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