Transmission, by Hari Kunzru
I wrote a little about Kunzru’s second novel Transmission here as part of my March roundup, but being something of a Kunzru fan I thought I’d return to it with a dedicated post. Here it is.
Arjun Mehta is a shy and socially awkward young man, but clever. He’s a programmer and a good one. When he gets the chance to sign up with international corporation Databodies and get posted to the US it’s a potential dream come true.
His interviewer is calculated to impress: Swiss watch; luxury cotton casual wear; “the polite yet aggressive air of a man who enjoys competitive racket sports.” He radiates success and the promise that you too could be as he is.
Arjun gets the job and he’s too amazed and too naïve to take the promise of a golden American future at anything other than face value. His success completely overshadows his sister’s new job pretending to be Australian at “the most dynamic call centre in the city!”
His mother, naturally, is appalled:
He flung open the door to his mother’s bedroom and gave her the news. ‘Mummy, I’m going to America!’ He might as well have said prison or be trampled by horses. Letting out a groan, she buried her head in her hands and burst into tears. It was to be expected. As an Indian mother, Mrs Mehta’s prime directive was to ensure that her first-born son was never more than ten feet away from a source of clean clothes, second helpings and moral guidance.
Meanwhile, as Arjun takes the local bus a plane passes high overhead. In its first class cabin sits a 33 year-old British paper millionaire:
Guy Swift, charter member of a Soho club, a man genetically gifted with height, regular features, sandy-blond hair which tousled attractively, relatively inactive sweat glands, clear skin and a cast-iron credit rating.
Guy heads up his own agency, Tomorrow*. It has a Shoreditch office, a young staff and venture capital funding. Guy is a very contemporary success:
In a glittering career Guy had raised awareness, communicated vision, evoked tangible product experiences and taken managers on inspirational visual journeys. He had reinforced leading positions and project-managed the generation of innovative retail presences. His repositioning strategies reflected the breadth and prestige of large portfolios. His communication facilitation stood out from the crowd. Engaging and impactful, for some years he had also been consistently cohesive, integrated and effective over a spread spectrum.
As you’ve probably picked up there’s a sly sense of humour running through the novel. I’ve read the entire thing and I’m still not really any clearer as to what Guy’s agency actually does. Perhaps that’s why it’s in trouble. Perhaps that’s why his venture capitalist backers are starting to ask when they’ll see a profit.
Unfortunately for Arjun it’s not just Guy’s agency that’s a bit unclear as to its nature. Databodies is not the passport to riches that Arjun was sold, or at least it’s not a passport to Arjun getting rich. Their business consists of providing temp workers to American companies looking to fill vacancies on the cheap. Between contracts he’s benched, waiting with other men in the same position all hoping for work that rarely comes along.
Arjun learns that he’s on what’s nicknamed a “slave visa”. His right to stay in the US is dependent on his continued employment by Databodies which means they can pretty much do what they like with him.
Databodies charged the companies he worked for twice, even three times what they paid him, and still deducted money from his pay for rent, legal and administrative fees. He had made no money, gained nothing at all since coming to America except a new and harder picture of the world.
Eventually Arjun gets a decent posting – an indefinite secondment to one of the world’s leading anti-virus companies. It’s a chance to show what he can do and to forge a life that consists of more than waiting in some Databodies’ dorm-house for the phone to ring. Perhaps if he can prove himself he can get taken on full-time. Perhaps he can lead the life he’s pretended to his family back home he’s already living.
Arjun moves continent in reliance on a signal that proves to be mostly noise – Databodies’ lies about what he’s signing up for. Guy meanwhile makes his living by selling noise that looks like signal – meaningless soundbites with uncertain and unmeasurable sales outcomes. Their worlds are going to collide.
The novel opens with a prelude describing a new computer virus sweeping the globe. The virus uses an image of Bollywood’s latest heartthrob, Leela Zahir, to lure the unsuspecting into clicking on a link that they really shouldn’t trust. Leela is another connection between Arjun and Guy: Arjun is one of her biggest fans; Guy’s increasingly uninterested girlfriend works with Leela as a publicist.
As a star Leela is both person and construct. On the one hand there’s the Leela Zahir that’s a deeply unhappy young woman pushed into a profession she doesn’t care for by her mother/manager who acquires her own fame and fortune through Leela’s talents. On the other, there’s the Leela Zahir who lights up the screen and fills millions of hearts with joy and adoration. Leela’s signal to the world is the noise blocking her own life.
Kunzru juggles the multiple viewpoints and multiple story-threads with ease. The book clocks in at around 300 pages, and for me they sped past. It’s a very now book, which isn’t bad given it was actually first published back in 2005.
The targets are sometimes a little easy, Guy particularly, but Kunzru is deliberately aiming for a lighter satirical feel here and amid the broader brush material there are some distinctly stinging asides: “(middle class being, he had discovered, an American word for white)”; or later “At least in India the street people can lie down for a while before being moved on.”
There’s something of a witty William Gibson feel to it, contrasting Indian culture with US rather than Gibson’s much-loved Japan. Gibson’s contemporary-set novel Pattern Recognition, featuring coolhunter Cayce Pollard, was published in 2004 just the year before. Cayce could be Guy Swift’s more successful sister, perhaps there was something in the water back then.
In fact, you could do a fairly interesting reading triptych with this, Pattern Recognition and Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island. Looking back at my review of Satin Island I found this section where I discussed a real world agency’s own corporate mission statement:
To be fair to McCarthy this seems to be a real outfit, and yet their mission statement reads “River dives in to the trends, needs, experiences and expectations of consumers. We use these immersion platforms to create new opportunities for our clients’ products and brands” which I suspect wouldn’t look out of place in U’s Company. Also, in fairness to McCarthy, after poking around their site for a bit I honestly couldn’t tell you what they actually do.
Perhaps it’s not so much that some of Kunzru’s targets are easy, as that they’re simply accurate. That’s the thing with reality, it just doesn’t have the same obligation to make sense that fiction does.
One last word to Guy Swift, here contemplating what cuts he can make to keep Tomorrow* afloat when its funding comes under scrutiny:
The coolhunters could probably go too – they just seemed to spend all their time in Brick Lane photographing people’s haircuts.
It’s lucky for Gibson’s Cayce Pollard that her that her agency is doing better than Guy’s, and perhaps luckier still that she found herself in a Gibson novel rather than a Kunzru. You might get shot in Gibson’s worlds, but you’ll rarely just get laid off…