Things fall apart in this sly postmodern fable of information-age displacement.
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page BW15
By Hari Kunzru. Dutton. 276 pp. $24.95
Like most people, I understand next to nothing about the arcana of computer programming. I also possess only the fuzziest conceptions -- misconceptions, more likely -- about venture capitalism, interactive online games and e-mail viruses. As for jet-setting Eurotrash and Bollywood movies, well, I've looked at pictures in magazines of sloe-eyed Italian beauties (of both sexes) and had a few casual conversations about Indian film-making with friends who are far more knowledgeable on the subject.Transmission, however, touches on all these trendy matters, and is utterly captivating: a deliciously satirical, humane and very enjoyable novel. Hari Kunzru, who lives in London, may be a new name to many Americans, but he is an exceptionally ingratiating writer, with a skewering wit, wide sympathies and a gimlet eye for the killing or illuminating detail.
You recognize this stylistic panache almost immediately. Timid but hopeful Indian computer whiz Arjun K. Mehta goes to apply for a job that will take him to the dream-world of the United States. When he opens an office door to meet his prospective employer, he discovers "a waiting room filled with nervous people sitting on orange plastic chairs with the peculiar, self-isolating stiffness interview candidates share with criminal defendants and people in STD-clinic reception areas." There, Arjun is cross-examined by a perfectly groomed headhunter, whose "features were regular and well defined. He had the polite yet aggressive air of a man who enjoys competitive racquet sports." Indeed, "every section of the man not covered with luxury cotton casual wear seemed to glow with ostentatious life, as if some kind of optical membrane had been inserted under the epidermis."
Surprisingly, Arjun is hired and sent to California, only to begin a sad-sack Candide's journey through modern American culture. ("Middle class," he soon discovers, is "an American word for white.") After systematic betrayal and mounting desperation, Arjun manages to land a low-level software job at Virugenix, a Redmond, Wash., company that specializes in combating computer viruses: Its unofficial motto proclaims "Sometimes it is noble to sleep in the crawl space of your desk."
At this point, Kunzru's novel starts to accelerate. Arjun encounters the generously tattooed Chris, a good-hearted bisexual hippie chick, who feels sorry for the naive, dark-skinned schlump. The two go out on a date -- for Arjun a first -- but unfortunately run into a gang of Chris's lesbian friends, "one of those sudden and unexpected encounters that can be given a positive spin only by reminding yourself that it would have been worse if you were with your mother." When the gang's leader pinches Chris's breast and gives her a long French kiss, Arjun finds himself both dismayed and perplexed. After all, his notion of love is based largely on the simple moral fables cum action-adventures that are Bollywood movies. His favorites feature the enormously popular young actress Leela Zahir, star of "Naughty, Naughty, Lovely, Lovely" and "You'll Have to Ask My Parents."
Poor, unlucky Arjun. His confusion in Redmond soon grows worse. "Chris would want it known that her decision to have sex with Arjun should be put down solely and entirely to drugs. Were there a national system of learning from mistakes the story would be written up and distributed to schoolchildren as a government information leaflet, a true-life illustration of why drugs are bad and the people who take them are stupid." But when our seductress first arrives at her victim's apartment, she notes -- significantly -- that it looks "as though someone had raided an electrical store and left what they didn't want there."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, actress Leela Zahir has just traveled from India to gloomy Scotland to make a new movie ("Tender Tough"), and Guy Swift, youthful visionary entrepreneur, is having trouble with his London-based company Tomorrow*. Guy's investors from Transcendenta actually want to see some profits from this "truly globalized branding agency," one supposed to "potentiate the synergetic emergence of something, thus maximizing feedback in something else and placing everyone at the apex of a place they all wanted to be." As Guy desperately explains to a sheik in Dubai:
"You see a happy brand is a learning brand. A brand should make you feel good, because if it knows what makes you feel good then it can position itself correctly and help you to make your choice. And if once you've made your choice the brand nurtures and protects you like a caring parent -- and here I'd really like you to imagine some emotional imagery of a baby -- then you feel good about the choice you've made and the brand learns from your good feelings."
