Hari Kunzru


"Transmission"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 01, 2004)

"Over the years Arjun had given a lot of thought to Silicon Valley. As a prime daydream location, it had gradually been elaborated into a lost world, a hidden ravine lined with fiber optics and Radio Shacks, where surfer girls accompanied you to films viewable on the day of international release and the number of available flavors N was always n + 1 The Valley: so exciting that like Lara Croft you had to rappel down a cliff-face to get in."

As a recent graduate of a mid-level IT school in India, Arjun Mehta is a dreamer and innocent, still living at home with his parents and sister in a middle-class housing complex, two years after graduation, and still trying to find a job. While many of his fellow computer experts are finding work in India because so many US jobs have been outsourced, Arjun has always dreamed of going to "Amrika: Residence of the Non-Resident Indian," and Silicon Valley, in particular. At a job interview, he is nervous, standing in the waiting room "shifting his weight from foot to foot and trying to reboot himself in positive mode," when he gets a pleasant surprise. The interviewer tells him that his qualifications, if real, are among the best he has seen, that most of the other candidates in the waiting room have purchased their credentials from off the street.

Though this might have been a signal to Arjun that he is looking in the wrong direction for good jobs, Arjun is hired, gets his visa, and soon sets off for the West Coast, where he discovers that his "$50,000 a year job" doesn't exist--that he is working for $500 a month, minus $250 for his housing. Often unemployed, Arjun finds, at the end of a year in the US, that he has worked only 3 ½ months, has lived in poverty, and has seen no sign that "the good life" will be his: "For a while he believed nothing could be more magical than the casual mastery of a Californian turning out of a Starbucks parking lot (the slumped, tensionless driving style, one hand lazily swinging the wheel as the other administered hits of latte), [but] he discovered that anything can become mundane. Fire hydrants, billboards, even the enameled blue sky: all had shelf lives. One by one they expired."

His "big break" comes when he gets a job at Virugenix, an on-line security company in Redmond, Washington. Working on the anti-virus team, "the ghost-busters," Arjun begins to make friends, becomes fascinated by a free-wheeling female with exotic tattoos, and takes driving lessons. Spending "his hidden life…in a swashbuckling world of passionate love affairs, family feuds, epic struggles, and big MGM style production numbers," inspired by the Bollywood films he loves, Arjun begins to think his life is changing. When cutbacks in the tech industry cost him his job, however, he devises a plan: he creates and unleashes a virus, the Leela Virus, named for his favorite Bollywood actress, so that he can "cure" it and become a hero. Naturally, the virus goes wildly out of control.

Kunzru satirizes all aspects of American culture as Arjun makes his way in America. He discovers, for example, that poverty "does not exclude cars, refrigerators, cable TV, and obesity," and that Redmond, Washington, features "neat landscaping and plenty of designated parking…Software and Jet-Skis. Aerospace and hiking trails," along with the "mist-shrouded peaks of the Cascade Mountains, hanging above the roofs like a dream of Kashmir." Lists of the superficial things Americans buy and value pervade the novel, and a wryly satiric tone permeates the description of Arjun's life and the cultural differences. Chris, the woman with the tattoos to whom Arjun is attracted, is a hippie leftover, living a free-love lifestyle and experimenting with bisexuality, factors leading to some hilarious scenes and social commentary.

At the same time that Arjun is dealing with the Leela virus in all its permutations, the real Indian actress Leela Zahir is dancing and acting in a film being made in Scotland. Scenes of her life as she films in Africa and Scotland, are interspersed with the scenes from Arjun's life, pointing up further contrasts between the excessive lifestyles of the rich and famous and the simple values presumed to be superior. The publicity that Leela must face when a five second clip of her dancing unleashes the virus on computers around the world is devastating to her.

A third plot line concerns Guy Swift, twice named "British Marketing Visionary of the year," and his public relations expert girlfriend, Gabriella Caro. While Guy tries to keep the international venture capitalists happy so that he can maintain his pretentious, Euro highlife while accomplishing nothing much, Gabriella must go to Scotland to deal with PR problems that result from Leela's mini-breakdown as a result of the publicity from the virus.

As systems ranging from water filtration to airport security, traffic control, international banking, business, and all internet traffic break down throughout the world, Arjun finds the FBI and two Asian teenagers hot on his trail. The three plot lines come together in a clever conclusion which resembles one of the Bollywood films that Arjun so enjoys, and allows Kunzru to satirize the numerous conspiracy theories to which we are prone. Some readers, however, may tire of the pervasive satire of American materialism, to which we have all been exposed many times and in many ways, and Arjun may be too innocent to be believable to some readers. His imagined relationship with a woman as bizarre as Chris is not very plausible, but it may be excusable on the grounds that it opens the story to more lines of satire. The relevance of the Guy Swift subplot is less clear, though the irony of Guy's fate will bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded reader. This fast-paced novel, filled with clever, unique imagery, is both funny and pointed in its criticism, an honest commentary on the transmission of American technology and culture to all parts of the world, along with its sometimes negative effects.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 30 reviews

 



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About the Author:

Hari KunzruHari Kunzru was born in 1969 and grew up in Essex, England. He earned a B.A. in English Literature at Oxford University. He went to London in 1991, but had trouble finding work. He then earned his M.A. in Philosophy at Warwick University where he met the editor of Wired magazine, which started his career in journalism. As a journalist he has published in the Guardian, Wired, ID, The Economist and the London Review of Books. He is music editor at Wallpaper magazine and a contributing editor at Mute magazine. In 1999 he was named Observer Young Travel Writer of the Year and in 2003, Granta named him as one of the "20 Best Fiction Writers Under 40."

Kunzru lives in London, England.

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