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Hari Kunzru: Transmission

Second-novel syndrome is a known problem with novelists. They produce a brilliant first novel, probably something they have been working on all of their life, but then have a major letdown on the second one. Welcome to second-novel syndrome, Hari Kunzru. Frankly, after his excellent first novel, this one really is not good enough. In the first one, he manages satire very well. The problem with satire, however, is that it is not easy to do well. One of the many traps is that there is often a fine line between satire and worship and, unfortunately, Kunzru falls well into this trap. It is not always easy to see whether he is mocking or envying the lifestyles of the rich and famous or even the geeks and if it is not clear, then the novel is going to fail, as this one does. It just isn’t funny, isn’t convincing and does not work.

There are three stories running in parallel. They, of course, all converge and, of course, also, have something in common, namely Leela Zahir, a Bollywood star. The only really clever bit about this novel is that they all have something else in common, which is only revealed at the very end, in a somewhat odd and disjointed afterword. Arjun Mehta is a smart programmer and geek but a pathologically shy human being, living in Mumbai. He is also obsessed with Leela Zahir (whom he has not met and who does not know of his existence.) He manages to get a job with an agency which is recruiting computer experts for the US. He thinks that he is off to the land of milk and honey but it does not work out like that. Much of the time is spent waiting for work, while living in a hostel in a dismal part of Los Angeles. Eventually he manages to get a job with a company that specialises in tracking and fixing viruses for large companies, though he is very much at the bottom of the food chain. He has a brief relationship with a colleague, the tattooed Chris who is living with a monosyllabic Bulgarian but, apart from that his social life is zero. Eventually, when there is downturn in the economy, he is the first to be fired. As we have learned early on, he has developed his own virus which consists of an image of a dancing Leela Zahir. Like all good viruses, it replicates itself across computers and is very well hidden. Arjun releases it, not really suspecting how much damage it will do.

Guy Swift runs a rebranding company in London which spends a lot of venture capital money but is having difficulty earning much money. Despite this, Swift lives an expensive lifestyle with his trophy girlfriend, Gaby Caro who, though he is unaware of this, is starting to despise him and is ready to dump him. We follow the fortunes of his company, Tomorrow* (yes, the asterisk is part of the name) as it struggles to survive. There are two contacts with Leela Zahir. Firstly he is twice hit by the virus at crucial times. Secondly, Gaby works for a PR company and has to work for a film company filming a Bollywood film in Scotland, starring Leela who, when Gaby arrives, is refusing to work, causing wild speculation. The third story is, of course, about Leela herself, overmothered, temperamental and eager to get out of the film business, which she does. Arjun is chased by the police and disappears, as do Swift and Leela, and the virus eventually fizzles out, though not before bringing down the virus company and Tomorrow*. But, frankly, by the end, I really did not care. The characters were totally unsympathetic, the book wasn’t funny and, well, viruses happen, don’t they?

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Dutton