Review: Transmission (2004) by Hari Kunzru   Leave a comment

Having now read both The Impressionist (2002) and Transmission (2004), Hari Kunzru’s first two novels, I have to admit that I am torn between mixed emotions. You see, I really like these works – a lot – and yet, at the same time, I get the feeling that Kunzru is an author who has not quite fulfilled his talent to its greatest extent. So while Transmission is very good, especially for a second novel by a young writer, I get the feeling that Kunzru may yet go on to bigger and better things.

Transmission is the story of the havoc wreaked on society by a computer virus named Leela, named after a fictional Bollywood star named Leela Zahir. At its center is a young Indian computer programmer, Arjun Mehta, who releases the virus when his tenuous, exploitative job with a Silicon Valley antivirus company comes under threat.

Kunzru interweaves this main story with several other threads: the rise and fall of Guy Swift, a British new-money entrepreneur who runs a company called Tomorrow*, which seems to specialize in marketing empty rhetoric to various multinational businesses; the career of Gabriella Caro, Guy’s girlfriend, who works as a public relations manager and suffers from her family’s old money; and briefly, Leela Zahir herself, who has been thrust into the world of show-business by her pushy mother.

Kunzru has a brilliant eye for satire. Guy Swift’s proposal, for instance, that Europe be rebranded as a sort of “VIP zone” for elites in the same way that certain nightclubs market themselves toward the rich and the famous is comedy gold, especially given what happens to him later in the novel. The only problem, in my opinion, is that most readers are a little too used to having their hands held: that is, they often want authors to reveal the satirical facade, just for a moment, to drop a wink after delivering a piece of searing irony so as to say “hey, it’s just satire, I’m only kidding.” What I admire about Kunzru is that he doesn’t do this, and so those who don’t get joke, well, they miss out. It’s a daring strategy, one that, as a quick perusal of the academic criticism about Kunzru’s novels suggests, leads to some overly literal interpretations of his work.

The main shortcoming I found in Transmission was that Kunzru struggled to find a consistent range for his considerable comedic talents. A deliberately flat character like Guy Swift, for example, seems better designed for a much broader kind of comedy than was on offer. Mostly, I think this problem had to do with how Kunzru deals with social class, since the grand conceits of those in charge generally make them a perfect target for the kind of humorous poetic justice which is conferred on characters like Swift or Darryl Gant, Arjun’s passive-aggressive boss at Virugenix. The strategy works less well when it comes to the more difficult aspects of society, for disillusionment, poverty, and exploitation are much harder to laugh at from the bottom up.

Kunzru usually manages to address such issues without seeming preachy, but it does make it seem as though the novel proceeds at two different speeds that don’t quite gel with each other. Thus, there is the touching story of Arjun, who seems like a kind of holy fool, on the one hand, on whom is conferred a mixture of innocent sincerity and frustrated pathos, and on the other hand, the broad satire of the delusional Guy Swift, who could easily have wandered out of the pages of a Martin Amis story. The result is an entertaining but uneven novel, one in which the various threads are tied together competently but a little too glibly for my taste.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted March 26, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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