Category Archives: Kunzru, Hari

Certainty backslides into probability. Information transmission, it emerges, is about doing the best you can.

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…

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“Forget all your fears now. Have a fling this night”

March roundup

This is my March roundup. Again, a pretty solid reading month. I may do a similar post for April and then try to start doing individual posts again (it’s a bit daunting when you have a multi-book backlog to go back and start writing them all up individually – better to start afresh with a new month).

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

 

This one’s had a lot of reviews across the blogosphere. It’s a Finnish novel about a famine, told from the viewpoint of those reduced to starving refugees and those sitting comfortably in the capital talking about how awful it all is.

It’s a bleak tale featuring desperation and terrible suffering. It’s also very powerful and worth reading even if the description here makes it sound a bit grim. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal did a good review here and Grant of 1stReading’s Blog here.

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

 

Book four in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross – basically comic novels which combine spy fiction, Lovecraftian horror and British government bureaucracy to form a particularly unholy mixture.

For some reason Stross never seems to assume you’ve read previous novels in the sequence (but who starts at number four?). That makes for a bit of repetition and he does sometimes reuse the same jokes and references even within the same book, but even so these are light and fun reads. Beach and transport books to borrow Emma’s rather marvellous category.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

 

This is a horror novel which again draws on Lovecraft, but here more by way of a mixture of homage and critique rather than simply by reference. LaValle takes the famous Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook and retells it from the perspective of a new character not mentioned in the original.

Red Hook is one of HPL’s more racially iffy stories and while LaValle is clearly a fan he’s aware of the issues in HPL’s work. Here he uses an African-American protagonist to contrast real world brutalities with HPL’s more fantastical ones.

I thought this clever and affectionately respectful of the original while doing something new with the material. If you’re not already an HPL fan though you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

 

I’ve yet to read a Kunzru I didn’t love. This is his second novel and tells the story of a young Indian programmer brought to the US on promises of a chance to make his fortune, but who discovers instead that the American dream is often built on cheap third world labour.

At the same time it’s also the story of a computer virus that sweeps the world and the lives caught in its wake, one of them an up-and-coming Bollywood star. All that and above all else it’s a novel about the difficulties of human contact and how our personal signals can get lost in the noise around us.

If I get a chance (but I probably won’t), it deserves a full write-up. It has a shot at my end of year list.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Great cover for this one. It’s a lovely little gothic tale of a psychic researcher who brings a motley group to a famously haunted house, among them a very troubled young woman who shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.

It has a bit of an odd tonal shift three quarters of the way through, but otherwise it’s well done and justifiably famous. I’m already planning to read more Jackson.

Glittering City, by Cyprian Ekwensi

This was one of Penguin’s recent Penguin Modern short releases. It’s a short story/novella about Fussy Joe, a Lagos charmer and waster who likes to hang out at the station picking up young women fresh in from the country who don’t yet know to avoid men like him.

It’s a quick read and Ekwensi manages the balancing act of making Fussy Joe likeable while at the same time making it quite clear why he deserves to get his comeuppance. It does exactly what Penguin hope for from this series – introduces you (me anyway) to a new writer and gives a sense of their style.

From ancient Rome, to ‘60s Lagos to modern Rio or Tokyo the place and time may change but wherever you go there’s a Fussy Joe and there’s fresh innocents to be fleeced, or at least there are as long as Fussy Joe can keep ahead of all the people he’s borrowed money from or taken advantage of… Lots of fun.

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag

This was a good book to finish the month on. It’s an Indian novel told from the point of view of a rich young man who is notionally heir to a successful business but who spends his days sitting in a café as he’s a bit lazy and doesn’t have any actually useful skills.

As the story unpacks you get a sense of the underlying family dynamics, their route from poverty to their current wealth and the compromises they all made along the way. What starts as a fairly gentle comedy becomes a moral enquiry, an examination of the culpability of those willing to turn a blind eye for a comfortable life.

There’s lots of reviews of this one including from Stu here and this one from Grant at 1stReading’s Blog which pushed me over the line to giving this a try.

