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Coke and Bull
on 18 June 2004
Hari Kunzru's first novel The Impressionist was a massive achievement, though it failed to win the popular acclaim of word-of-mouth successes like Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Birdsong probably through the lack of empathetic characters. Nonetheless his publishers have chosen to build on that historical exotic base, giving his new novel Transmission a sort of Heritage Ethni-Lit cover. This is wildly inappropriate as the book is about the genesis of a computer virus and is a thoroughly modern and mostly Western confection.
With Kunzru the genius is in the detail, and he has a flourished knack of producing fleeting characters with a real sense of identity to them. In The Impressionist, this was balanced by the deliberate act of not giving the protagonist any character of his own. Here he goes one better, and gives us a fully joined-up hero in Arjun Mehta, who at 23 leaves his Indian family to work in the technology sector in Silicon Valley. Though 'hero' is not the right word, since Mehta is diffident, nervous and disappointed for most of the time. He comes to realise that the promises of riches as a code-jockey were horribly misleading, and as the market for his services shrinks, he finds himself facing redundancy and in a desperate attempt to save his job, unleashes a computer virus, Leela01, on the world, so that he can impress his employers by being the first to fix it.
By this halfway point, the novel is a rich dish, brimming with good things and endlessly lively and sardonic - Kunzru adopts a keen omniscient voice, seeing into his characters' minds but also standing back and slyly mocking them. The difficulty is that once the virus is released - and markets fall, worlds collide, and lifts stop going to the thirteenth floor - there is nowhere left for the novel to go. Kunzru does his best by bringing in - and in fact foreshadowing their appearances earlier in the book - complementary characters: Leela Zahir, the Bollywood actress whose digitised image tempts careless geeks into opening the viral attachment; and Guy Swift, a marketing man full of coke and bull, whose knife-edge finances may or may not (spoiler alert: not) be tipped over by the Leela virus.
Unfortunately these characters always feel secondary, despite Kunzru's best efforts to make them part of a tense triptych with Arjun Mehta. Guy Swift could have been a satiric monster like Patrick Bateman or John Self but ends up a low-key version of Sherman McCoy; and Leela Zahir rarely appears in the book except through reference. Their scenes too suffer from insupportable attentuation: when Guy is pitching to his PR clients, one can't help feeling that a little mangement-speak satire goes a long way; and the scenes on Leela's film set seem bland and full of tacked-on things (underworld gangs, futile sex) in comparison with the brilliant three-page summary of Bollywood films which Kunzru has put in Mehta's mind earlier in the book, full of vigour, colour and affection.
Finally Transmission fails at the last hurdle, when Kunzru leaves things hanging and then attempts to wrap them up in a twenty-page coda. This has all the feel of work to a deadline when it seems that he - and surely the reader - would have preferred to finish the story properly, in the richness of detail and fine prose which is Kunzru's considerable strength, perhaps taking a hundred or more pages over it, and not in this damp fizzle of signal to noise.