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8 May 2005

Hari Kunzru's first novel, The Impressionist (2001), is a sweeping, ambitious story with an Empire-wide span and a mastery of several literary modes. His second, Transmission (2004), is much smaller and more restrained, despite a global span and an over-the-top sense of humor. Now in paperback from Plume, Transmission works, however, like The Impressionist, because of Kunzru's strong and sympathetic sense of character.

Transmission is broadly satiric. Much of it is paper-thin and at times facile. One central character, paper millionaire and professional idiot Guy Swift, is familiar from other satires of modern corporate life like Martin Amis's Money or Julian Barnes's England, England: the visionary who builds a business empire from, out of, and into nothing, using nothing more than his own blather.

Swift's story is occasionally funny but ultimately familiar, some of its satiric humor forced (the impossible fusion restaurants and surreal desert golf courses). But Guy appears in parallel with the novel's protagonist Arjun Mehta, who redeems the novel with his deeply depressive and finally, deeply sympathetic nature.

Arjun is a gifted software engineer in New Delhi. Though he has done his own academic work and actually knows something about computers, he is a dime a dozen in the Indian labor market, and soon finds himself shipped into virtual software slavery in the United States. He reports home to his parents that he is a great immigrant success story, as his real life falls from bad to worse. And when he's fired by a virus-utility company, Arjun tries to regain his job by unleashing the mother of all computer viruses.

Like much recent fiction that depends on wacky virtual worlds intersecting with our own (think of Jeannette Winterson's PowerBook), Transmission can't quite convey the energy or the banality of the electronic universe in its print pages. But it can and does convey the terror of the lonely and dispossessed immigrant who finds his integrity and even his identity slipping away in the mess of globalized capitalism. Like the protagonist of The Impressionist, Arjun has a gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and very few resources with which to fight an oppressive world. So he creates a virtual disruption (with very real effects) and thereby "step[s] into legend." One senses metaphors here for the novelist's own work, though Kunzru wisely eschews underlining them.

Kunzru, Hari. Transmission. 2004. NY: Plume, 2005.