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Everything seemed to be linked to everything else

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

As a teenager I had a copy of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. I read it over and over. I loved the Norse gods particularly; tales of Thor sleeping in a strange five chambered hall and waking only to learn he had spent the night in a giant’s glove, of Loki’s envy for Baldur and how it led to the death of the most beautiful of the gods.

In myth the ordinary and extraordinary mix without comment. Gregory of Tours starts his History of the Franks at the beginning, with Adam and Eve and the fall of man, and proceeds from there to then-current events mixing the miraculous and the prosaic without distinction.

Today myths are often read crudely literally – as no more than pre-scientific attempts to explain the world in the absence of better analytic tools. There’s an element of that of course, but myths are profoundly comfortable with ambiguity. A thing can be true without ever having happened; the myth of Icarus still speaks to us even though it never looked likely, not even to the Greeks, that we’d one day find his remains.

GodsWithoutMen

Gods without Men is a work of contemporary US mythology; an exploration of true things that mostly never happened. It opens in the myth-time when animals were men, with Coyote driving out into the desert to cook up some meth. It’s a discomfiting opening, one that left me unsure quite what I was reading, so it was almost with relief that I reached the second chapter set in 1947 with an aircraft engineer named Schmidt setting off into the Mojave desert to live as a recluse and concentrate on his life’s work, contacting the benevolent aliens he believes will come down in their saucers and set the world to rights.

From there Gods travels back and forwards in time: to 2008 when Sikh-American Jaz and his Jewish-American wife Lisa travel out to the desert on a desperately needed family holiday, their marriage strained by the arrival of their severely autistic child; to 1778 and details of a (real life) Franciscan missionary and his attempts to convert the indigenous peoples of the area; back to 2008 where an English rock-star is staying at the same motel as Jaz and Lisa while he hides out from his band’s disastrous attempt to make their great-American-album; then 1958 and a teenager tempted by the contactee-cult commune that’s springing up not far from her dreary home town.

It sounds chaotic, but if you trust Kunzru (and you should) it starts to come together. The common character is the desert itself and a rock formation named the Pinnacles that looks like three fingers reaching into the air – a shape so distinctive that it seems almost meaningful.

Slowly, the different periods start to fit together. Schmidt in 1947 makes his camp near the Pinnacles and attracts followers, who become the UFO-contactee cult of the 1950s and in later chapters from ’69 through ’71 take a darker turn down the hippy trail. In 1920 an ethnologist studies a dwindling tribe of native Americans living near the Pinnacles, desperate to preserve their culture from being entirely lost but unable to see it clearly through his own prejudices and assumptions. His story leads to disaster, but connects through to the contactees and ultimately to Jaz and Lisa and their own disastrous trip into the desert on their misconceived family break.

Everything in this novel seems to be linked to everything else, but that doesn’t mean any of it is meaningful. We’re dealing here with “the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world.”

The core narrative, or perhaps simply the strongest, follows Jaz and Lisa. Jaz is a mathematician working in Wall Street for a computer trading desk. His boss, Bachman, has created a new program that analyses endless oceans of data and finds seemingly unconnected correlations enabling arbitrage trades at near the speed of light (all that really exists by the way). Jaz however has grown concerned that the program may be too sophisticated, and that as it trades it no longer merely analyses the world but may in fact be changing it.

For Bachman though, the program is about much more than just making money. It’s a method for mapping the world. He believes that the correlations it finds are meaningful, not mere inevitable coincidences arising out of a vast dataset:

‘We’re hunting for jokes.’ Bachman spoke slowly, as if to a child. ‘Parapraxes. Cosmic slips of the tongue. They’re the key to the locked door. They’ll help us discover it.’ ‘Discover what?’ ‘The face of God. What else would we be looking for?’

Communication and comprehension are key themes here. Jaz and Lisa can’t communicate with their child or understand him, and the strain of coping with a kid who never smiles and seems to hate being hugged has led to them being almost as inaccessible to each other as their son is to each of them.

