Tag Archives: Hari Kunzru

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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