Summer Reading

Beyond Texas

Summer Reading

Transmission

by Hari Kunzru

Dutton, 277 pp., $24.95

Kunzru's debut novel, The Impressionist, took its stylistic cues from Evelyn Waugh. It was all feline style and retractable claws, a babu's ironic revenge for a 150-year history of condescension sheathed in the very code and tenor of that condescension's voice. I was entranced by the cool savagery of that novel, and the control. His second novel again takes its stylistic cues from elsewhere – Will Self and Martin Amis kept coming to mind as I read it. I wasn't entranced. Instead, it gave me contact-happiness – Kunzru's own term for the somehow melancholic happiness evoked by someone else's orgasm.

The tale is formally of the type corresponding to what physicists call the double slit experiment – take two character career paths, track them through a text in continuous parallel, and see if they interfere with each other. One path – the most interesting one – belongs to Indian computer geek Arjun Mehta, a middle-class kid from a Delhi suburb who is headhunted by a Silicon Valley employment agency. The agency moves him to an America that has just been hit by the great tech, so Arjun's first year in sexy California is spent in a state of suspended animation with a bunch of other underemployed Indian tech workers. He finally gets a job with Virugenix, a cyber-security company, and weaves a hopeful lie of social mobility long distance to his family. He even, fortuitously, loses his virginity to a most inappropriate girl. Unfortunately, Virugenix is hit by the slowdown too, and Arjun learns another American phrase: last hired, first fired. In desperation, he unleashes an intractable virus on the world, hoping that he will be retained if he shows that he can solve it.

The other path belongs to Guy Swift, a standard comic type in contemporary British satire. He's the ineffectual head of a PR firm (known to his employees, vulgarly, as "Mr. Quiffy") who is putting off his awareness that somewhere in the background someone is adding up his expenditures (mounting rapidly) and subtracting them from his assets (falling disastrously). His young, beautiful girlfriend, Gabriella, is pictured as an Audrey Hepburn type "with a rough edge, a raggedness of chewed nails and cigarette smoke that gave her an air of potential promiscuity." Guy's downfall comes about when the destruction wrought by Arjun's virus interferes with his desperate sales pitches to two big clients. Meanwhile, Gabby, who is a PR person herself, is sent to Scotland to handle the sudden notoriety in the Western press being accorded an Indian child star whose image, as it happens, has been swiped by Arjun as part of his bug. Leela, the star, is filming on location there.

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