Schmidt and the contactees who follow him are trying to commune with higher intelligences that they believe will save the Earth; Bachman thinks he can find meaning through an algorithm; the rock star takes peyote in the desert trying to get in touch with the inspiration that’s eluding him. Each character is faced with something vast and unknowable, and each tries to make sense of a world that doesn’t so much resist their attempts as simply not notice them. The title is a reference to a Balzac quote, that the desert is god without men, and here the desert is full of human attempts to impose meaning and empty of any of its own.

In 1920 a witness sees a Native American with a white boy out in the desert, leading to a manhunt and savage interracial violence. In 2008 a child goes missing, triggering a national media and internet frenzy, but months later is discovered near a fake-Iraqi troop-training village in the Mojave desert (another true thing), but with no clue as to how it could possibly get there. Are these events linked? Another child goes missing in the fifties, a contactee’s daughter, who turns up years later unharmed and claiming to channel alien intelligences.

Did the child in 2008 travel in time? Was it hidden in the land of the dead only to return to the land of the living as mysteriously as it vanished? Was the child in the fifties taken by aliens to be made an interstellar messiah? Or alternatively, did the child in 2008 get kidnapped by a childless couple living in the desert and released once they realised it wasn’t “normal”? Did the girl in the 1950s just die in a fire, replaced years later by an imposter “discovered” by the cult’s leader so as to help him control his followers? The novel doesn’t tell us. Things happen and we all try to make sense of what facts there are as seems best to us.

This is my second Kunzru, after his My Revolutions (which I loved). It’s almost 500 pages and needs to be given how much is packed in here, but it’s a light and intriguing read which managed the interesting trick of being philosophically dense and yet something of a page-turner.

The characters vary in depth. Some, the English rock star or Schmidt are lightly drawn since they exist more as catalysts or people caught in the narrative than as central figures. Others, like Lisa and Joanie (a local teenager who joins the contactee cult) have much more depth and are convincingly and messily real.

Jaz however stands out as perhaps the best creation in the book. He’s in many ways a classic second-generation immigrant caught between the culture he grew up in and his parent’s culture transplanted from a place he’s barely seen and that has no resonance for him. When his parents realise Jaz is bright enough to have a shot at MIT they align the entire family around his potential future (“His mother and sisters moved around like ground technicians on an immigrant moon-shot.”). When he gets there he cuts his hair in contravention of Sikh-tradition and marries a white girl, his family struggling to comprehend his choices or even to talk to him about them.

Jaz becomes an immigrant of sorts himself as he leaves behind his past as a geeky outsider-kid and relocates to Brooklyn, takes a job in Wall Street, shops in Whole Foods. Jaz is living the American dream, or was until the world deposited a deeply damaged child on his lap instead of the perfect family he expected.

Above all though, Gods is a novel of place. I read this as a break from my #TBR20 while on a driving holiday in the US, and you can tell Kunzru put in time on those roads, seeing for himself the desolate parts of America where the scale of the landscape and the sheer breadth of the sky almost stuns you, and where you find towns nobody would ever detour to see:

Soon the only signs of life were rows of giant white wind turbines and billboards advertising casino resorts. An outlet mall rose up at the roadside like a mirage. Then nothing. Miles of rock and scrubby bushes.

And:

Cars sped along the highway, pulled in and out of the parking lot, disgorging more meaningless forms. Later she found herself driving through town, past plate-glass storefronts. Computer supplies. Weight Loss Club. She turned on to a side street, then another. Cracked concrete and chainlink fences. A collection of self-storage units fronted by desiccated palms. A community whose landmarks were laundromats and 7-Elevens, trailer parks for the unlucky and for the slightly luckier, subdivisions of low, mean-looking ranches, bunkers with double garages and dead brown lawns strewn with children’s toys.

I’ve already written more than I really wanted to for this review, and that’s even with my skipping entire characters and situations which lead to other perspectives on the text (one review I saw thought the entire book an allegory about the Iraq war, which I think is a misreading but there’s a lot here on that topic that I’ve not even touched on). The more I write however, the more connections I see. Now it strikes me that Jaz’s inability to understand his wife or his son has parallels with his own family’s inability to understand him. Maybe that’s intentional, or maybe this is just a large book and it contains echoes that seem meaningful but are just patterns in the noise.

