Transmission by Hari Kunzru

A virus called love

Christopher Hart
Sunday 30 May 2004 00:00 BST

For all its modishness, its finger knowingly on the jittery pulse of our times, Hari Kunzru's second novel is at heart that rather old-fashioned thing, the tale of an Innocent Abroad. Arjun Mehta is an Indian computer whiz who sees his life in terms of Bollywood movies. He has wasted enough time lying around in the yellow mustard fields of his homeland. It is time to go out and battle for fame and fortune, and so win the heart of his lady love. In the 21st century, this means going to America and working in computers.

His lady love is the hopelessly unattainable Leela Zahir, star of such films as Naughty Naughty, Lovely Lovely. Kunzru gives a magnificent summary of this work, over three bravura pages (extracted last week in ABC). Suffice to say that its hero eventually wins his seemingly unattainable bride with "his bravery, decisiveness and diversified investment portfolio".

Arjun's reaction to America is the universal one: initially a delighted astonishment at the gargantuan scale of the cars, the malls, the freeways, the palpable sense of money and power and possibility; and then a gradual disillusionment, as he realises that America is more of a closed shop than it seems, and that while it has exhilarating breadth, it lacks depth to a degree. As an Indian in America, Arjun is a traveller in space; but he is also a traveller in time, transplanted/ transmitted from a culture millennia old, to a culture that barely remembers yesterday in its impatience to get to tomorrow. And after a year of working for computer giant Virugenix, Arjun is suddenly implicated in the terrible outbreak of the Leela virus - named after a certain Bollywood starlet of whom no American, of course, has ever heard. Soon the on-line world is facing "brownouts" and "a furring of the global arteries", and our hero is on the run.

Arjun himself is the engaging heart of the story, and despite the rich comedy in much of this vastly entertaining novel, there are moments, such as Arjun's dissembling phone calls home to his proud and adoring family, that are moving in the extreme. All I wanted was to work and be happy and live a life in magic America, thinks the still, small voice in his head. Now it's all going wrong.

Things also go wrong, connectedly, for Guy Swift, an upper-middle-class English marketing executive, and an amusing caricature if not a fully believable person. Guy says things like "The future is happening today" in all seriousness, and is proud of his work, which has "raised awareness, communicated vision", and "evoked tangible product experiences". The absurdities of ad-speak have been satirised at least since Betjeman's poem "Executive", and Kunzru continues this fine tradition with relish.

The risk with the-novel-as-frontline-reportage is that it can sound less like imaginative fiction than an overlong piece in a style magazine. In Transmission, someone won't simply eat a sandwich, they'll eat "an open-face prawn sandwich", and they won't touch vodka when they can get "a bottle of Absolut Citron". The post-modern world is a highly detailed chaos, something which art should convey, not simply mirror.

But there is so much to admire in this taut, dense, scintillating novel. One superb scene is Arjun's seduction by the tattooed Chris, a girl at work who is titillated to discover that this "dorky Indian guy" is still a virgin, at 23! Chris turns up at Arjun's door one night, whacked on E and speed. The next morning she wakes up feeling like "someone had filmed a splatter movie in her mouth", and stumbles home. Arjun, meanwhile, lies in bed in a romantic rapture, "suffused with a sense of the rightness of things". The distance between the two reactions is the distance between cultures, between whole epochs of human history.

But the distance might still be traversed. The last paragraph of the book offers us a parting image of perfect simplicity to set against all the globe-trotting chaos and smart-arse zeitgeist stuff that has gone before: a man and woman simply holding hands.

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