satya’s reflections are too vicarious to sustain interest. His provocations aren’t startling enough; his thoughts can quickly lapse into a trite but well-meaning op-ed. You can’t help feeling that the novel lacks precisely the humanity that Satya demands from our leaders, an inherent and sometimes disquieting proximity to other lives.