Right. Recently, though, nothing is feeling good for Guy. He has a business associate who has taken to staring silently at his hands, "assiduously examining his long fingers, as if deciding which of them to sever first." Even his girlfriend, the glamorous Gabriella, is starting to grow restless, bored with their apartment at In Vitro, the most fashionable complex in London. Guy's bubble world is about to burst -- just as that of Arjun Mehta is simultaneously imploding in America. Soon both men will pin their hopes of salvation on last-ditch plans that will ultimately link their fates:
"Around the world, Thursday the twelfth of June was a quiet day. Bombs went off in Jakarta, Jenin and Tashkent. An old single-hulled tanker sank off Manila, releasing its load of crude oil into the South China Sea. In Malawi a man was diagnosed with a previously unknown retro-viral infection. At London's Heathrow Airport, two Ghanaian boys were found frozen to death in the undercarriage of a Boeing 747."
Yes, June 12 was a quiet day. But on June 13, Leela Zahir's 21st birthday, Arjun sends out the most powerful virus in the history of computing and so begins his ascent into legend.
Transmission possesses a wonderful lightness, and keeps you rooting for its bumbling hero, wincing at self-obsessed Guy, growing sorry for unfulfilled Gabriella and hoping against hope that Leela can escape her dreadful life -- and her even more dreadful mother:
Mrs. Zahir "was in her fifties, quite tall, and had probably once been beautiful, but surgery had pulled her face into a taut mask, accessorized with tattooed eyebrows and an incongruous retroussé nose. Her long black hair was streaked with red and she was dressed, as far as Gaby could see, as a teenage drag queen, in shiny snakeskin-effect jeans and a tiny T-shirt with the word 'Angel' picked out in sequins across the front. . . . The effect was vampiric, debauched."
Kunzru can capture perfectly this monstrous, oh-so-familiar type, but his range actually seems quite limitless: bus-terminal derelicts, born-again madmen, German business executives, world-weary, golf-playing sheiks, Indian crime-lords, computer nerds and honchos of all sorts, and even the obsessed role-playing gamers of ElderQuest, particularly those in the Honor Friend Sword clan:
"The day before the shutdown their surprise attack had decimated the superior forces of Lord Farfhrd's Power Blood Pledge Society, gaining them control of Castle Obsidian and a huge quantity of treasure. Now safely in possession of the Axe of Maldoror, S'tha the Muscular had attained the forty-fifth level in Swordsmanship and would henceforth receive tithes from all the lands around the castle and the nearby free city of Bigburgh. It was the greatest victory in the clan's history. After the reboot the Power Blood Pledge, who now had foreknowledge of the attack, descended on S'tha's camp under the protection of an Adamantine Shield spell and killed sixteen characters, including S'tha himself, who was reincarnated in Freetown as a first-level apprentice with three gold pieces, a knife and a small leather buckler. S'tha and the Honor Friend Sword were understandably angry."
Though Arjun provides the main storyline of Transmission, his misadventures are subtly mirrored by those of Guy, while the encounter of Gabriella and the Indian film crew in Scotland allows for a glimpse of corny moviemaking, a wee touch of Scottish kitsch and some hot, casual sex. In particular, Kunzru excels at suggesting contemporary decadence of all sorts, especially that surrounding Guy:
"There were people out on the balcony. He took his drink to the window and furtively looked out. They were women, five, maybe six of them, all beautiful; European and Asian women dressed in evening dresses. Thigh and cleavage. High heels. A short, middle-aged man was among them, a cell phone in one hand, the other kneading the breast of a tall blonde in a silver sheath dress. She looked down at him indulgently." This fast-paced novel's plotting is equally neat and artful: You may easily overlook the identity of this man with the bevy of beauties -- and to whom he is talking so assiduously. Early in the novel, Arjun casually barters Tiger Woods's home phone number for some computer information, and this transaction will -- hundreds of pages later -- contribute to his undoing. But not to worry: Transmission arrives ultimately at a loopy, if slightly rushed, conclusion worthy of the Bollywood films to which it pays homage.
Hari Kunzru's first novel, The Impressionist, made the short-list for numerous awards, and its author was named by Granta magazine as one of Britain's 20 Best Fiction Writers Under 40. These kind of honors are usually fairly suspect, but the story of Arjun and Guy and Gabriella and Leela is so good, so intelligent and amusing, as to leave no doubt about Hari Kunzru's right to be high up on such a list. If you enjoy Diane Johnson's Gallic novels of manners or the intellectual comedies of David Lodge, you should look out for the very smooth, Electraglide Transmission. •
Michael Dirda's email address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.
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