Computers, writes Hari Kunzru in his new novel TRANSMISSION, have "always terrorized [users] in small ways, by crashing, hanging, demanding meaningless upgrades or simply scolding them in the persona of an annoying cartoon paper clip." Add to this muted hostility the complication of computer viruses embedded in e-mails and concealed in downloads, and the relationship between man and machine becomes even more tumultuous. This user-unfriendliness is the main subject of TRANSMISSION, Kunzru's follow-up to his popular debut, THE IMPRESSIONIST.
The novel begins with a description of leela.exe, a virus distributed by a harmless-looking e-mail featuring a five-second clip of fictional Indian movie star Leela Zahir, from her film Naughty Naughty Lovely Lovely. As it moves across the globe network by network, the virus shuts down water and power, misroutes trains and planes, scrambles bank account information, and closes businesses and countries. Kunzru then rewinds the story to introduce its creator, a lonely Indian programmer named Arjun Mehta, who has few connections to the real world that do not pertain to his overbearing family or to his twin obsessions with computers and movies, specifically Leela Zahir's elaborate musicals.
After interviewing with an international IT consulting firm called Databodies, Arjun flies to California with the promise of steady programming work and the American dream of prosperity --- i.e. money, celebrity and women. Once there, he confronts a harsher reality: he is one of many foreign programmers who has been hoodwinked by Databodies and who now sits in halfway homes watching soaps and waiting to be placed with a company. After almost a year of forced unemployment, Arjun is hired out to Virugenix, an IT firm in Washington State. There he meets a fellow programmer named Christine Schnorr, who starts an against-her-better-judgment flirtation with him. When the inevitable happens, it coincides with the collapse of the IT market, and to protect his job and mend his broken heart, Arjun creates and disseminates the leela virus, which quickly mutates into ever-more-dangerous strains.
TRANSMISSION travels along a strange narrative arc. Like an old PC, the novel starts slow, but once it finally boots up, the momentum of the interconnected stories is impressive and engaging, bolstered by Kunzru's carefully considered details and his lively portrayal of an increasingly globalized technocracy that blends the world's cultures even as it further isolates its individuals. One of the novel's highlights is Arjun's brief tenure at Virugenix, when Kunzru's depiction of the work environment is comical in its anthropological observations: "Most of the AV team were not particularly gregarious creatures. People did their thing and other people left them to get on with it. No one took much notice of Shiro's habit of flapping his arms violently every few minutes or Donny's refusal to allow purple objects into his field of vision."
Into Arjun's gradual unraveling Kunzru interweaves the story of Guy Swift and his girlfriend, Gabriella Caro. Recalling Eric Packer, the hero of Don DeLillo's critically panned COSMOPOLIS, Guy is a celebrity businessman at the helm of Tomorrow*, a branding company specializing in the youth-oriented market. He talks mostly in trendy business-speak, as if its abstractions can conceal the fact that he has very little to say. Gabriella, a movie publicist with movie star looks, sees herself as just another commodity for Guy, akin to his ostentatious apartment on the Thames. As Guy struggles comically to control the damage the leela virus wrecks on Tomorrow*, Gabriella travels to Scotland to put a positive spin on Leela Zahir's erratic behavior on the set of her new movie, which the press has surrounded like a medieval army.
Kunzru interrupts these stories with authorial asides in an attempt to enlarge the context of the story, to set a global stage, even to implicate the reader. "Who clicked?" he writes. "Did you click? Were you curious enough to try?" But the real effect of these intrusions is less grandiose: they simply stall the story, frustrate the reader, and paint Kunzru as more than a little self-satisfied.
However, as these narrative strands progress and intersect in unexpected ways, Kunzru's intrusions lessen and TRANSMISSION streamlines into a witty satire of our computer-dependent society, alternately hilarious and frightening. Unfortunately, his characters, so long the focus of the novel, do not get to finish their stories; the author rudely steps in and interrupts them, making himself the focus of the final chapter. To borrow one of Kunzru's metaphors, there is entirely too much signal noise muddying up this TRANSMISSION, but beyond that static, the information is vital.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 23, 2011