I’ll end then by returning to the beginning: Coyote driving into the desert. Later, one of the hippy-contactees is named Coyote and still lives in the area decades later in the 2000s when he may or may not be involved with the missing child. Coyotes crop up at other points too, the trickster-spirit appearing in many guises through the book. Or possibly not, coyotes are native to the area and one person’s divine apparition is another’s coincidence.

Other reviews

Many online, naturally, but not in the blogosphere that I know of. There are though two interesting interviews with Kunzru at The Paris Review here and at the New Yorker here.

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The revolution will not be televised

Last night I finished Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, My Revolutions, recently out in paperback (with a cover which isn’t nearly as good as it had in the hardback, but there you go).

It’s a novel about activism in turn of the 70s London, particularly Notting Hill, and in part about the world that activism gave birth to (or failed to prevent) as the novel alternates between the life of the protagonist in the late 60s and early 70s and his life under an assumed identity in the late 1990s.

Although I dislike autobiography in blogs, it’s rather unavoidable here. I grew up in Notting Hill and North Kensington in the 70s and 80s (after the period of this novel, but in a world its characters would have recognised) and my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, being involved in squatter’s rights protests and co-operative movements and the various causes of the day. As such, the world depicted in the novel is in large part one that is very familiar to me from childhood. That does allow me at least to say that those parts of the novel which deal with matters with which I am personally familiar, are pretty much right.

The novel opens with its protagonist, now named Mike Frame, living in Chichester with a woman who has a vaguely Body Shop-esque small business which is doing increasingly well and her daughter, Sam, a 20 year old with the ambition of becoming a corporate lawyer. This part of the novel is set in the late 1990s, before 9/11, during that brief period in which the end of history was hailed as having arrived and many thought we were post-ideological. Within a handful of pages, we learn that Mike Frame is not who he claims to be, that he was once someone quite different, that this is about to be revealed and his life and that of his partner and his step-daughter will be shattered as his past becomes known. A past he has never shared with them.

I don’t wish to get overly into the details of the plot here, it’s not complex and some may read this who prefer to avoid that kind of disclosure, however in broad terms we follow Mike’s flight in the late 1990s and his thoughts on the world, his relationships and those around him while simultaneously we also follow his passage from being a student radical in the late 60s to his becoming an armed radical in the early 70s. We see his seduction as a young man by fatal purity, the lure of simplicity, and by contrast the ideological bankruptcy of the future his earlier self could never have imagined.

I’m going to discuss the issues the two time periods in the novel raise separately here, although in the novel they are of course intertwined.

Taking first the late 1990s part of the novel, Mike Frame is a man who has withdrawn from politics and from activism entirely. His partner, Miranda, is a woman focused on (faux-)authenticity, she hangs a dream-catcher in the bedroom, she is fond of objects she perceives as “ethnic” or “natural”, she regards herself as socially concerned. Her business is taking off, she drives a BMW, she is a successful product of her age and she is an example of the commoditisation of the counterculture. She is organised, efficient, modern, all of which is summarised for me in a wonderful line where Mike contemplates what is coming and muses “Poor Miranda, no amount of Post-its will ward off what’s about to happen to you.” She has a lifestyle.

Miranda’s daughter, who Mike has come to see as his own, is also a product of her age. Sam is 20 years old, her dreams are not of social change or of revolution but of becoming a corporate lawyer. She contrasts in the novel with Mike’s earlier self, Chris Carver, who in his early 20s wants to make a better world and is potentially willing to die to achieve that end. Sam is apolitical, viewing her parent’s vaguely right-on sentiments as essentially quaint. She is content with the world as it is, and does not enquire too deeply into what kind of world that is. At one point Mike considers her life and comments on her wanting boyfriends who were the sort who would meet her in the pub and talk of holidays and jobs.

