What price satire in an auto-satirising world? Not too long ago, Hari Kunzru's laconically witty fable of globalisation and its discontents would indeed have been considered satire, albeit with a leavening touch of SF. Now it's simply, according to the blurb, Kunzru's "take on life at the click of a mouse". An industry in which a character can remember "a reception in Barcelona with canapés in the shape of dotcom logos and waiters dressed as Antonio Gaudi" has clearly passed way beyond satire. One's first reaction is to speculate that, back in his days writing for Wired magazine, the author probably attended exactly such an event.
In Transmission, Kunzru's second novel, an idealistic computer programmer from New Delhi unwittingly unleashes the most destructive computer virus ever, partly because he's disgruntled at a succession of low-echelon Silicon Valley jobs, and partly as a tribute to his favourite Bollywood star. Arjun Mehta wants to prove to the oppressive management of Virugenix, the software slave-shop to which his services have been contracted by the sharks who flew him to "Amrika", that he is too valuable to be sent back to India a failure, and to declare his love for the gorgeous Leela Zahir. He therefore sends the "Leela" virus out into the world, so that he can kill it and be a hero at work.
Leela, meanwhile, is filming a sequence for her latest epic in Scotland, coping as best she can with her mob-owned co-star, her horrible producer, and her manager/mother, unaware that a clip of her singing and dancing is about to crash the planet's computers. Her male co-star is having an affair with the movie's publicist, who happens to be the girlfriend of the third protagonist. Unfortunately, the London-based marketing whiz Guy Swift is an insufficiently customised stock character who could have wandered in from any of the innumerable 1990s "Yuppie Punishment" sagas.
However, there are compensations. The hapless Arjun is a charming protagonist, and in depicting him the author deftly transcends the geek stereotype. When we meet his mother, it's quite credible that he should prefer to endure the hell of destitution in America than return home to face her. The "Indian mother" is as surely on her way to folkloric glory in the novel as was the Jewish mother in the wake of Portnoy's Complaint.
Kunzru is fast, funny and observant. His narrative surfs along on a tide of good gags, sharp bon mots and perceptive insights into contemporary technology and culture. The satirical targets (marketing, movies and hi-tech) are obvious ones, but they are intertwined with commendable adroitness.
Ultimately, the experience of reading Transmission consists of Kunzru spending almost 300 pages shooting fish in a barrel. But he does so very elegantly, and most of the fish are badly in need of shooting.
The reviewer's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' is published by Faber & Faber
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