Transmission, from the Latin trans – across – and mittere – to send . Hari Kunzru’s second novel is one of the first, and most timely, novels about Globalization in all its diverse manifestations. At its heart, Transmission is a novel about movement; and barriers: the movement of people and ideas, and the barriers erected against this; the sending and receiving of information, and the barriers erected against this. The book is one of economics, migration, technology and Bollywood.
It’s to Kunzru’s great credit, as a novelist, that he manages to bundle all these themes up in a book that is hard to put down. Talking about the novel, and the style of writing it, the author said ” [the book] is interested in characters living in postmodernity (I still think that is a useful phrase). But it doesn’t have the same need to rupture previously existing conditions, the new is its subject rather than something it struggles for. I’ve done all my angst ridden pushing/pulling and combating with the tradition and now I can get on with writing a story! ” [Bookmunch.co.uk interview]. A laudible aim, and one which requires no little talent and skill, which Kunzru has in spades.
The story, at its heart, deals with Arjun, an Indian software programmer who wins the lottery, in his view, by getting a job and one-way ticket to the States. While there, he comes face to face with practicalities of the new global economy, being exploited by a number of ‘body shopping’ firms, trying to hire his talents out during a global downturn. In some wonderful writing, we get a sense of a very new dot com culture clash, where Indian students can be highly skilled and technically literate, but still unable to comprehend the real America: “The idea of American poverty, especially a poverty which did not exclude cars, refrigerators, cable TV or obesity, was a new and disturbing paradox, a hint that something ungovernable and threatening lurked beneath the reflective surface of California”. [pg 31]
The novel is packed full of information, and written with a cold precise language, that often falls back into listing objects, places and events, with little narrative intrusion, as you might expect in a novel obsessed by technology and the passing of information. That’s not to say that there aren’t judgements being made, and the satire is applied heavily to characters left right and centre, with a deft touch.
One of the ideas that interest the author in the novel, is that of perfect information: the idea that information can be transmitted and received, without any loss of signal. This is the dream of the net generation, but in Transmission, both emotionally and technically, it proves impossible. There is always a corruption, whether it be between the dream and reality, as when Arjun arrives in America, or between cause and effect, as when Arjun unleashes a virus in order to retain his job, and ends up paralysing the global economy: “At the boundaries of any complex event, unity starts to break down. Recollections differ. Fact shades irretrievably into interpretation. How many people must be involved for certainty to dissipate? The answer, according to information theorists, is two. As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal.” [pg 147]
The setting of the novel, is, in effect, the network, both metaphorical and literal, and one that is on the verge of collapse. Scenes jump worldwide, and characters are connected by links as tenuous as the click of an email attachment.
The chief criticism of the novel is the speed with which it ends. Having built up numerous characters, interwoven like those in a Robert Altmann film, Kunzru seems to take merely a few pages to topple the house of cards, to crash the whole system. Perhaps deliberate, and stylistically valid, but it leaves the reader with a certain dissatisfaction.
One of the other central characters in the novel is Guy Swift, who, as one could almost predict from the name, is a dot com paper millionaire, who is ruined or perhaps saved by the Leela virus. Kunzru’s portrayal here is particularly impressive, because, while he draws a perfect charicature with whom he mercilessly plays, to satirise all that is vacuous and insubstantial in the ‘internet age’, he also puts in enough material to evoke a certain sympathy with Swift. Notwithstanding that this addled ‘ideas’ man is pitching a P.R. campaign for a new European Border Control ad campaign, and here Kunzru is at his scathing best: “Well, we have to promote Europe as somewhere you want to go, but somewhere that’s not for everyone. A continent that wants people, but only the best. An exclusive continent. An upscale continent.” [pg242]
Kunzru, it would seem, upset a number of people in the British literary establishment, when, having won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys prize, he refused to accept it as it was sponsored by the right leaning Daily Mail, in particular due to its repeated scaremongering headlines relating to immigration. Explaining himself, in the Guardian, he wrote:
What is an ‘economic migrant’ but someone who has followed that enlightened and tolerant sage Norman Tebbit, and ‘got on their bikes to look for work’? Our global system promotes the free movement of capital as its primary value yet it prevents the free movement of people to follow that capital, which concentrates itself behind tightly controlled borders while the hungry masses look in, their appetites whetted by satellite tv images of the consumer wealth they are denied. Wouldn’t you jump a train or hide in a lorry for a chance to live on the other side of that border? I know I would. Every time you go to a restaurant, every time you stay in a hotel or walk over a clean floor in a public building, you may well be feeling the benefits of ‘economic migration’. If you don’t like Them coming Here, then the solution isn’t to chuck them in prison, but to redistribute global wealth so they don’t have to. Only desperate people travel thousands of miles from home to clean toilets.
And so, at the end of the day, Transmission is a political work, a further meditation on borders and traffic, written with conviction and skill, and a lively sense of humour, and a damn good read to boot. Let’s hope that the Daily Mail leader writers pick up a copy.