Miranda and Sam fill dual roles in the novel, they are characters in Mike’s life and they are examples of categories of people, of ideas even. Part of the success of the novel is that Kunzru succeeds in making them both. They do carry important ideas, but remain convincing as characters in their own right and Mike’s relationship with them broadly persuades. That said, it is difficult (it was for me anyway) to read the early pages of the novel and the descriptions of Miranda and Sam without feeling a sense of anger at the sheer vacuity of their world. At its empty consumerism and at the commoditisation of experience.

Miranda considers herself as someone in touch with the authentic, the natural, but while that may once have been true (but probably wasn’t) she is by the time we meet her simply a producer and consumer of the myth of authenticity. Her authentic experiences are purchased, she is ignorant of history and has no interest in it, her contact with other culture’s experiences of the world are mediated through commercial exchanges. She is an example of the way in which late 20th Century capitalism co-opted the ideals of the counterculture, repackaged them and sold them to increasingly middle-aged ex-hippies who now had semi-detached houses and four-wheel drive cars. The revolution has in fact been televised, rebranded and has become a lifestyle option.

She is also of course simply a middle-aged woman with a small business who wishes a life which is comprehensible, interesting and enjoyable. A woman who cares for her family, and whose faults are ones of vanity and complacency, faults most of us share to some degree or other. It is all too easy to react to what she represents, and forget the person underneath the representation. This is, in my view, quite intentional as in inviting us to objectify Miranda as a character Kunzru invites us to commit the same error the earlier revolutionaries did – thinking of people in terms of what they symbolise rather than who they are. Forgetting their humanity, and so forgetting our own empathy.

Sam is a young woman who has grown up within that corporatised world, a woman to whom activism would mean buying a fair trade coffee from Starbucks. She is untroubled by concerns about the wider world, the issues which occupy her are personal rather than political. Again, one can take her at the symbolic level as an example of a person free of ideology, who benefits from a world order which places her in a position of wealth and comfort without questioning how that came about or who might be paying for it. Or one can simply see her as a young woman trying her best, as we all have to, to find her way in the world. She is also of course an inhabitant of the world the revolutionaries sought to create, either an example of how profoundly they failed or perhaps more interestingly an example of how they succeeded and the inhabitants of that new world are people that the revolutionaries themselves would never have tolerated (several times a key character in the novel comments that the post-revolutionary world will have no place in it for the revolutionaries themselves).

By contrast, in the late 60s and early 70s Mike Frame was Chris Carver. A young man from a working class family who becomes a CND activist, goes to university at the LSE, and from there falls into the world of anti-Vietnam protestors, squatter’s rights activists, collectives, escalating over time into participating in increasingly radicalised direct action groups and ultimately finding himself involved in bombing campaigns against a largely indifferent British establishment.

Much of this is based on real history, in particular the Angry Brigade who in the early 70s carried out a series of bombings on economic and political targets. Much else in the novel is based on non-violent groups of the time, and there is an acknowledgements section which briefly identifies the history drawn upon.

Carver’s journey is an interesting one, in part as where he ends up is plainly wrong, by the end he is in a group which is planting bombs and which may escalate into killing people, but it is difficult to say clearly at what point along the way it all goes wrong. At the start the CND and the student anti-Vietnam activists are dilettantes who achieve nothing but a feeling of self-satisfaction, they change nothing and their internal arguments and their mix of well-meaning sentiment and self-interest is neatly captured. From there Chris becomes involved in co-operative and activist movements which for a while do make some small differences, people are housed who otherwise might not have been, how much difference though is open to question and certainly they are making no systemic changes. By the time Chris has radicalised, he is helping nobody. The system still fails to change, lives are put at risk and some even die without anyone being helped by their actions at all. At some point Chris crosses a line from activist to terrorist, but the line is never really clear until he is well beyond it and the logic to him of each step along the way is hard for him to resist, and in this we are shown how easy it can be to move into territory which at the outset would have been regarded as horrific.

