Hari Kunzru

Does Hari Kunzru get you shelf-cred? His latest book, Transmission, oozes edgy cool.

By Alastair Sooke

Hari Kunzru has an almost unbearably hip profile, following the success generated by his award-winning debut The Impressionist. He's already become a signifier of cool for those metropolitan sophisticates who want to acquire 'shelf-cred'. According to gurus from Channel 4's programme The Gay Team, you'll create a more convincing 'metrosexual' identity if you stick Kunzru's books on your coffee table. It's sad that Kunzru is morphing into yet another lifestyle accessory for the next wave of Hoxbridge loft conversions. He deserves more than such a superficial response, since his second novel, Transmission, is a terrific success. The only book I've read this year that competes is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

I was slightly disappointed with The Impressionist when it came out in 2002. It's one of those expansive novels that bustles with bazaars, tiger hunts, chowkidars and beggars. It followed one character in a dervish whirl of metamorphosis as he changed his identity from spoilt Indian rich kid to drugged-up rent boy to Oxford wannabe, and so on. Despite the chameleonic shifts of character and setting, though, it felt strangely empty. Not so Transmission. This is a timely, funny and important novel that distils the cyber-zeitgeist of the noughties and diagnoses something rotten in our global superstate.

It's oh-so appropriate that you're reading this review on the web since Transmission revolves around computers (there are even little mouse icons that mark the start of each chapter). The central character is Arjun Mehta, a semi-autistic obsessive who loves Bollywood and 'filmi magazines'. Arjun lands a job in 'Amrika' as an underappreciated drone in a giant company trading in anti-virus software, in the comp-geek's mecca of Silicon Valley. But he's quickly fired, following a downturn in the markets. Desperate to avoid returning to India and his family's disappointment, Arjun programmes a vicious computer virus. He plans to stage a comeback by neutralising the virus for his firm and fantasises about being welcomed back as their prodigal son, to an accompanying soundtrack of Bollywood numbers.

The virus is an email that triggers a 'pop-up window' of Arjun's favourite Bollywood starlet, Leela Zahir, a 'little pixelated dancer' who moves 'in jerky quicktime' across your screen while the virus proper decimates the circuitry inside. It's an unmitigated success and comes close to causing total global meltdown – the first variant infects 3.2 million individual hosts worldwide – playing out the apocalyptic fantasies of the millennium bug doomsters. Arjun is forced on the run and the rest of the book follows him trying to outwit FBI agents who have demonised him into a cyber-Osama. The fact that Arjun's a gauche innocent, not a terrorist mastermind, is a wicked little irony.

The success of the book lies with Kunzru's ability to skewer the cliches of our quicktime world. The argots of advertising (a 'torso tiger' chest exerciser in New Delhi), business manuals (companies 'imagineer' futures for their clients with 'coolhunters') and tecchie-speak (‘u r a pr1z0n7r ov th3 l0rd$ ov m1zr00l’) are mimicked to perfection. The confused barrier between the real and virtual worlds is also well evoked. Arjun often thinks he's living in a computer game, 'a world of illusion' that 'felt like the floor of a game-world dungeon, shifting, full of traps'. Some of the satire is bang-on, too, such as the ironic soft-rock ringtones and 'slumming posh' accents of London's fashionistas, frequenting 'Japanese-Lebanese fusion food' restaurants in Mayfair.

Stylistically, Kunzru is an acolyte of Martin Amis, and the writing is always well-sculpted and smoothed. Here's a character awaking to a hangover: 'Someone had filmed a splatter movie in her mouth. Someone else had administered a spinal tap.' It's clear that Kunzru takes great pleasure in finessing his words. The result is like a peacock's tail in full display: an assured and cocky performance from a showy aesthete. Transmission suggests Kunzru is more than just another of the myriad 'sons of mart'. He's a potential successor to Amis's reign as the king of English letters.
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