by Hari Kunzru
Published by Sutton
276 pages, 2004
Wired and Withering
Reviewed by Mark Sorkin
Given the pace at which technology is advancing, Hari Kunzru's second novel, the dot-com-era spoof Transmission, was bound to seem sort of quaint, if not dated, upon arrival. And considering how dramatically the political landscape and attendant anxieties have shifted since those heady days, the book is immediately less relevant as cultural diagnosis than as a testament of a moment just passed. Kunzru has tried to capture the way we live now, but Transmission is an untimely throwback, a story ripped from yesterday's headlines that inadvertently diverts attention from the current onslaught of sobering news.
But what a pleasant diversion it is. Transmission playfully interweaves the lives of a British corporate executive, a Bollywood starlet and a geeky Indian hacker, tracing their respective misfortunes amid the collapse of the new economy.
The story centers primarily on Arjun Mehta, a computer programmer who's plucked by a recruiter in New Delhi to join an IT consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Arjun is, first and foremost, a daydreamer. On the flight over he imagines his life unfolding like one of his favorite Bollywood films. But once he settles into a rundown neighborhood in the States, he learns that "anything can become mundane" and that his situation is actually rather bleak. Work is not guaranteed and, even when he does find temporary employment, he's compensated at much lower rates than he had been promised.
Things do pick up. Arjun eventually lands a semipermanent gig at a company called Virugenix, where he meets a woman who considers his utter cluelessness endearing. Soon after he gets laid, though, he gets laid off. And in a frantic ploy to reclaim his job and his girlfriend, he sets a virus loose on his former employers, hoping to swoop in and save the day with a quick fix. Instead, the virus rapidly infects the global economy. The result, Kunzru writes, is "an informational disaster, a holocaust of bits. A number of major networks dealing with such things as mobile telephony, airline reservations, transatlantic e-mail traffic and automated teller machines went down simultaneously."
The virus is particularly damaging to the reputation of Leela Zahir, the Bollywood actress whose name and image Arjun lovingly includes on the corrupting file attachment, and it portends disaster for young millionaire Guy Swift. Guy is the top dog at a hokey start-up called Tomorrow, an overvalued branding firm he describes as "not so much an agency as an experiment in life-work balance." Like Arjun, Guy has an active fantasy life, but his is colored by visions of material gain and unquestioned faith in his own hype. Despite his ostentatious display of wealth, Guy is struggling to stay afloat, and the Leela virus attacks just as his company is gearing up for a make-or-break sales pitch.
Kunzru, who worked on the editorial staff at the U.K. edition of Wired during the late 1990s, knows a thing or two about Internet culture. Through Guy he casts a sardonic gaze on the reckless consumption and messianic technobabble that marked the dot-com boom. The indictment is in the details: When Guy eats, he dines on hamachi kebabs at a trendsetting fusion restaurant called Sake-Souk; when he sleeps, he dreams of tall buildings. And that all-important account? It's a project to rebrand nothing less than Europe itself. Coked up at a posh restaurant in Brussels, Guy pulls out all the stops for his prospective clients: "We have to promote Europe as somewhere you want to go, but somewhere that's not for everyone. A continent that wants people, but only the best.…. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Club Europa -- the world's VIP room."
With its transcontinental sweep and eye toward blurred borders, Transmission revisits many of the themes Kunzru established in The Impressionist, his audacious 2002 debut. That story follows an orphaned boy named Pran Nath as he travels from India to Oxford University during the last days of the British Empire. When the book was published it was assaulted with critical acclaim and vaulted onto several of the year's best-of lists. Kunzru was later included in Granta's influential "Best of Young British Novelists" issue. Such a high-profile entrance inevitably presaged a sophomore slump, but Kunzru has weathered it well. Transmission extends his exploration of assimilation and rootlessness by introducing another hopelessly ambitious outsider to a corrupt and corroding society. He is a dynamic storyteller with a cinematic imagination, and Transmission sends Arjun, Leela and Guy on a riveting ride.
Still, there's something unsettling about a book set in the not-very-distant past, especially when it reveals such a dramatic lag. It's difficult to wax nostalgic about events that just occurred, or to claim sufficient distance from that era in order to judge it fairly. At times Kunzru's ironic gloss seems unearned, his story as thin as the people he's lampooning.
On the other hand, Transmission reminds us how far we've come since Y2K. At the crest of the dot-com wave, it was plausible for a talented programmer to immigrate from India and join the ranks of the exploited techie class. But traffic flows in the opposite direction nowadays, as those jobs are increasingly being outsourced to Southeast Asia. And "Cyberterrorism" is hardly a watchword in 2004; lately we've become more preoccupied with phrases like "Al Qaeda," "homeland security," and "Abu Ghraib." Arjun's mischaracterization by the FBI and sensationalist media pundits as an "international terrorist" is meant to be humorous, given his profile, but in this context the joke falls flat. One cringes to think that a hacker who develops something like the "Love Bug" virus, which shook the globe in the spring of 2000, could feasibly be sent to Guantánamo Bay. | July 2004
Mark Sorkin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.