The activist groups themselves are well captured, in-fighting is constant, accusations and counter-accusations of how best to benefit the working class or to forward the causes of the revolution, suspicions of who might be working for the police and the intelligence services. As they become more radicalised, internal debates become more vicious, with “criticism-self-criticism” sessions in which those viewed as insufficiently revolutionary are humiliated and by which over time the group purges itself of all moderating influences. Ironically, in fighting what they regard as fascism the group Chris belongs to slowly becomes a microcosm of what it fights, as charismatic leaders demand ever stricter obedience to increasingly puritanical concepts of revolution and dissent becomes more and more ruthlessly crushed.

Central to all this is the figure of Anna, a revolutionary young woman that Chris loves and who is at the heart of the group’s increasing radicalisation, a woman who he believes died in 1975 during an armed occupation of the German embassy in Copenhagen, but who he discovers may in fact be alive after all.

The novel also contains many other small elements which add to its veracity, Chris’s discomfort on going into an Afro-Caribbean cafe on the All Saint’s Road, his estrangement from his family, in both his committment to what he regards as the cause of the working class doesn’t remotely help him deal with anyone actually belonging to it. Equally the character who starts out as a student radical, but ends up as a New Labour junior minister for police affairs is all too familiar as an example of the individuals who are actually in the government today, many of whom walked precisely that particular road. Generally the novel’s smaller observations are interesting, and frequently quite subtle.

Moving on from the events in the novel itself, it is worth noting that although the “contemporary” elements of the novel are set in the late 90s, the novel was actually first published in 2007. Clearly, therefore, in writing about radicalisation Hari Kunzru is making a broader point than a purely historical description of 1970s socialism. Chris Carver starts out as a student activist, his radicalisation begins when he is arrested and wrongly convicted (with the police lying to get the “right” result at his trial) of assault following a demonstration outside the US embassy. Eventually it becomes clear that the police believed him to be a radical, treated him accordingly and so inadvertently turned him into a real one. The parallels with current events need hardly be underlined.

This is a highly readable novel, the language is skilful without being showy and the milieu Chris and his later self Mike inhabit is believably depicted. The radicalisation of Chris and his colleagues is gradual, and balances the seeming inevitability of their destination with the fact that along the way many characters in the novel see where the group is going and part company with them (or are ejected). Those parts of the novel I can speak to from personal experience, the Notting Hill of the 1970s, how policing was conducted in that period (which was different to how it is now, lessons were thankfully learned in the early 80s), the atmosphere in collectives and activist groups back then, the way in which Chris/Mike’s generation (which is my parent’s generation) moved from being radicals to being part of consumer culture, all of that is in my view spot on. That gives me confidence in those parts I can’t speak to – the depiction of the radical groups that embrace violence. Those I grew up with were all committed pacifists, which they viewed as central to their ideology, a belief which the book also picks up on as most of the activist community comes to be as appalled by Chris and his group as is wider society and regard them as sabotaging that which the wider activist community is working for. In turn, Chris and his group come to view other activists as essentially collaborators, so becoming increasingly divorced from any world beyond themselves.

The novel comes with no answers. Did the radicals change the world, even a little bit? Is Sam a product of their success or their failure? Did any of them achieve anything? Is Sam’s indifference to politics a sign of a better world, or are Sam and Miranda examples of how we have become comfortable with the injustices of the world we inhabit? The book also of course provides an indirect commentary on today’s radicals, on the anti-war activists, and of course on how some people when they perceive themselves as having no choice become radicalised and in the end commit terrible acts which betray everything they believe themselves to be working for.

I thought this a tremendous novel, one with much to say about the world we now inhabit, both in its corporate banality and in the way in which well meaning young men and women can move from being idealists to violent extremists. Along the way, it also sheds light on a now largely forgotten episode of British history, and one which (as history so often does) helps us understand better the present we now share.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Revolutions-Hari-Kunzru/dp/0141020202/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1216806016&sr=8-1

For the curious, the lyrics to Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The revolution will not be televised” can be found in full here: http://www.gilscottheron.com/lyrevol.html. They’re powerful lyrics, well worth a visit.

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Filed under Kunzru, Hari, London, UK fiction